The Biden Administration Will Return to the Long Game in the Balkans

by Dr. Leon Hartwell

Shortly before the brokering of the Washington Agreement, I had a discussion with Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a top advisor to president-elect Joe Biden and a former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.  I have seven takeaways from the discussion.

Firstly, in stark contrast to the Trump Administration’s quick fix approach, Burns advocated for a return to serving a strategic long-term goal for the U.S. in the Balkans linked to the late president George H.W. Bush’s idea of “Europe whole and free”.  It was a bipartisan goal that survived several administrations, and it is something that has increased in importance given that Russia and, more recently, China are sowing divisions in Europe.

According to Burns, “part of the strategic goal right now should be the integration of the Balkan countries into [the EU and NATO].” That was the goal for nearly three decades and “that is still the goal today.”  Ideally, this should involve measures to promote infrastructure development, anti-corruption, trade and democratic institution.

Secondly, it is clear that Burns envisions as more holistic approach towards the Serbia-Kosovo dispute rather than nitpicking at what outgoing president Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue – Richard Grenell – called “economic normalization.”  Grenell insisted that the U.S. should focus only on facilitating economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo while the EU should be responsible for political normalization.  In the end, the two dialogues were largely uncoordinated with one another, which led to some messy results.

However, Burns described the importance of promoting and maintaining Kosovo’s sovereignty, and characterized the Serbia-Kosovo dispute as unfinished business.  Without resolving the dispute, the vision of Europe whole, free and at peace will not be achieved.

Thirdly, and related to the previous issues, Burns stressed the importance of acting in tandem with the EU on the Balkans.  As he told me, the greatest mistake by the Trump Administration was to separate the EU and U.S. dialogues and “having them work at cross purposes.”

Fourthly, Burns hinted that the EU should play the leading role in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue because it is “the more powerful force” in the Western Balkans.  In an op-ed co-authored with Frank Wisner, Burns even more explicitly stated that the EU “has a strong case to lead diplomatically” on the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Fifthly, although Burns views NATO and EU membership for Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Hercegovina as part of the long-term strategic goal, he reasons that preparation for enlargement may take ten to thirty years.  He maintains that “the EU has to be careful [to enlarge] because of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the Polish government.  They are clearly autocratic or even, I would say, authoritarian governments.”  The problem is, according to Burns, that “it is very difficult for the Europeans, and frankly even for NATO, to deal with these autocratic countries inside our democratic institutions.”  Burns also specifically expressed his misgivings about Serbia’s democratic deficit and the country’s direction.

Sixthly, Burns described Grenell’s approach towards the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue as unbalanced and advocated for a stronger focus on fairness and equity.  He stated, “After over two decades of American policy trying to build up and support Kosovo, suddenly the U.S. seemed to be putting pressure on Kosovo and not sufficient pressure on Serbia.”  The Trump Administration used a number of sticks, including the threat of troop withdrawal, to force Kosovo do drop tariffs against Serbia.  The tariffs were initiated in retaliation for Serbia’s de-recognition campaign.

Finally, with regards to the controversial proposal of territorial exchanges between Serbia and Kosovo, Burns said he advised Kosovo’s current prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, “not to engage in land swaps.”  The idea of land swaps has been proposed in the past as a possible solution to end the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, but it is also often likened to opening Pandora’s Box, which may fuel calls for a Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia or even a Greater Albania, leading to further Balkanization of the region.

Clearly, if Burns’ advice is heeded by the incoming Biden Administration, one can expect a much more holistic approach towards Serbia and Kosovo.  It will involve playing the long game by focusing on anti-corruption; promoting liberal democracy; supporting Serbia and Kosovo to prepare for EU and NATO integration; and facilitating an end to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. You can find him on Twitter at @LeonHartwell.

The opinions expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Balkan Insider.