Day: January 18, 2012

NATO and the Western Balkans

Here is the testimony I gave today at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, via Skype from Belgrade:

Helsinki Commission

“The Western Balkans and the 2012 NATO Summit”

Testimony by Professor Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

January 18, 2012

                Thank you for this opportunity to appear before you on a subject close to my heart and brain:  NATO and the Western Balkans.

NATO entered the Balkans in 1993, with the no-fly zone over Bosnia.  It was an important moment.  Until then, Yugoslavia had been considered outside the NATO area, a concept that lost relevance as the Alliance moved from thinking of itself as a defensive pact against the Soviet Union to an alliance protecting European and American security from risks arising anywhere in the world.

Two decades later, the Western Balkans are entering NATO.  Slovenia (2004), Croatia (2009) and Albania (2009) have already made the strategic choice of aligning their defense efforts with NATO.  They also contribute to Alliance efforts in Afghanistan and Kosovo, taking on burdens at least proportional to their size and economic weight.  They enable us to devote American personnel to other priority missions, both NATO and non-NATO.

Slovenia, Croatia and Albania have also benefited from their efforts to reform their security services, professionalize and reorganize them to meet NATO standards.  These are countries that have made a profound commitment to democratic norms, even if they still sometimes struggle to meet them.

Five more countries of the Western Balkans remain outside NATO.  It is time to open the door and allow two of them to begin to enter:  Macedonia and Montenegro.

Macedonia has done yeoman’s work completing its membership action plan.   Just ten years ago, ethnic war racked the country.  The conflict ended with agreement to reform its state institutions, including the security services.  The Macedonians took advantage of the opportunity to professionalize their security forces to meet NATO standards.

I spoke Friday with Brigadier General William Roy, whose Vermont National Guard brigade deployed for six months in 2010 to Afghanistan with Macedonian troops.  He reports in an email:  “By all accounts they performed their mission to the desired standard. They were involved in a number of tactical engagements with enemy forces while integrated with my companies.  Most impressive has been the development of their NCO Corps; a key to having a well trained and disciplined force.”

While I might wish Skopje would spend less money on tributes to Alexander the Great, the only thing keeping Macedonia from NATO membership today is the dispute with Greece over the country’s name, which prevented it from receiving an invitation at the Bucharest Summit in 2008.  Since then, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has found that Greece violated its interim accord with the government in Skopje when it blocked membership at Bucharest.

May is the time to correct the injustice done at Bucharest.  Chicago is the place.  The NATO Summit should issue an invitation for membership to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or to Macedonia by whatever name Skopje and Athens may agree on.  The United States should make it clear to Greece that repeating the mistake of Bucharest is not acceptable, as the ICJ has already said.

With the door to NATO open at Chicago, I would also urge that Montenegro be given a clear signal that it, too, will get an invitation once it completes its Membership Action Plan.  We should not close the door to a country that has been willing to join us in Afghanistan and contributes to UN operations in Somalia and Liberia.

Three more Western Balkans countries would still remain outside NATO:  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.  None is ready for an invitation.  Bosnia has failed to meet the international community requirement that it resolve defense property issues.  It should get that done before Chicago so it can embark on the membership process.  Kosovo, which will want to join NATO as quickly as possible, is just beginning to think about the nature and shape of its future security forces.   The United States should help Kosovo establish forces that can meet its legitimate security interests within the NATO context, enabling the eventual withdrawal of NATO’s Kosovo force (KFOR).

Serbia has not indicated it wishes to join NATO, due to popular distaste for an Alliance that bombed the country in 1999 and played a crucial role in removing Kosovo from Milosevic regime oppression.  Nevertheless, Serbia has participated in Partnership for Peace.*  The NATO door should stay open.  The choice of joining or not should be Belgrade’s.

The odds of Serbia joining NATO would be significantly increased if Macedonia and especially Montenegro were to make clear progress toward membership in Chicago.  NATO members would then eventually surround Serbia, making the decision to join geographically and strategically compelling.

