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Foreign Policy Governance and Multilateralism

USA foreign policy in the Western Balkans: why they are taking the lead

Over the past years the Balkans have come back into the radar of the United States, and this renewed interest has been pushed by geopolitical balances.

Since the end of the Cold War, passing by military intervention in the 1990s, the United States of America has been engaged in the Western Balkans, with the goal to stabilize the region and pursue security throughout the European continent. The integration of the Western Balkans into trans-Atlantic structures (i.e NATO) have succeeded only in part, and until a few years ago US influence in the Western Balkans was at its all-time low.

Indeed, members of the current US administration, including President Donald Trump, consider the Balkans as a low-impact issue in their political agenda and the times when the US had the chance to play a leading role in the Western Balkans, his policy has be­en so far inconsistent [1]. Not only politically, but US involvement in the region has been diminishing in terms of a security and military presence and consistent engagement, with the NATO-led KFOR mission drastically downsizing its personnel.

Threats to integration

In 2016 , when the Trump administration took office, shifts in the policies towards the WB states were not expected. Lately, new arisen situation that reawaken old tensions in the region (i.e. Belgrade and Prishtina) showed how the regional stability is still fragile.

The democratic and European trust has been undermined by autocratic leaders which have systematically threatened democratic institutions. As a result, among the population, the pro-Western consensus that has shaped the region for the past decade is no longer safe. Opposition movements are more and more trying to formulate and offer alternatives; such a dynamic empowers anti-American and anti-European forces that after the enlargement impasse, often seek support somewhere else. Both governments and opposition parties have used Russia, China, Turkey and other outside powers as a political and economic leverage towards the European Union. The involvement of those external actors has weakened the rule of law and has suggested an alternative to Euro-Atlantic integration [2].

The enlargement fatigue that the European Union has been suffering means US should play a bigger role in the Western Balkans, as integration with the West has been always viewed as the key to keep Eastern European countries from slipping back into authoritarianism.

A new track

Things has started to change firstly when Matthew Palmer, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, was designated by the State Department as a US Special Representative for the Western Balkans and he immediately began to take its toll. Palmer said the US was profoundly disappointed with the EU’s failure to open accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, pushing France to lift its veto on WB enlargement. “If the West ceded ground, then Russia, China, and other actors would happily leap to fill any vacuum of leadership, of vision in this important region“, he warned. Then it turned out that the US appointed one more special envoy, former US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, named as a “Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations” [3].

Those new appointments could prove a more serious US commitment to the Western Balkans, representing a push to address tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, two decades after an armed conflict that sparked a NATO intervention and eventually led Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia in 2008, an act recognized by the United States but not from Serbia nor Russia, which has maintained close ties with Belgrade.

Those speeding up in the talks could represent a thorn in the the EU-led Belgrade-Prishtina negotiations [4] side, who have stalled last November, after Kosovo charge tariffs on Serbian goods and vowed to only remove them after Serbia recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty. Brussels intends to soon restart the talks that may be conducted parallel to Washington negotiations, showing lack of transatlantic coordination, weakening each other’s actions.

In hopes of boosting their talks, Grenell has invited Serbian President Aleskandar Vučić and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi to meet at the White House on June 27th, in a meeting that was not coordinated with the European Union. A war crimes indictment from The Hague against President Thaci caused shock when it was announced on June 24th,  with the result that new Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti cancelled his plan to attend the meeting [5].

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia remain high, and with the Washington meeting not  happening, the future of the entire Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is in doubt, as well as US ambition to play a key role in the region.


[1] US Balkan Policy Hard to Fathom in EU’s Absence, Balkan Insight, available at: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/01/07/us-balkan-policy-hard-to-fathom-in-eus-absence/

[2] Leadership Adrift: American Policy in the Western Balkans, BiEPAG, available at: https://biepag.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Leadership-Adrift_fin-2.pdf

[3] U.S. Plans to Jump Back Into the Balkans With New Envoy, Foreign Policy, available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/30/us-plans-to-jump-back-into-balkans-with-new-envoy-serbia-kosovo-dialogue-dispute-state-department-diplomacy-europe/

[4] EU facilitated dialogue: relations between Belgrade and Pristina, EEAS, available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/diplomatic-network/eu-facilitated-dialogue-belgrade-pristina-relations_en

[5] U.S. Postpones Balkan Peace Summit, in Blow to Trump Foreign Policy, The New York Times, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/world/europe/serbia-kosovo-trump-hashim-thaci.html

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