While the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, U.S. leadership in the Balkans appears to be overshadowed by Russia, China, and Turkey. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration continues to prioritize the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue through Special Envoy Richard Grenell who also serves the Acting Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Balkan Insider spoke to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control, foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Director of Russia on the National Security Council, Dr. Michael Carpenter, who provided insight on the U.S. role in the region, NATO expansion, and disinformation.


Balkan Insider: The Trump Administration has appointed Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as the Special Presidential Envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue. He has also recently become Acting Director of National Intelligence. The State Department has appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Mathew Palmer, as its Special Envoy to the Western Balkans. From your time at the White House and Pentagon, how do you assess the current interplay between the White House, State Department and DoD when it comes to the Western Balkans?

Michael Carpenter: From my vantage on the outside, the different U.S. governments agencies are actually working together reasonably well. The one fly in the ointment seems to be Ambassador Grenell’s appointment as Special Envoy. His appointment is causing some friction behind the scenes – not between agencies but within agencies. Frankly speaking, many of the career foreign policy professionals see him as a dilettante and fear his strongarm tactics will backfire. The same is true of many European career diplomats. They remember Grenell as a ferocious backer of the Iraq war during the Bush 43 administration and tend to regard him as a propagandist. The biggest disjuncture we face right now is therefore not between U.S. agencies but between the U.S. and Europe.

BI: Despite the global crisis, N. Macedonia followed Montenegro in joining NATO as its 30th member state. Can you shed light on the importance of this historic step for Skopje? How does the NATO Alliance stay relevant and demonstrate its importance in a post COVID-19 world? How do you see NATO expanding in the coming years, if at all?

MC: North Macedonia’s entry into NATO is an enormous achievement and a boon for security, stability, and regional reconciliation. I first traveled to North Macedonia just after the Ohrid Framework agreement was reached in 2001. There was a lot of hope for a brighter future back then but unfortunately progress was slow and uneven in the intervening years. This was partly a result of internal politics, but also due to the international community’s failure to provide the country with a clear Euro-Atlantic perspective. That perspective is now reality.

As for NATO, it remains the most successful alliance in the history of the world. The fact that countries continue to seek membership and are motivated to pursue difficult reforms to join the Alliance is a testament to its continued relevance. Like all organizations, NATO has to adapt to changing circumstances. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that NATO had to become more active in areas where allies weren’t used to cooperating, like the cyber domain or in terms of countering “active measures.” The COVID pandemic is underscoring the importance of resilience in non-military domains, such as health care. Resilience itself is not a new concept for NATO, but our approaches to building resilience over the last few decades have been too mired in conventional thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores how important it is to be able to mobilize a whole-of-society response to a security threat, and why we need more extensive stress-testing of critical infrastructure like medical facilities and supply chains. NATO should continue to keep its door open to new aspirants, but it will also need to evolve by expanding its activity outside its current comfort zone.

BI: COVID-19 has affected the Balkans just as much as any other region in the world and led to a worldwide response. USAID, in cooperation with the State Department, has earmarked $700,000 for Albania, $1.2 million for Bosnia, $1.1 million for Kosovo, $1.1 million for N. Macedonia, and $1.2 million for Serbia to combat the virus. Meanwhile, planes from Russia, China, and the Middle East are landing in capitals filled with tons of aid. How can the U.S. maintain a leadership role that people will remember in the region during this pandemic?

MC: The Trump administration has failed to lead in this pandemic and unfortunately Americans are dying as a result of its incompetence and unilateralism. A global pandemic is precisely when you need to mobilize international partners by using fora like NATO, the G7, and the G20 to mount a global response both on the health front and the economic front. Unfortunately, Secretary Pompeo couldn’t even agree on a communique with his fellow G7 foreign ministers because of his insistence on using the term “Chinese virus.” This political posturing distracted him from dealing with a rapidly mounting death toll and an impending global recession. It will take the next U.S. administration years to repair the damage caused by this incompetence.

BI: Twitter deleted 8,000 fake accounts linked to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). How has disinformation and misinformation increased in recent years? What can be done to guarantee a restoration of liberties after COVID-19? when

MC: Disinformation has to be addressed through a systemic campaign to promote literacy and critical thinking skills, and through active efforts to expose its sources. In the social media age, disinformation is boosted by algorithms and bots that amplify its reach. In my view, the tech platforms will never self-regulate and the purveyors of disinformation will never stop spreading it, so governments (particularly the United States) need to step in to promote regulations that force the tech platforms to take more active steps to root out fake accounts.

Dr. Michael Carpenter is Managing Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  He previously served in the Pentagon as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control.  He also served in the White House as a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and on the National Security Council as Director for Russia.   He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter at @mikercarpenter.