The United States helped topple an allied state’s government. While that sounds like an anachronism better suited to the Cold War era, it is in fact a summary of events that transpired in Kosovo two months ago. In brief, Kosovo’s coalition government did not survive the no-confidence motion in parliament in late March, and the now-acting prime minister, Albin Kurti, has placed the blame squarely on the administration of President Donald Trump and its special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations, Richard Grenell. Kurti charges that Grenell was pushing for a quick deal between Serbia and Kosovo, which would include controversial land swaps between the two. When Kurti came out against the deal, the United States supported his opponents to remove him from office. This allegation has since been supported by regional leaders, analysts, and even some US legislators.
All of this was possible because the United States — for better or for worse — still occupies an indispensable role in the Western Balkans. This is a direct consequence of the US-led interventions in the 1990s which have cemented its status as a regional security guarantor and an arbiter. The long shadow of humanitarian interventionism turned problematic when it became apparent that Trump’s desire to broker a peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo is motivated by this year’s US elections, and the terms of the deal upend longstanding US policy.
Politicisation of US Policy in the Western Balkans
The Trump administration’s latest moves in Kosovo are emblematic of the general trend of White House dominance in US foreign policymaking, even in states and regions that have fallen off the priorities list, like the Balkans. History abounds with examples of presidents exploiting and instrumentalizing foreign policy issues in order to score political wins. Centralizing foreign policy in the White House can lead to politicization and suboptimal outcomes. Under the current administration, it can be detrimental to regional security, as the Kosovo example demonstrates.
It was not that long ago that observers and policy experts on the Western Balkans were calling for greater attention to be paid to the region. Negative political, economic, and social trends, coupled with the more visible presence of rival major powers, suggested renewed instability. As I have argued before, the worry was that the West, and particularly the United States, lost interest in the region, which gave greater latitude to Russia, China, and Turkey to exploit the void. Now, it seems the more pressing concern is what to do when US interest is back, but for all the wrong reasons?
Granted, there have been some promising developments as a result of US involvement in recent years. Greece and North Macedonia resolved their longstanding name dispute, which allowed the latter country to progress in its Euro-Atlantic integrations, and the US government was allegedly very helpful in brokering those talks. US diplomats were instrumental in brokering the rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo. Yet, since the latter half of 2018, when the idea of “correcting” and “adjusting” borders — which are creative euphemisms for partition — appeared on the negotiations agenda between the two countries, the US administration’s attitudes and policies came under increased scrutiny.
At first, it was Washington’s silence and ambiguity on the matter of adjusting borders that seemed to be the most worrying. Soon after, there were increasing and unequivocal signals that the United States would be open to a de facto partition. In late 2018, President Trump sent a letter to the Kosovar president urging him to strike a deal with his Serb counterpart. He then upped the ante in October 2019 by appointing Grenell, one of the more controversial diplomats under his administration, to oversee the talks. Thereupon, things began to escalate to the point that led to the eventual collapse of Kosovo’s government.
Even before becoming the president’s special envoy for Belgrade-Pristina talks, Grenell had ruffled a few feathers in Europe. During his tenure as the US ambassador to Germany, he did not shy away from criticizing the host country and acting as the president’s surrogate in challenging the foreign policy orthodoxy with respect to working with allies and partners in Europe. His track record was a harbinger of problems to come.
The Legacy of Humanitarian Intervention: Path Dependence
This brings us to the crux of the problem of US foreign policy in the Western Balkans: the tension between US drift away from the region and the regional draw to get more involved. Similar to his two predecessors, Trump came into office vowing to focus inwards and end protracted foreign engagements. Given that the region had long fallen off the list of top U.S. foreign priorities, Trump never had a detailed Western Balkans agenda. Equally, just like Presidents Bush and Obama before him, the Trump administration looked to defer to the European Union to take the lead in addressing the security and political challenges in the region.
Yet, hefty US involvement in the region in the 1990s created a path dependence — in a sense, a set of expectations as to the US role in the region — that can be observed on two fronts. First, usually for reasons of European disunity on important matters, the United States has been called to step in whenever a crisis emerged. This was visible last year when the European Union announced it would be blocking Albania and North Macedonia from moving forward with their membership talks, which made the United States step in to make a case for the importance of furthering Euro-Atlantic integration of the region.
