I’m thrilled Montenegro joined NATO yesterday, not least because it signals to the rest of the Balkans that the door to Atlantic institutions is still open. But I’ve got to admit that it is a difficult moment for the Alliance: Russia is doing its best to block NATO expansion and the President of the United States is doing his best to undermine its mutual defense commitment.

Moscow’s efforts are by now obvious: an attempted coup in Podgorica last October, hybrid warfare efforts in Macedonia, political and financial support for Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. A rational patriot would react to these attacks on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their respective countries by trying to get into NATO, not stay out of it. Only Serbia has (so far) concluded that it is better off outside NATO than inside it, even if its newly inaugurated president thinks NATO membership would solve many of the countries problems and appears to regret the domestic opposition to it.

But if NATO is now more attractive than ever to the Balkan aspirants, which of course include Kosovo as well, the Article 5 commitment to mutual defense is on shakier ground than ever. President Trump not only omitted it from his speech at NATO. He also neglected to mention it either before or after that speech. Defense Secretary Mattis is busy reassuring the world that the President did recommit to Article 5, but that simply is not true anywhere but in the talking points that the Pentagon and State Department proposed and the President did not use.

What difference does this make? Here is the text of Article 5:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

The mutual defense requirement was triggered for the first time after 9/11, as as an expression of allied solidarity with the United States, including patrolling by allied AWACS over the US and later other measures in support of US operations in the Mediterranean. NATO has also taken collective defense measures in response to threats to Turkey and threats from Russia.

Would NATO defend Montenegro? I have my doubts, especially with Trump in the presidency. Fortunately, an attack on the small country from another state isn’t likely. Podgorica for now at least has good relations with its neighbors, even if the Kosovo parliament has refused to allow demarcation of the border. Far more likely: Russia will continue to try to destabilize Montenegro, using the anti-independence Serb opposition and other Russophiles as its hybrid warfare instrument. Another assassination attempt cannot be ruled out, though Serbia is presumably still ready to foil it.

NATO members, Montenegro now included, are of course expected to meet their own defense requirements. Each NATO member by 2024 is expected to spend 2% of GNP on defense. Montenegro does not meet that goal yet. It makes little difference to Alliance capabilities whether it does so, but its claim on NATO support would be enhanced if it did. Petty it may seem, but President Trump is nothing if not petty.

He allowed Montenegro membership in NATO, once the Senate had approved it overwhelmingly and Defense Secretary Mattis presumably weighed in heavily. For that, not only Montenegro but also the rest of the Balkans should be grateful.


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Preventing new Balkan conflicts

Here are my speaking notes for the testimony I delivered today at the hearing on “The Balkans: Threats to Peace and Stability” of the Subcommittee on Europe, Asia and Emerging Threats of the House International Relations Committee.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. With permission, I would like to submit a written statement for the record and use the few minutes I have for just three key points.

First, the countries of the region made remarkable progress in the 10 years or so after the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995. But in the last 10 years, the U.S. effort to pass the baton of leadership to the European Union has allowed slippage. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia there are now risks of instability that could trigger a regionwide convulsion. That would reflect badly on America’s global leadership role, unravel three peace agreements, and cost us far more than conflict prevention.

Second, those who say ethnic partition through rearrangement of borders would be viable are playing with matches near a powder keg. Moves in that direction would lead to violence, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. It happened in the 1990s and could again. Monoethnic states cannot be achieved without a massive and expensive peacekeeping deployment.

Ethnic partition would not only be violent, it would also generate a new flood of refugees and creation of Islamic mini-states in parts of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. This was a main reason we refused to move borders in the 1990s. Americans should be even more concerned about it today. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have had more success recruiting in the Balkans than many once thought possible given the pro-Western and pro-American attitudes of most Muslims there. Reducing Balkan Muslims to rump monoethnic states would radicalize many more.

Damage would not be limited to the Balkans. Russia would welcome ethnic partition, because it would validate Moscow’s destructive irredentist behavior in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea, and Donbas as well as give Moscow a stronger foothold in the region. It would also leave a geographic gap in NATO and the EU that we have long hoped would be filled with friends and allies.

My third point is this: I see no serious alternative in the Balkans to the political and economic reforms required for each of the countries of the region to be eligible for NATO and EU membership. All want to join the EU, which unfortunately will not be able to begin admitting them until 2020 at the earliest. That leaves NATO membership as the vital “carrot” for reform, except in Serbia. We need to do more to enable Balkan countries that want to do so to join the Alliance, as Montenegro is doing.

In Macedonia, this means Europe and the U.S. need to tell Greece “The FYROM” will be invited to join NATO once it reestablishes transparent and accountable democratic governance. In Kosovo, it means ensuring Pristina develops an army designed for international peacekeeping that poses no threat to Serbs. For that, Serbia will need to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, by allowing UN membership. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO members should tell Republika Srpska secession will gain no Western recognition or aid for it or any country it joins, including from the IMF or World Bank.

These and other suggestions in my written testimony would put the region back on track and prevent the peace agreements of the 1990s and 2001 from unraveling. So too would ensuring that all Balkan countries have access to energy supplies from countries other than Russia: natural gas from Azerbaijan, LNG from the U.S., or eventually Mediterranean gas from Cyprus or Israel.

