Why the Western Balkans still matter
The Western Balkans, a region made up of six tiny European nations, is smaller than Michigan and less populated than New York. Historically, as an unstable area during the 1990s, it was an important and integral to United States foreign policy, as evidenced by intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing and promote a Europe that could be truly whole and at peace. Three decades of active American engagement in this region has been marked more by success than by failure. But delayed American engagement in the Western Balkans in the late 1980s cost many lives.
It is enough to remember the tragedy of ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Serbian regime in Belgrade and the famous remarks by American Secretary of State James Baker that the United States had “no dog in this fight.” His view reflected a widespread illusion that the Europeans could have taken a leadership role in stopping the violence spurred by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. That idea was shared by many European leaders at the time, culminating in the remarkably naive statement by former Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos that this would be “the hour of Europe.” The European Union proved unable to undertake serious actions to stop the systematic murdering in Yugoslavia, particularly in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Only within the framework of NATO, and with muscular American engagement, were the allies able to end the war in Bosnia in 1995 and then stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999.
Those with a sense of history understand that local developments in the Western Balkans are never really local. The region remains a geopolitical zone of great players, all of whom often have contradictory interests and strategic goals. When players like Russia try to increase their influence, the result is to exacerbate regional instability. Western engagement, in contrast, seeks to stabilize the region. China, as a new player without historical, economic, and cultural ties with the Western Balkans, is now trying to increase its economic expansion and political leverage as a part of its “One Belt One Road” project and a platform that gathers a number of Western Balkan and East European countries, including a number of NATO members and European Union nations, into common projects.
When the conflict in Kosovo turned violent in 1998, President Clinton dispatched three top diplomats, Robert Gelbard, Christopher Hill, and Richard Holbrooke. Just after the Americans criticized the passivity of Europeans, the central government appointed Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch, the top Austrian diplomat to Belgrade, as a special envoy to Kosovo. The United States has now reactivated diplomatic power with the appointment of Matthew Palmer as a special envoy for the Western Balkans as well as the appointment of Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, as a special envoy for the Kosovo and Serbia dialogue, which highlights the importance of the Western Balkans to American diplomacy. The European Union has facilitated talks between Kosovo and Serbia since they started back in 2011, but these have not produced expected results.
From the beginning of the Belgrade and Pristina dialogue, one thing was clear, which was that the goal of the normalization process should be mutual bilateral recognition. Although the European Union has led the Belgrade and Pristina dialogue, the United States has indeed played an important background role. When the United States and the European Union work closely together and share the same point of view for the Western Balkans, one sees hope and progress. When the United States and the European Union disagree, all one sees is slippage and failure.
Reaching a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia and witnessing them joining the European Union should be a “transatlantic hour” for the partnership between the United States and the European Union. Daniel Hamilton, a great expert on this relationship, wrote that the common transatlantic interests can be “best advanced with an America that is a European power, not just a power in Europe.” Three decades ago, former Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock made the choice clear. “Either we do it,” he said, referring to cooperation, “or the others do it, but they will do it differently.” Europe after the Second World War has been a success story because it was seen by both sides of the ocean as the transatlantic hour,” and by an America as a European power, not simply a power in Europe.
Faruk Ajeti is an Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an affiliated researcher with the Austrian Institute for International Politics in Vienna.