America’s new instrument in the Balkans

“America will do everything, and it will help you, in every way, in your efforts to become part of Europe. There is no limit to the amount of that assistance”. These are the words of Colin Powell, addressed to Serbia and Montenegro on April 2, 2003, three weeks after the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, when the then Secretary of State suddenly visited Belgrade. In the days when the United States and the world are saying goodbye to the former first man of the American army, and then diplomacy, the reminder of Powell’s visit to Belgrade and the words he said at the time can be an occasion to look back at the current American policy towards the Balkans.

If America is really “returning to the Balkans”, as analysts, media, experts for the region have been “lucidly” concluding for weeks, it is time to first ask ourselves – has it ever left the Balkans so that it can return now, and especially with what goal it is returning, and whether that goal is in line with the promises made by Colin Powell 18 and a half years ago in Belgrade.

It would be frivolous to look for parallels between today’s Serbia, the region and America, with themselves from the time of Colin Powell. But it is not frivolous to check whether his country’s policy, which he once summed up in the message that “there is no limit to the amount” of American assistance to the region to become part of Europe, has outlived Colin Powell.

Major personnel reset of the American diplomatic team in charge of the Balkans is underway. New ambassadors are arriving in Belgrade, Pristina, Sarajevo, and possibly in Podgorica, and they are being sent from Washington by the newly appointed “boss” for the Balkans at the State Department. The new team has more than a hundred years of joint experience in the Balkans, and on the occasion of the Balkans, which is especially important, three decades of commitment to the region that the head of state Joseph Biden has, must be added to that collective experience.

President Biden stands out from this circle only because, unlike everyone else, he does not speak the local language (or local languages), but that does not disqualify him from “membership” in the new team for the Balkans. Of course, he is its creator and supreme leader, which he himself confirmed in the first days of his mandate, when in a conversation with Angela Merkel he mentioned the Balkans as one of his foreign policy priorities. The arrival or return of experienced American “Balkan men” is just the realization of Biden’s January announcement, which many have either forgotten or at least underestimated.

It is difficult to accept that America is “returning to the Balkans”, not only because the wording is worn out, but also because it is incorrect. If America had not really been in the region in recent years, Croatia would not have become a member of the EU, nor would the entire Western Balkans, except Serbia and BiH, be in NATO today. North Macedonia would have its old, shorter name, but would still be isolated and blocked for any integration. Montenegro would be shaken by internal conflicts not for one year, but for at least a decade, and Serbia and Kosovo would be very far from any dialogue, and literally pitted against each other.

If we can talk about any return of America at all, then it is possible only in the sense that Washington is taking over the captain’s armband from Brussels in the game they have been playing together in the Western Balkans for 20 years. If a change in that “game” is expected for a reason, it will be seen only by the speed at which it takes place, but not in the change of the goal that was set a long time ago. And Colin Powell also spoke about that.

The new US team for the Balkans will no doubt have the task of speeding up the completion of some unfinished business. Leaving it to the European Union in the past, America tried to leave the “calming” in the post-conflict period in the Balkans to the one who knows how to do it best and who has the greatest interest in it. However, the European way led to an excessive waste of time, and consequently to the blurring of a goal that should have remained crystal clear until its final fulfillment, and that is the entire Balkans integrated into the EU and/or NATO, which is a long-standing undisguised interest of America.

The new American approach in the Balkans will primarily focus on resolving the two main crisis areas, namely Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. That will be the focus of the new ambassadors in Belgrade, Christopher Hill, in Sarajevo, Michael Murphy and in Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier, as well as their colleague in Washington, Gabriel Escobar. Their vast experience in the Balkans is in itself a new moment in Washington’s diplomatic approach to the region, but it will certainly not be enough to get the job done. This will require them to be creative and authoritative to the extent that it will bring progress. What could that mean in practice?

Although each of them individually has personal experience from the war or from post-war years in the Balkans, the new diplomatic team should not be expected to bring with them the former American policy towards the region. Christopher Hill was in Rambouillet and was a high-ranking diplomat during the 1999 bombing, but he will not bring Rambouillet to his new job in Belgrade, let alone military action. He will bring his vast experience and great negotiation skills, which he will put in the function of realizing the interests of his country, which are the same as they were two decades ago, but they are looking for other means to achieve it.

After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the new US policy of non-intervention (military) in crisis zones, it is clear that the mission of Christopher Hill and others from the team in the Balkans will be a combination of decisive diplomacy, rewarding success, but also punishing by individual sanctions, as an important segment of Biden’s foreign policy. After Afghanistan, America will not be able to describe itself as a “world policeman”, but that does not mean that it will give up those areas in the world in which it sees its interest, including the Balkans. It will deal with those zones, including the Balkans, in a different way and with other means.

After Afghanistan, however, it will be difficult to rely on NATO in this new policy, as it has been so far, because the Alliance has lost the connective tissue that kept it together and in function. Montenegro is a good example that cohesion in NATO was weakened even before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, because the arrival of the new government in Podgorica also marked Russia’s deep penetration into the affairs of this NATO member, to which the Alliance had no answer, except for occasional impersonal statements. That is why Gabriel Escobar recently said very openly that the United States (therefore not NATO) has various diplomatic and political mechanisms to oppose Russia’s influence (but also Serbia’s destructive actions) in Montenegro, mentioning individual sanctions and political isolation. With its new team in the Balkans, America will act alone and in its own name, and if it needs assistance in anything, it will find it in the EU (Belgrade-Pristina negotiations), NATO (Montenegro) or in a specific Western ally, for example Germany when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina. And it probably won’t leave the “job” to anyone else until it’s finished, in the sense that Colin Powell spoke about.