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Commentary | 19 May 2017

The prospects of relative neglect – U.S. foreign policy in the Western Balkans under President Trump

Image of Gorana Grgic

Gorana Grgic |Lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

Balkans Foreign policy Russia-West Relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

There is hardly a region from which the United States has been able to extricate itself as quickly, after having exerted a substantial military footprint and having played a major role in the post-conflict reconstruction, as it has from the Western Balkans. The withdrawal has been a product of both choice and necessity; the previous two U.S. administrations maintained that the region should be the European Union’s responsibility and, more importantly, there were a number of more pressing issues for the U.S. national interest from the Middle East to East Asia. Thus, the Balkans have been largely deprioritised from the US foreign policy agenda since the early years of the George W. Bush administration up to the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.

There has been significant continuity during the two administrations in their approach to the region. This has been evident in the U.S. government’s insistence that the EU should take the lead in stabilization efforts and mediation of sensitive issues. However, the degree to which the EU was left to take the lead differed significantly between the two administrations. It appears that under President Obama, particularly during his first term, there was a more conscious effort to work with EU officials in diplomatic efforts in the region.

Moreover, both administrations subscribed to the policy of dual engagement with Kosovo and Serbia, which has been seen in the aid allocated to both, as well as in more recent initiatives to deepen trade links and military cooperation. Equally, under both Bush and Obama there were attempts to set the agenda on political reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina, both of which failed to yield results. Furthermore, the Obama administration began to grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the countries and even signalled there might be a need to rethink the international community’s approach that emanated from the Dayton Peace Agreement.

Likewise, both administrations were similarly adamant that neither Kosovo nor Bosnia-Herzegovina represented precedents that could be applied in the other states. Despite the initial involvement of the Bush administration in Macedonia to help broker the Ohrid Framework Agreement and Macedonia’s membership in the U.S.-Adriatic Charter, there has been a more limited engagement with the country on part of both administrations. This was due to competing regional priorities which placed focus on Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Bush’s focus on Kosovo and NATO

However, there were a number of instances in which the U.S. Western Balkans policy clearly reflected presidential priorities. For example, under President Bush, there was a more active push to address Kosovo’s status that was mainly reactive to the escalation of violence in early 2004. The response was shaped by the administration’s embrace of democracy promotion and support for nation building later in the first term. Moreover, the administration’s strategic activism on the U.S.-Adriatic Charter reflected the White House’s stance on NATO enlargement and the need to expand the coalition of the willing.


Obama prioritised diplomacy and economic growth to counter other regional powers

The Obama administration’s diplomatic approach to the region was different from his predecessor’s. Top officials from the Obama administration travelled to the region quite frequently, particularly in the first term, signalling a renewed focus on the region in order to deal with “unfinished business”. Some of them, like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had prior experience in the region in the nineties, which enabled them to take on a more active role in diplomatic engagement. Moreover, under President Obama there was significant agenda setting on trade with the region, essentially enabling the private sector take the lead as economic aid continued to dwindle.

Perhaps most significantly, as other major powers began increasing their presence and influence in the region, the Obama administration began to formulate a more comprehensive regional policy. This was invoked by senior U.S. diplomats and interagency delegations in Obama’s second term and focused on economic development through trade and investment, promotion of energy independence and further support for democratic consolidation. This broader strategic response was a reaction to the growing influence of Russia primarily, but equally to that of other major powers such as Turkey and China. The US regional strategy was in line with the administration’s European policy, which emphasised the need to limit Russia’s malign influence following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass.

Clearly, there is still a lot of unfinished business in the region in both the political and economic spheres. More worryingly, increasing ethnic tensions and security concerns in Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro over the past year have drawn the attention of major foreign capitals. Just like its two predecessors, the new administration in Washington will most certainly face circumstances which will require a U.S. response, given its security guarantor status.


Trump’s policy entrepreneurs still unclear but expect less support for Democratization and Human Rights

So far, there has been very little indication of what sort of regional policy we should expect to see from Trump. However, the respective records of the past two administrations might offer some pointers. In particular, it seems that the Presidential doctrines and top-level appointees had a huge impact on the approach to the region, despite the appearance that policy making had shifted mostly to the lower levels of bureaucracy.

If the White House continues to shape the policy from afar, there is likely to be less priority placed on promoting democratization and respect for human rights across the region. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine that the Trump administration would be active in promoting trade with the region in a similar fashion to that of Obama. On the other hand, there might be a continuation of support for energy projects such as the construction of the LNG terminal in Croatia, as this area is well within the scope of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s professional experience.

There is, perhaps, an even more likely scenario, which would see a policy of relative neglect, unless there is a dramatic change in circumstances. After all, “America First” was one of the central messages of Trump’s campaign, despite having witnessed some notable rhetorical and substantive reversals over the past weeks. Moreover, in the absence of top US officials who have had prior dealings with the region, it is hard to identify who the policy entrepreneurs might be.

If this proves to be the case, a lot will hinge on the EU’s response to increasing threats to regional stability. Until the final outcomes of the French and German elections are known, there will be some uncertainty over policy specifics in the medium to long term. Finally, less active U.S. policy would leave significant leeway for other powers in the region. Much will depend, therefore, on the nature of relationships between major powers, particularly that between U.S. and Russia.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.