Trump Administration’s Global Engagement in the Balkans

By David Felsen and Dritan Hoti

The Trump administration has been engaged in an uncharacteristic flurry of foreign policy activity throughout September and into early October, which, for many observers, seems quite unusual for an administration that normally shies away from international engagement and eschews ‘globalism.’

On September 4th, the White House brokered an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, laying the foundation for stronger economic relations between the two Western Balkan states. Further, as part of the Kosovo-Serbia deal, a side agreement was reached between Kosovo and Israel to exchange ambassadors, serving to diminish both Israel’s and Kosovo’s diplomatic isolation.

The administration’s efforts in the Balkans were complemented by the brokering of another agreement on September 15th, this time involving the Middle East.  Labeled the Abraham Accords, it formalized relations between Israel and two Middle Eastern Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  In short, September saw the White House achieve results in two global hotspots.

The agreements were followed up, during the last week of September, with a visit by a high-level U.S. delegation to the two regions.  The delegation comprised representatives from six U.S. agencies and led by the International Development Finance Corporation’s Chief Executive Adam Boehler. The group visited Kosovo, Greece, Serbia in the Balkans as well as Israel.

Despite its apparent frustration with European allies, the Trump administration, quite unexpectedly, waded into Europe’s most volatile region with what is the most significant U.S. diplomatic initiative in the Western Balkans since the Dayton process of the 1990s. The activity in the Balkans will increase the United States’ relative sway in the region at a time when the footprints of China, Russia and Turkey are growing in the Balkans, and beyond.

In deepening its commitment to the Balkans, the U.S. has signaled its intention to confront China’s economic strategy in the region as well as Russia’s political influence. It serves as a rebuff to China’s “Belt-and-Road Initiative” and associated infrastructure projects, as well as its 5G expansion. Moreover, the Balkan agreement also exploits small but growing fissures in Serbia’s relationship with Russia. Only this past summer, Russia was seen as having exacerbated street demonstrations in Belgrade, which broke out over the Serbian government’s Covid-19 measures. Serbian President Vucic criticized “foreign intelligence services” for interfering in the protests.  Russia already has suffered a loss of influence in the region with Montenegro’s entry into NATO in 2017.

The Pristina-Belgrade agreement is no panacea, but it does seek to establish more trust between the two countries through the implementation of confidence-building measures.  It aims to foster regional economic integration, to encourage the eventual creation of a mini-Schengen area of free movement of peoples and, ultimately, to help achieve the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Nevertheless, for the bilateral agreement to work, much will depend on the continued commitment of the United States to the Western Balkans region, as well as Serbia’s willingness to draw closer to the U.S. and pivot away from its traditional alignment with Russia and China. Hence, the recent visit to Belgrade by the U.S. delegation sought to reinforce Serbia’s confidence in the agreement and to promote its benefits including infrastructure development and regional economic cooperation.

The Athens leg of the U.S. officials’ trip bolstered U.S. policy in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean more broadly by seeking to prevent backsliding in Greek-North Macedonia relations, following their recent normalization, as well as to ease strains between Greece and Turkey – both NATO allies – over borders and oil and gas claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. The immediate result of the visit was the resumption of Greek-Turkish negotiations over maritime boundaries after a four-year interruption.  A subsequent administration trip to Europe made by Secretary of State Pompeo during the week of September 27th-October 2nd also included a stop in Athens and attempted to strengthen U.S. efforts in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

The U.S. delegation’s final stop in Jerusalem, which comes on the heels of the signing of the Abraham Accords, complements and reflects America’s recent approach in the Balkans. As with the Balkans, the United States wishes to fortify its alliances in the Middle East, bringing countries together into a staunchly pro-American constellation to help reassert U.S. influence in the region and counter other regional powers’ ambitions, notably those of Russia and Turkey, but also Iran’s regional goals.

Whatever the reason for the administration’s recent activity – whether it is pre-election posturing to earn some foreign policy credit with voters or something more substantive – these maneuvers seem more consistent with the foreign policy engagement of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.  Further, this approach may well be supported by either a Trump 2.0 administration or a Biden administration.

Indeed, what we have witnessed over the past several weeks is a more decisive U.S. policy of global engagement in two critical geo-strategic regions.  Despite a declared reluctance by some in the administration to become involved in the international arena, September was a good month for those who favor a more proactive globally-focused U.S. foreign policy.

David Felsen, PhD, serves as Associate Professor and Vice Rector for International Relations at Epoka University in Tirana, Albania. He holds a doctorate in politics from Oxford University and writes on international issues.

Dritan Hoti (no relation to Kosovo’s prime minister) is completing a doctorate at the University of Vienna and is a lecturer at Mediterranean University in Tirana and writes on international relations for Panorama magazine in Albania.