With a decision to join NATO, Belgrade would have to make other difficult decisions:  about both Bosnia and Kosovo.  Good neighborly relations are a prerequisite for NATO, as they are for the EU.  But EU membership is still far off.  Serbia could, if it wanted, join NATO much faster, but it will need to demonstrate unequivocally respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all its neighbors.

NATO membership is not a panacea.  I do not believe allowing Bosnia early entry, as some advocate, would be wise.  But real progress on membership for Macedonia and Montenegro at Chicago would impart a sense of momentum to the Western Balkans that is lacking today. With Europe immersed in a financial crisis, only Croatia can hope for EU membership within the next few years.  The others will have to wait until Europe has its financial house in order.

Many current members have found NATO provides relief from the historic baggage of past wars, ethnic conflicts and mass atrocities.  Joining an alliance to make the world safer for democratic societies is a noble cause.  It is a good idea to extend an invitation to Macedonia at Chicago and make welcoming noises to Montenegro.  The door should remain open for the others to enter when they are ready and willing.  NATO expansion into the Balkans serves U.S. interests not only in that region but wherever NATO or U.S. forces deploy in the future.

*My original text said Serbia had deployed troops to Afghanistan.  Ivan Vejvoda pointed out that this is not correct.  I’ve omitted the error here, but thought you should know:  even paragons make mistakes.  I’m not sure how I acquired that one.

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Beware the tradeoffs

Important decisions are pending the next few days on Syria.  The two key immediate questions are these:  will the Arab League extend its human rights monitoring mission?  Will the UN Security Council finally condemn the crackdown?

The Arab League mission has not been able to protect civilians or notably reduce the intensity of the crackdown.  But the observers are bringing out large crowds of peaceful demonstrators and documenting abuses, which are two good results.  The Arab League should decide the issue of whether their mission should be extended not on the basis of whether they have “succeeded,” but rather on the basis of what will be most helpful to peaceful protests and civilian protection.  Syria needs more observers for these purposes, not fewer.  UN training for them is just beginning.  At least another month is required before the Arab League gives serious consideration to abandoning the mission, and even then it will be important to consider the consequences for peaceful protest and civilian protection.  No one should be fooled by the Qatari advocacy of armed Arab League intervention:  it isn’t going to happen.

A UN Security Council resolution on Syria would vastly improve the odds for real success of the Arab League mission.  The day Bashar al Assad feels the cold hand of Prime Minister Putin pushing him aside is the day the game changes fundamentally in Syria.  But Russia has little interest in handing the West a victory in Syria, especially if it would mean losing an important naval base on the Mediterranean.  Putin will move against Bashar only if doing so will help to save this asset, not lose it.  That is a high price for the Syrians to pay, but it may not be avoidable.  That’s one tradeoff.

Then Bashar would have only Iran as a key pillar of international support.  Americans think of Syria and Iran as two separate issues, but to Tehran they are just related theaters of struggle with the U.S.  Loss of Syria as an ally and link to Hizbollah in Lebanon would be a serious blow to Iran, which is in a spiral of heightening tensions with the U.S. over the strait of Hormuz, planned sanctions that will reduce Iranian oil exports and most fundamentally the Iranian nuclear program.  July 1 is emerging as the consensus date for Europe and the U.S. to implement new sanctions.  That will be in the midst of a U.S. electoral campaign in which the Republican candidate–most likely Mitt Romney, but it really doesn’t matter who it is–will be pushing for military action.

Iran is supposed to meet with the Americans and Europeans in Turkey still this month to discuss the nuclear impasse.  Even the Israelis seem to think the Iranians have not yet decided to build nuclear weapons.  Syrians should want to watch that closely:  it is not impossible that they will be sold out in exchange for a nuclear deal.  It is hard to picture the U.S. winning on both the Syrian and nuclear fronts, but if the Administration succeeds at that I’ll be the first to offer heartiest congratulations!

Let there be no doubt:  if Washington has to choose between stopping Iran short of a nuclear weapon and toppling Bashar al Assad, it will choose the former, not the latter.  That’s a second possible tradeoff.

Beware the tradeoffs.  They are a lot of what diplomacy is about.

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