Mr. Chairman, I’ve just outlined a substantial list of diplomatic tasks. If the Administration commits to them, implementation might require an American special envoy. But a policy should come first: one based on maintaining current borders, preventing ethnic partition, and pushing harder for NATO and EU membership. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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Outside influences in the Balkans

Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself: 

  1. Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  1. It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
  1. The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
  1. The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
  1. The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
  1. The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.
  1. But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.
  1. That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.
  1. Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.
  1. The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
  1. The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.
  1. Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
  1. Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
  1. Turkey is a different story.
  1. For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
  1. This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.
  1. Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
  1. As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.
  1. The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
  1. The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
  1. Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
  1. Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.

Read more

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Merci bien!

Having won the first round of the French presidential election yesterday, Emanuele Macron will now face Marine Le Pen, President Trump’s favorite, in the second round May 7. France’s political establishment is quickly lining up behind Macron. That doesn’t guarantee he will defeat Le Pen, but it is looking increasingly likely.

Macron is a moderate economic reformer and defender of liberal democracy, including its international institutional manifestations  NATO and the EU. Claiming to be a patriot, Le Pen opposes both, wants to end immigration, and is virulently anti-Muslim. The choice could not be clearer, but the same was true last November in the US. Americans chose the illiberal option. The French are unlikely to do so. As one of the unsuccessful candidates put it on Twitter:

There is a distinction between a political adversary and the enemy of the Republic.

The Dutch have already showed the way in their mild rejection of the racist Geert Wilders last month. The British will have an opportunity June 8 in their “snap” general election to strengthen the Liberal Democrats and weaken the Brexit hardliners. Germany doesn’t vote until September, but the two leading candidates right now are both supporters of liberal democracy, NATO and the EU. So it is looking as if Europe, so much disdained in America since the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed, will save Western institutions and values from the nationalist onslaught Trump wants.

This is good, but it would be a serious mistake to rest on those laurels. The West is in trouble because it has failed to reconcile globalization with the welfare of its least educated white workers. They have lost ground for decades. Across Europe and the US, some are now backing racist white identity politics, hoping that will get them a better deal, or at least less competition from immigrants, more retraining, or a strengthened social safety net.

Trump is offering little. While canceling the negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership that would have countered growing Chinese domination of the Asian Pacific economy, he appears to have abandoned any hope of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. He is trying to protect domestic steel production, which now employs relatively few people. He is focused on boosting economic growth by cutting government regulations and jobs by limiting immigration. He is particularly energetic in reducing regulations that affect the coal industry, which he promised to restore. But cheap natural gas, not government regulation, is what ails American coal. It is hard to see how anything Trump has done so far will have more than a marginal impact on helping his supporters.

But it is not without an impact. American commitment to the welfare of the liberal democratic order at home and abroad has never been weaker since World War II. Trump is backing autocrats, reducing American assistance to developing democracies, and still playing footsie with Vladimir Putin, even if the rest of the Administration seems to have given up any hope of rapprochement with him. Trump is also making it impossible for the US to meet its climate change commitments, trying to undermine the health care that his predecessor made available to millions of Americans, and raining disdain on the American media, while supporting the misogynist Bill O’Reilly until a few days before his firing.

Liberal democracy merits a better paladin. Europe seems to be readying itself for the role. Merci bien!




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Still adrift

After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.

That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.

It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.

The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.

Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.

Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.


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One more for illiberalism

Turkey’s President Erdogan won his constitutional referendum Sunday by a narrow margin (more or less 51/49, but the results aren’t official yet). The approved amendments will confirm the power already concentrated in his hands by making Turkey’s government a presidential system: eliminating the office of prime minister, strengthening the president’s hand in judicial appointments, and enabling Erdogan to stay in power for more than another decade.

But while he won the referendum, Erdogan has lost legitimacy. The result was no acclamation. Erdogan lost the vote in Turkey’s three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The overall margin was tighter than expected, given the government’s noisy campaign in favor. Since the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan has eviscerated much of the opposition to his rule, especially in the media, universities, schools, and security forces. “No” campaigners were few and far between. There are even reports of ballot-box stuffing, which I am told is not common in Turkish elections.

Erdogan will nevertheless treat the referendum as authorization to do as he likes. In recent years, that has meant cracking down on political opponents, abandoning the hope of EU membership, cozying up to Russia, fighting against Kurds, and intervening in Syria (but accepting a future role there for Bashar al Assad). The crackdown on followers of Erdogan’s erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gulen, has been particularly ferocious, as Erdogan contends Gulen was behind the July 2016 coup attempt. But Erdogan has also targeted secularists and others who have dared express doubt about the benefits of his rule.

In the end Erdogan’s fate may be determined as much by economics as politics. Turkey’s economy is on the skids: growth has slowed, tourism has collapsed, the Turkish lira is devalued, unemployment is up. The economic reforms and rapid growth that generated a good deal of Erdogan’s popularity in the 2000s have stalled. The renewal of hostilities against the Kurdish armed rebellion has roiled large parts of the country and damaged the economy. Erdogan is no longer the crusading Islamist opposed to corruption and ready to make peace with the Kurds. He merits more recognition in the years since he was elected president in 2014 for crony capitalism than for opening up the Turkish economy.

Washington will do little to resist Erdogan’s worst instincts. While it would prefer that Turkey remain on track towards the EU, the Administration needs Ankara to continue to allow use of Turkish bases in support of US operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey would also be vital to any eventual military operation against Iran. President Trump may even be inclined to extradite Gulen, though doing so depends on judicial proceedings that have barely begun.

Illiberal democracy has had another win, even if the margin was narrow. Chalk up approval of the referendum with Brexit, the election of Trump, and budding autocrats in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The advocates of liberal democracy are going to have to up their game if they are going to stem the illiberal tide, which has lost lately only in the Netherlands. Next stop: first round of the French presidential election, April 23.

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