I naturally agree with large parts of the Atlantic
Council report on “Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the
Region,” even if I think the title overblown. It’s more like a
course correction they have recommended, but that presumably
wouldn’t have satisfied the donors. I in particular agree that the
US needs to return to a more activist approach on some issues in the
Balkans, because EU leadership in a period of big strains on its
unity and coherence has failed to resolve some key issues.
That said, I disagree with some of the specific
recommendations and will try to clarify why. I also wonder why it
highlights corruption and offers no recommendations to deal with it,
apart from avoiding excessive reliance on “Big Men.”
A permanent US military presence
I would be prepared to consider a permanent US
military presence in Southeastern Europe, but I can’t agree that
“Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is ideal for the purpose.” It is not. It
lacks the 10,000-foot runway that a serious US base would require,
and building one would be difficult given the topography. There is
also no need for one, since an F-16 doesn’t know much difference
between Aviano (in northern Italy) and Bondsteel.
More important: a US base anywhere should serve US
purposes, which are heavily focused on the Middle East and North
Africa. We’ve got bases much closer to those theaters than
Bondsteel. The Pentagon has long wanted to close Bondsteel, because
it doesn’t serve US purposes well.
Nor do I think we can assume that we will always
be welcome in Kosovo. Young Kosovar Albanians don’t understand why
the country doesn’t have an army. NATO is starting to be seen as a
barrier to getting one, and Bondsteel in particular plays looms
large in that regard: some internationals don’t think Kosovo needs
an army because it has a NATO presence. That won’t fly forever with
the country’s citizens. Better to fix the problem than wait for them
Pursue a “historic rapprochement” with
This has long been a Belgrade talking point:
Washington does not sufficiently embrace us. I’ve been hearing it
every since Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls in 2000.
The truth is that the US normalized relations with Serbia quickly
after that, removing sanctions and instituting cooperation on a wide
array of issues. I’ve never seen us do it faster.
From the American perspective, today’s barriers to
a closer relationship are on the Serbian side. The Atlantic Council
mentions the difficulty that Serbia’s relations with Russia pose.
But that is not the only barrier. There are others: Belgrade’s
restraints on the press, its failure to establish a truly
independent judiciary, its increasing inclination to normalize those
responsible for war crimes (and failure to prosecute people
responsible for killing Albanian Americans), and its slow approach
to normalizing relations with Kosovo. There has been serious
backsliding on several of these issues in recent years, which makes
it difficult for a US president or vice president to embrace Serbia
Regain the United States’ reputation as an
I don’t think we’ve lost it, though I also think
we are more power broker than honest broker. We just haven’t used
whatever it is lately. Nothing in the report convinces me otherwise.
Bet on the region’s entrepreneurs and youth
Sure, bet on them but for what? This is the
eternal recommendation of all think-tank reports when confronted
with lingering problems in post-war countries. Economic development
will fix it. But it won’t so long as the politics don’t allow it to
happen. In all of the Balkan countries, there are too many resources
under the control of political parties for normal free market
capitalism to operate effectively. That needs to change, through
internationally supervised privatization and liquidation. Only
politicians can make that happen.
As for youth, there are a lot of indications that
in several Balkan countries the past 20 years has seen ethnic
tension passed on to the next generation, sometimes in more virulent
forms than the last. I wouldn’t want to bet on some of the region’s
youth, because they want to take the region backwards not forward.
The report is a competent analysis of many current
issues in the Balkans, but it offers nothing like a new US strategy
for the region. Nor is one needed. What we need to do is complete
the strategy we adopted around 2000: get all the countries of the
region that want to enter NATO or the EU qualified as quickly as
possible and admit them to membership whenever the political winds
blow in the right direction.