Path dependence also conditions regional countries to expect US involvement. The Western Balkans is home to states that have recorded some of the highest and lowest anti-American sentiment globally, which is no surprise given the not-too-distant past. However, despite the fact that the United States is equally revered and reviled, it has always been seen as the broker of last resort. Therefore, US policy has been the product of a curious tension between the push to retreat from the region due to more pressing foreign policy priorities — and the hope that the European Union would solve problems on its own — while at the same time asserting its pivotal role and being pulled to weigh in whenever political deadlocks and tensions arose.
Partitioning for Peace or Pure Populism?
Initially, it appeared that the Trump administration’s Western Balkans policy was devoid of the president’s trademark populism, and surprisingly followed the “default setting” of supporting Euro-Atlantic integration without any major policy innovations. Despite Trump’s ardent objections to NATO, especially to members who fail to meet military spending criteria, the organization added two new member states from the region in 2017 and 2020 — Montenegro and North Macedonia. However, the latest developments in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and the downfall of Kosovo’s government reflect the impact of Trump’s populist instincts
Namely, the president’s desire to secure a quick foreign policy win to brandish his dealmaking skills — regardless of the substance of the deal — is emblematic of populist foreign policy. Even though the American public lost interest in the Balkans, the president could use a photo op at the White House with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signing “an historic accord” to distinguish himself from his predecessors, who were unable to bring peace between the two countries.
There are some who argue that the contentious partition between Serbia and Kosovo should be allowed to go ahead, provided it is agreed to by both parties. Yet, this neglects the fact that those who stand to gain the most are leaders with clear authoritarian streaks. At the same time, the land swaps that are tabled normalize non-violent ethnic cleansing and imply the states in question are unable to serve an ethnically diverse society when both should allegedly be on the path of joining the European Union. This would be on top of normalizing the result of ethnic cleansing that took place during the war and immediately after — which has been a regrettable feature of 1990s peace deals across the region. Moreover, there is plenty of warranted concern that setting the precedent of redrawing borders between Serbia and Kosovo would almost inevitably bring into question the durability of both internal and external borders in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries in the region. Opening up this Pandora’s box is the last thing the region needs.
US involvement in the Western Balkans peaked two decades ago. However, it is abundantly clear how the effects of interventions and the unfinished business of 1990s still place the United States in a prime position to influence and even control regional politics. The Trump administration has become fully aware of this and is unfortunately using it to help improve the president’s meagre deal-making record at the expense of regional stability.
The Way Ahead
It appears that the European Union is yet again close to ‘dropping the ball’ in the Western Balkans. The long-expected Zagreb Summit that was supposed to signal the new E.U. Commission’s resolve to integrate the region is disappointingly mum on the specifics of future E.U. enlargement. This outcome reflects some of the key member states’ longstanding opposition to widening membership before the European Union undergoes major reforms, as well as skepticism regarding the preparedness of Western Balkans states to join the bloc. While some of the concerns are warranted, there is no question that E.U. wavering leaves the region open for further influence from Russia and China. At the same time, it creates conditions under which the United States is once more called upon to react and get more involved. Sadly, this White House has a rather poor record in working with its European allies and counterparts.
This is exactly the time the United States should press for European action to facilitate Serbia-Kosovo peace talks, especially given the European Union’s vacillation on this front. Ultimately, it is in the US interest that the Western Balkans become fully integrated in the European Union, as it would make the region less dependent on the United States but still tied to the West, and prevent China and Russia from extending their influence closer to the heart of Europe.
The future of US policy toward Serbia-Kosovo talks hinges on the outcome of the US presidential election. Trump’s reelection would ensure the problematic status quo of Washington’s policy toward the Western Balkans, with troubling implications for regional stability. Should we see a change in the White House, a new administration would almost certainly work in concert with the European Union to advance longstanding Western interests in the Balkans — namely, halting democratic backsliding and supporting democratic consolidation, building positive peace, promoting economic growth and sustainable economic development, and advancing Euro-Atlantic integration of the region.