The flag was raised in 1918 to mark the fourth year of the Great War. And President Woodrow Wilson had chosen the Serbian flag to honor the great sacrifices made by the Serbian people.
While the goal of Brnabić’s visit might have been to remind Washington of historic linkages between the two countries, her trip was also a remembrance of where the war started.
And it wasn’t the only one.
In the 1990s, the United States was involved in two terrible conflicts in the Western Balkans.
Still, the Serbian Prime Minister came to America to deliver more than a history lesson. Her call on the U.S. capital sent a signal that Belgrade knows that the Western Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania) is back on the list of places Washington cares about.
In part, America’s renewed interest reflects a wish that Balkans wars remain a thing of the past. Equally important, the United States hopes the Balkans’ future will be as a net contributor to peace and prosperity in the transatlantic community.
Complaints that the United States is disengaging from Europe and indifferent to the fate of the region are just plain wrong headed. On the other hand, Washington could do much more than wishful thinking to transform the Western Balkans from backwater to a bedrock of progress.
The United States should be leading to redefine “balkanization.” Instead of representing fragmentation and division, the region ought to stand as example of integration and affluence.
Balkans Breaking Bad
A little over a year from now there will be another anniversary: twenty years from the end of the last Balkan war. While the region has suffered no open conflict during that period, the Western Balkans remains a troubled place, often cited as the most fragile part of Europe. “Nearly two decades after war, this isn’t peace,” claimed one human-rights activist. “The Albanian and Serb question is not closed in the Balkans; it’s Israel and Palestine in Europe.”
The state of the Western Balkans states makes many nervous. In an age of anxiety across Europe, it is not helpful if its shakiest parts start shaking.
Troubles in the Balkans refuse to fade away for two reasons: money and geography.
The economies of the region lag the rest of Europe. The good news is that makes for bargain vacation destinations. The bad news is that the Balkans are a place where a little money buys a lot of influence. And buying influence there is worth the bargain basement prices.
Sandwiched between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, the Balkans are the crossroads between North and South and East and West. Few parts of Europe have more active external actors. In addition to the United States and European Union, major players there include Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey and China. In addition, the region’s immediate neighbors—including Greece, Austria and Croatia—have their own interests to look after.
How money and influence are peddled also matters. Chief among the concerns are active measures by the Russians to thwart integration in the EU, forestall NATO enlargement and ensure Russian energy dominance.
Weighted down by twin burdens of lackluster economies and external meddling, the Western Balkans teeter under two lingering but debilitating challenges. One is security. The other is the anemic job and wealth creation.
On the security front, the region lives under the constant shadow of unresolved conflicts which, even if not threatening to break out into open war, create divisive relations that undermine stability and regional integration. The future of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most troubling concern. “Moscow knows that the easiest way to prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina from entering the transatlantic community is by exploiting internal ethnic and religious divisions between the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb populations inside the country,” writes security analyst Daniel Kochis.
The other persisting irritant is the unresolved final status agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. “Serbia . . . has not recognized the nation’s independence,” notes Kochis, “Kosovo continues to be blocked from membership in the United Nations by Chinese and Russian vetoes. . . . [Further,] Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia wrote in an editorial that Russia supports Serbia in “preventing attempts to create an artificial pseudo-state of Kosovo.”
The second great vulnerability of the region is lack of economic development and integration.
As a region scores on the 2018 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom are mediocre . Further, disparities in the region are disquieting. Economically, Serbia is outpacing its neighbors in economic performance. That creates imbalances that could be further destabilizing.
Countervailing influences to address these challenges have achieved a degree of stasis, but aren’t reducing the threats—like a palliative that just keeps the cancer from growing but doesn’t shrink the tumor.
At one time, many believed that joining the EU would solve all these challenges. That is true no more. The path to EU membership has proven glacially slow . Further, EU engagement with the region suffered an embarrassing setback at the recent London conference which, by most accounts, accomplished next to nothing .
An additional challenge is that, unless the region implements reforms that would actually liberalize the economy (thereby spurring growth and job creation), entry into the EU would just encourage population and capital flight to other parts of Europe. And, of course, membership would subject Balkan countries to a new set of contentious political issues, such as the European debate over refugees, migration and borders.
