What’s wrong with the Atlantic Council report
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 to protest.
Pursue a “historic rapprochement” with Serbia
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 more warmly.
Regain the United States’ reputation as an honest broker
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.