What matters in international politics is not what a leader wants to do but what that leader must do to uphold their country’s core national interests. Understanding this is key to understanding the impact of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election on American policy towards the Balkans.
There can be little doubt that the incoming Biden Administration would like to cancel the last four years of American policy, characterised by a rapprochement with Serbia and a bullying of the Kosovo Albanians, a flexible attitude to borders and an apparent disregard for the reputations of US diplomats who crafted the current settlement in the region. Biden’s recent assertion that Serbia must recognise Kosovo within its existing borders, his courting of Albanian and Bosnian voters in the US and his recent recalling of the 1995 Bosnian Serb massacre in Srebrenica – as well as his liking for multilateral government and desire to restore values to American foreign policy – all point to a revival of the pre-Donald Trump approach.
As the region continues to stagnate, some nostalgists are already anticipating a more muscular American policy, involving a pushback against the Serbs and their dreams of a new territorial settlement, a drive to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and a renewed attempt at Euro-Atlantic integration. However, such thinking ignores the new strategic reality in the region. For various reasons, the process of European integration has broken down: the United Kingdom, formerly the EU’s main proponent of enlargement, has left the EU; France and other western European countries, which now call the shots, are reluctant to enlarge the EU into the Balkans; and the region itself has struggled to meet the EU’s onerous conditions for entry while simultaneously trying to resolve primary questions about statehood, identity and territory.
Meanwhile, Serbia has restored its position as the foremost state in the Balkans following the emergence of a strong leader who ended the chaos of the 2000s, and a period of structural reform which has harnessed Serbia’s inherent advantages as the region’s largest economy and natural centre of gravity. Serbia has also engaged in some shrewd diplomatic manoeuvering that has allowed it to leverage the support of various non-western powers which want a presence in the Balkans – Russia to buffer itself against western expansionism, China for economic reasons and Turkey as part of its bid for great power status.
That has strengthened Serbia’s position in relation to the US, since Belgrade can simultaneously determine how influential these powers are in the Balkans and lean on their influence to push for an advantageous resolution of the Kosovo question. If President Biden wants to stay true to the long-standing American goal of establishing some kind of durable settlement in the Balkans that allows its internal development and external integration with the West – and thereby ceases to be a problem the US has to solve – he must work within the parameters of this new reality – not the one that existed four years ago and even less the reality that existed in the 1990s when Biden formed his views about the Balkans.
One break and two continuities
This has various implications. One is that, once the Biden Administration has done its analysis of the situation, it will come to the same overarching conclusion as its predecessor: that Washington must engage in the Balkans in order to shore up its creaking settlement, and that failure to do so effectively delegates the fate of the region to its great power rivals.
Another implication is that, if the Biden Administration reverts to the pre-Trump policy, it will fail. Putting too much pressure on the Serbs will strengthen the position of Russia and China, as well as preclude a resolution of Kosovo and risk a precipitous bid for independence by the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. A push for EU membership will come up against resistance from France and others. And a drive for greater democracy will alienate the local politicians on which the US depends.
A drive for greater democracy will alienate the local politicians on which the US depends.
Accordingly, as the Trump Administration discovered, if the US is to achieve its geopolitical goals in Bosnia, it must find some alternative to the failing policy of EU membership, park the issue of democratisation and collaborate with Serbia which, in some measure, can state its terms.
So, does this new strategic reality imply a continuation of the Trump-era policy in the Balkans, with its tolerance of land swaps and apparent indifference to liberal ideals, such as multiethnicity and the civil state? Not exactly. If the change in US leadership makes one difference to American policy towards the Balkans, it will be a renewed insistence on the territorial integrity of the region. Biden, who saw first-hand the horrors of the Bosnian war in the 1990s, will object on principle to any breakup of Bosnia, and will rule out any outcome in Kosovo that makes this more likely.
However, it also does not imply a repudiation of the Trump-era approach, since Biden will be faced with the same strategic reality as his predecessor, while pursuing the same strategic goal: to unblock the development and westward integration of the Balkan region, in a relatively light-touch way. That implies a continuation of two key elements of the Trump Administration’s approach. One is the drive to resolve the political disputes that stand in the way of this goal, in reverse order of difficulty.
This began with the neutralising of Russia in Montenegro and its integration with NATO and the ousting of Nikola Gruevski’s government and subsequent resolution of the “name” dispute between Skopje and Athens, allowing North Macedonia to follow Montenegro into NATO. The US then turned its attention to Kosovo’s status. At the end of the process lies Bosnia and the vexed question of constitutional reform. This effort will not end since Washington’s strategic imperatives mean Biden must continue where the Trump Administration left off.
The other element of the Trump-era approach that Biden will have to preserve is the push to establish some kind of regional economic zone in the Western Balkans, manifest in American support for the so-called mini-Schengen’ comprising Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. This has various attractions for the US. The promotion of cross-border trade and commerce can potentially stimulate the regional economy, taking the edge off simmering ethnic tensions and stemming the outflow of the middle classes on which any transition to democracy and prosperity depends.
At the same time, the downgrading of disputed international borders that currently divide nations such as the Serbs and Albanians can allow for some form of national reunification in a way that accords with the Biden Administration’s opposition to moving existing borders. Put another way, a regional economic zone offers some of the strategic benefits of EU membership in the absence of any realistic chance of more Balkan states joining the union.
Allies on board
Crucially, the Biden Administration will see that the EU, to which it delegated responsibility for upholding the American settlement in the Balkans in the 2000s, is also pushing the idea of a regional economic zone, having ruled out all the alternatives.
At an early stage, the Europeans rejected the option of redrawing borders and establishing nation states which had the virtue of solving the underlying source of conflict in the Balkans but ran the risk of generating the very conflicts they wanted to avoid.
The Europeans also had no interest in maintaining the Balkans as an international protectorate, the situation they inherited after various American military interventions. It was expensive to maintain, involving large standing armies, and ran contrary to their stated belief in democratic self-governance.
The Europeans also rejected the option of the immediate integration of the Balkans into the EU in their raw, unreformed state which could have overcome the problem of mismatched borders at a stroke, but risked destabilising the EU itself.
This led the Europeans to embark on a conditions-based process of integration that seemingly offered the possibility of transforming the region into a set of prosperous liberal democracies ahead of their eventual incorporation into the EU. However, after fifteen years of trying, this policy has proven unworkable.
In consequence, the EU has begun to pursue the only remaining option, the establishment of some kind of regional entity, affiliated to the EU and currently pursued under the auspices of the Berlin Process. This took a significant step forward last week with an agreement by Balkan states to establish a common market, and the European Commission’s unveiling of a nine billion-euro Economic and Investment Plan intended to promote the region’s ‘connectivity’.
A regional economic zone was always the preferred position of France and sometimes also Germany, which saw it as a chance for the EU to play the leading role in the Balkans without the risk of bringing the region into the Europeans’ own house.
In the 2000s, France yielded to pressure from Britain for enlargement at a time when the EU was strong and confident, and Serbia was too weak, shambolic and untrustworthy to play the leadership role that a regional economic zone implied. However, with the UK gone and Serbia rehabilitated, France can now push this position while avoiding an argument with those EU members that still advocate enlargement and would like to see the creation of an economic zone as a stepping-stone towards this ultimate goal. That provides an opportunity for the US, not only because the EU is willing to sponsor the region’s economic integration, relieving the US of that obligation, but because a regional economic zone binds the Balkans to the EU, thereby keeping Russia and others at bay.
The Biden Administration will also see that Serbia supports an economic union, since this can consolidate its leading position in the Balkans and draw the region’s other states, including Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro, all with large Serbian minorities, back into Serbia’s orbit. That initiative also took a step forward last week with the signing of a travel agreement between its three members and an invitation to Kosovo to join the mini-Schengen zone.
The support of the region’s core state does not only meet the minimum condition for the viability of any economic zone. A project that gives Serbia a leadership position in the Balkans may be enough to persuade Belgrade to recognise Kosovo’s independence without insisting on its partition – and downgrade its relations with Russia, Turkey and China.
The Biden Administration will also hope that the changed circumstances, including a more open border between Serbia and Republika Srpska, makes the problem of Bosnia easier to solve. Some in the Biden Administration will chafe at the idea of rewarding Serbia in this way, but political realities on the ground will leave it with little other option.
Crucially, Biden’s team will also see that most of the region’s other states also support the initiative, increasing its viability. Albania views an economic zone as a means to expand its market potential and draw closer to the Albanian diaspora in the region. An economic zone offers North Macedonia a safe haven from threats to its existence by Greece and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, the new government in Montenegro can use the economic zone to restore the country’s traditional links with Serbia.
The holdouts will be those groups that fought a war to be free of Belgrade’s influence, especially the Bosniaks who have resisted Bosnia’s inclusion in the mini-Schengen and will complain that a regional economic zone endangers Bosnia’s independence.
That will constitute an obstacle for the Biden Administration: but the key consideration for the new president will be the American interest in establishing some kind of regional order that is reasonably viable, rather than who precisely gains or loses in this arrangement and will look for a way to overcome these objections, as the Trump Administration did towards Kosovo, which it ordered to join the mini-Schengen in return for support in securing Kosovo’s recognition from Serbia.
A return to history
By running with this policy, the Biden Administration will not only pick up where Trump left off but will revive the strategy of the great powers in the twentieth century as they deliberated what to do with the disparate collection of nations which emerged from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and then repeatedly fought each other to establish nation states.
The determination made after the First World War, and again at the end of World War Two, was that the stability of the region depended on gathering up the various peoples into a larger, internally borderless entity under the overall stewardship of Belgrade, the capital of the region’s largest nation and its natural political centre. A hundred years on, this strategic logic has not changed.
A regional economic zone that recognises the demise of the policy of EU enlargement and consolidates Serbia’s leading position will not be Biden’s preferred outcome in the Balkans; nor is it guaranteed to work.
But the realities of power on the ground, the American interest in developing the Balkans economically, its wish to preserve the existing territorial settlement, its need to keep out great power rivals by anchoring the Balkans to the EU – and its desire to achieve all this in the easiest possible way – will force the United States’ hand.
So, my bet for a Biden Administration is a push for a new multiethnic entity, closely aligned to the EU, which incorporates the six states of the Western Balkans and has its headquarters in Belgrade.
That will not exactly be a new Yugoslavia, which was a product of its time; but the facts on the ground will compel Biden to return to the logic of the recent past and push for the creation of its 21st century incarnation – a new EUgoslavia.