America First and the Balkans
The United States should and does know that treading water between the Adriatic and Black Seas is not good enough. A prosperous and peaceful Westerns Balkans fits U.S. strategy like a Taylor Swift jumpsuit.
A strong transatlantic partnership is a key component of the U.S. National Security Strategy. The last development the United States wants to see is Europe unhinged by Balkans trouble, as it was in the 1990s. U.S. officials including the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense have already expressed strong interest in America playing a stronger role in the region. A recent speech by the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs is particularly clear on this point .
What’s more, the United States would actually like a stronger Europe. At the root of Trump’s scuffle over EU tariffs is his goal of sparking greater trade liberalization and growth. Likewise, the Trump tantrum at the NATO summit in Brussels was to press for more European defense investment to make the alliance stronger. Least of all does the United States want to see the Balkans backtrack.
In fact, the Western Balkans could play a pivotal in America’s vision for a stronger transatlantic community. An integrated and prosperous region could help build the backbone of a stronger Europe. In addition to the security provided by NATO and the cohesion of the European community, the United States could help foster a string of bilateral relationships that becomes a powerful engine of economic growth, a corridor to ensure free-market energy independence, and a real confidence-builder for European security.
These bilateral relations would not supplant the EU or NATO. Rather, they would provide a foundation of strong, self-confident nation-states that would make these alliances stronger. From the United States and Canada to Iceland, Great Britain, and the Nordic, Baltic and Central European states runs a potentially powerful path for economic activity, but that course has to anchor in a stable Southern Europe in the lands between the Adriatic and Black Seas.
Who needs the burdens of European Commission bureaucracy, the pernicious influence of Putin’s meddling, the chimeric but illusory and corruptive promises of the China’s Belt and Road, or buckets of Middle East cash? An informal, cooperative effort at North-South integration among free nations promises to deliver far more to the region.
Five Point Plan
Wanting a better Balkans and building a better Balkans are two different things. In the end, the United States has to deliver. The elements are already there in U.S. strategy, but Washington has to move out. In the end, the United States must actively promote a balance of regional security, economic growth and responsible governance across the Western Balkans and the surrounding countries. This is the best antidote to both the internal struggles in the region and the malicious influence of external actors.
It is not enough for the United States to cheerlead for a North-South energy corridor. Washington has to help make it happen. The United States has to continue to stridently oppose Nord Stream II and provide strong support for the Three Seas Initiative .
The administration should also encourage private investment in the floating LNG terminal in Croatia and help Kosovo modernize its coal industry and build a modern coal-powered energy plant. Moreover, Washington should support the development of nuclear power in the region and the development of a Southern gas corridor not dependent on Russia.
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, USAID and the Millennium Corporation are all active in the region. What the region really needs, however, is private U.S. investment.
Pouring investment into the Western Balkans won’t make it a better place without responsible governance. The administration has largely put an end to previous White House policy of promoting and imposing progressive social policies on the region and interfering unnecessarily in the domestic politics of sovereign nation states. These activities were more destabilizing than helpful in engaging with the region’s largely conservative societies. That’s a good start, but it is not enough. The United States must now focus constructively on the elements of governance that affect economic freedom—including combating corruption, strengthening rule of law, and reducing public sector employment, taxation and debt.
Washington needs to continue to walk two paths in the Balkans at the same time—NATO enlargement (in particular, the United States must continue to actively support the accession of Macedonia to NATO) and fostering bilateral-security cooperation with the United States and Balkan nations and their neighbors. The United States should, for example, provide all possible cooperation and support to help Kosovo develop a recognized armed forces.
The United States has to continue to implement a global strategy that presses strategic competitors—including Russia, Iran and China—to end destabilizing foreign policies that injure U.S. interests. Putting pressure on these competitors will help take pressure off the Western Balkans.
Finally, America first does not mean America alone. The United States and the EU ought to have common cause. Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Austria, Germany and Greece ought to be working closely with the United States. The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council ought to see an opportunity to partner in a constructive manner. Turkey ought to recognize that this path forward is better for Ankara’s security and economic interests. Ultimately, even Russia and China would find that a free, stable and prosperous Western Balkans gives them a better return as a place to make an honest buck than as an impoverished market within their sphere of influence.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest