- Bruce Hitchner, Massachusetts, BIRN, June 19, 2020
In its impatience for a quick foreign policy success on Kosovo, the Trump administration is serving its own short-term interests – not those of the US, or the Balkan region.
The upcoming “peace talks” between Kosovo and Serbia, which are supposed to take place on June 27 under White House auspices, seem driven more by the short-term interests of Donald Trump than by true US or Balkan interests.
Envoy Richard Grenell’s hasty efforts to hammer together an agreement to fix a decades-long burning problem at a time when the Trump administration is facing a global pandemic, deep political divisions partly of its own making, infrastructural racism and a contracting economy is ill-timed and diplomatically fraught
The current US Administration has lacked the capacity (and will) to unify the country – and this deficit has carried over into its policies with its European allies and in the Balkans.
The moral leadership that has defined America’s place in the world since the end of the Second World War has given way to a smaller, more nativist, and self-interested vision of America’s role on the global stage.
Opportunity to return to the founding ideals
The founding ideals of the United States: democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality, have been put to test throughout our history, no less so than now.
The upheavals now convulsing America are only the latest manifestation of the often profound struggles that it has engaged in, since its foundation, to live up to the ideals set down by the founders.
Indeed, the current domestic crisis represents an opportunity for the US to reaffirm and revitalize its critical role on the international stage in a way that transcends the sometimes too-self congratulatory perspective of American exceptionalism.
This opportunity presents itself not least in US policy towards the Western Balkans.
Little more than a quarter of a century ago, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, America became directly involved, albeit reluctantly, in ending the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Its foreign policy objectives, shared with its European allies, were clear, and mirrored America’s own ideals: peace, democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law, transparent market economies, a free media, and the integration of the new Balkan states into Euro-Atlantic institutions, most notably NATO and the EU.
These objectives remained unchanged, even if not always consistently pursued, up through 2016. Many still remain operative.
However, under the Trump administration, US conduct in the Western Balkans has veered in a direction inconsistent with our long-standing ideals.
Once a solid ally of the US in the Western Balkans, the EU is now viewed chiefly as a transactional political and economic competitor. Equally perplexingly, while continuing to support NATO expansion in the region, the Trump administration has threatened to remove a small contingent of US troops in Kosovo and mounted a steady assault on the utility of the alliance generally.
Most concerning has been the way in which the administration and former Trump campaign operatives have cozied up to anti-democratic political leaders in the region, and promoted agendas, particularly with respect to Kosovo and Serbia, that leave the diplomatic door open for ethnically-based border changes; this is the very problem that brought the US into the Balkans to begin with.
The irony is that these shifts in policy exhibit mirror policies and principles that the US has long and rightly criticized in Western Balkan states and other international players in the region.
The “Balkanization” of American Foreign Policy
One example of this is the way in which the Administration has engaged in the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, originally launched by the EU – which the US is now actively excluding.
The US initially participated from the sidelines, largely monitoring the process.
In August 2018, US envoy Matthew Palmer wrote in response to a question I raised about the talks: “We are not parties to the negotiations. We continue to support the EU-led process and we will take a good hard look at what emerges from those talks.”
He added: “Local ownership of the solution is key, but that doesn’t mean our support is a blank check. To the extent we have concerns about what might emerge from those talks, we will be clear in our communications with all parties.”
When I pressed him on whether this included territorial swaps, he reiterated: “We will raise with the parties clearly and directly any concerns we might have about any aspect of an agreement.”
The appointment of Palmer as Special Envoy to the Western Balkans on August 30, 2019 with a portfolio that put the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina “at the top of his agenda,” signaled direct US involvement in the talks. I applauded this at the time, although I continued to oppose any territorial exchanges. https://balkaninsight.com/2019/09/19/palmer-has-chance-to-revive-us-leadership-in-balkans/).
The appointment on October 4 of Grenell, then US ambassador to Germany, as the new special presidential envoy to the Pristina-Belgrade Talks came as a surprise for one obvious reason: It was difficult to see why the administration had appointed a presidential envoy – with no experience in the Balkans – for talks that hardly needed White House involvement, particularly when Palmer had already been installed as special envoy.
To recall, the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the 1992-5 war in Bosnia, was entirely negotiated by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.
The reason for Grenell was clear: the White House needed a foreign policy success of any sort, even a minor one.
Since Grenell’s appointment, it has become more evident that the administration’s interest was not in a long-term agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that includes full Serbian recognition of Kosovo, its membership of the UN and an exchange of ambassadors.
Rather, its interest, at least for the moment, seemed to be in a rushed accord that would allow for some sort of signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, in advance of the US presidential election.
This is familiar terrain. Back in late 2005, there was a sudden strong interest at the highest levels of the Bush administration in the constitutional reform negotiations in Bosnia, because they offered the prospect of a small diplomatic success at the height of the Iraq war.
But hastily arranged talks in Washington in November that year failed for good reason: neither side was ready to reach a viable, workable agreement.
The same is true now. Grenell’s announcement that both sides have agreed to “temporarily pause the derecognition campaign and the seeking of international memberships” is ill-suited as a basis for negotiations, as it promotes a false equivalency between the policies of Serbia and Kosovo. Both positions stem from the unwillingness of Belgrade to recognize Kosovo, full stop.
And what to make of Grenell’s statement that, should talks fail, the focus should return to “progress on growing the economies”? Hasn’t that been the priority of the EU-based talks from the beginning? Why exclude the EU if economic issues are the “focus”. The answer is they are not.
The current domestic challenges facing the US at home in combination with its unilateral approach to the Kosovo-Serbia talks suggest that it is time for the US to push the re-set button on its current policy in the Western Balkans.
Between now and the presidential election, the US should step back from high-visibility initiatives and avoid the prospect of conducting flawed negotiations that might do more harm than good, and only serve the interests of a President in search of a foreign policy success at all costs.
Indeed, the US and Western Balkans would perhaps be better served by the status quo than by policies and actions for which many might ask: Cui bono?
- Bruce Hitchner was a member of the negotiating team that assisted the Bosnian political parties in negotiating the April Package of Constitutional Reforms in 2005-6. He is currently Professor of Classical Studies and International Relations at Tufts University in Massachusetts (USA) and the former Chairman of the Dayton Peace Accords Project.