Interview with Michael Carpenter, foreign policy advisor to the former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and currently the Senior Director of the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. The interview was conducted at the 2BS Forum in Budva, where Carpenter was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: Do you expect any changes in the US policy towards the Balkans after the change of the administration and after the new personnel is in place in Washington?

Michael Carpenter: This remains to be seen, and I cannot predict what exactly will happen. My sense is, based on the policies which were articulated during the campaign, which were more isolationist in nature, that it does not bode well for the region: withdrawing America from the global stage, focusing more on issues at home, but also, and most importantly, undervaluing the importance of international norms and institutions, and what is called the “international order”. I think those tenets are a central part of Trump’s foreign policy ideology, to the extent that there is an ideology.

Currently, and over the last couple of months, we have not seen Washington paying any attention to this region. You do have some national security professionals whom Trump has brought on board like Secretary of Defense Mattis or National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, who fully appreciate the importance of international institutions. Whether they are able to focus more attention on this region remains to be seen. I am pretty pessimistic on the whole, given how the administration has lurched from one crisis to another and because of the fact that it has not had a focus on strengthening our allies and partners.

EWB: For several times in the last couple of months, we had the US officials coming to the region John McCain having the tour around the region, recently it was Hoyt Yee who was doing a similar around trip which was especially important to Macedonia. There was an impression that these actors are very important players in stabilising the situation in several countries and also solving some problems in the region. Is this some kind of a signal that the region still remains important for the US or that maybe its importance is even increasing with the latest turbulences?

MC: There are a lot of people in Washington who understand the importance of the region, and who want the U.S. to play a bigger role, and who personally are invested in finding the solutions to the problems and challenges that you find here. Senator McCain is certainly one of them, you also have the people from the Democratic side of an aisle, like Senator Chris Murphy, who are very invested in this region and want to get personally involved. Then you have national security professionals like Hoyt Yee, who is extremely knowledgeable and who has played a very important role in this region since he has been at the State Department in this current capacity.

But Hoyt is a professional diplomat, and McCain is a member of a legislature. What we do not see at this point in time is the senior level attention – not just from members of the Cabinet like the Secretary of Defence or Secretary of State — but from the senior officials several layers down. Of course, a lot those positions are vacant right now, but you have not seen much attention on the Western Balkans from senior officials. Ultimately, that is what is important for sustaining progress. If you consider an issue like the name issue in Macedonia, then with all due respect to Hoyt and his colleagues in the State Department, whose work I highly admire, for this to be resolved it will have to be accomplished at the Secretary of State level.

You need to have that high-level focus, and I do not think that right now is a particularly auspicious moment for resolving the name issue, but when that moment comes, it will have to be resolved on a senior level. I think the region is terrifically important to the United States, now more than ever, and there are people who care, but I remain pessimistic that this administration has what it takes to focus energy, attention, and resources here in the Western Balkans.

EWB: Russia is widely regarded as waging some kind of information war against the West, diminishing its soft power worldwide. There is an impression that the Western Balkans is very weak in the sense that this kind of influence can be very disruptive for Western soft power and Western presence in the region. What do you think the West the US, NATO and the EU – can do to counter this threat? What should be done?

MC: First, let me state at the outset that soft power” is perhaps not the right term, because some people interpret soft power to mean the attractive power of a particular ideology or set of beliefs. I do not think Russia has that at all. Just the opposite. I do not think that the Russian model of governance is attractive to other countries except for some corrupt kleptocrats. I also do not think that the set of Russian alliances – the CSTO, or the Eurasian Economic Union – are attractive to other societies as models of growth or stability. I do not think that Russia has attractive power, but what I do think it has is destructive power in a “soft” sense. That is a slightly different variation of meaning of the term “soft power.” This is probably what you meant.

In that sense, Russia is very effective in using disinformation, even information warfare, to achieve its aims. I think we should learn from those societies that have been subject to the most Russian disinformation, namely the Baltic States. Russia has been sowing propaganda in the Baltic States since their independence. Their populations have become inoculated to this propaganda. Also, their mainstream media are very quick and agile in being able to debunk or discredit fake stories whenever they pop up, either from the Russian language media or other media where Russia has influence. As a result, propaganda is not as effective there, and sometimes it is even counterproductive, because the population immediately sees that it is Russian propaganda.

Having that type of inoculation occur here in the Western Balkans or in the U.S.is necessary. You can have institutions that support that, media watchdogs for example.  When they see fake stories they immediately share it with mainstream media and they call out those media organisations that recite fake stories and do not bother to fact check. That is also part of the issue here, that media need to take responsibility and those outlets that either are paid to take stories that are false, or recycle stories without doing a proper analysis and fact check, they should be, in a sense – punished.  I do not mean punished by the government but by their peers, who should then label that as false news. If you have such ombudsman-like organisations, I think that could play an important role.

EWB: Perhaps I can notice that there is a difference between the Baltics and the Balkans, mainly in the sense that in the Balkans this Russian propaganda finds a more fertile ground. The population is quite susceptible to getting the messages from Moscow, much more than getting messages from Washington or some other western European country. Are you trying to say that the support to media is fundamental?

MC: Yes, support in the sense of media training, in terms of setting up ombudsman institutions, in terms of having some sort of clearing house of information about false news and propaganda. It is those sorts of institutions that are most effective, especially when they are not organised by governments, but when they are organised by either NGOs or by the media themselves. I think that is the most effective way to address this question.

I would disagree with you on the Baltics/Balkans comparison. The Baltic States have large Russian-speaking populations. In fact, even the non-ethnic Russian populations speak and understand the Russian language. So, Russian propaganda potentially has a very large audience and it does have some influence, but the populations have been inoculated, even the Russian ethnic populations in these countries. I think with time that can be built up here in the Balkans. Yes, there is vulnerability, but with proper education and media awareness, I think you can have an effective strategy for pushing back on disinformation.

EWB: What do you believe to be the main Russian interest in the Balkans? Is it strengthening of its own political and military presence and expanding its sphere of influence? Or is it more disruptive in the sense of disrupting the dominance of the West in the Balkans and preventing the Western Balkans from joining the EU and thus creating problems for the West?

MC: I think it is primarily the latter – a disruptive influence that is making this region more difficult for EU and NATO to deal with and therefore weakening both of those institutions, which is a primary goal for Russian foreign policy.

There is some degree of cultivating influence in Republika Srpska and Serbia, and some other countries in which Russia has strong cultural bonds. If you look at the humanitarian centre in Niš, it is an example of a place where Russia would clearly like to expand its footprint in the region. But, by and large, I think the Russian role in the Balkans is not primarily military in nature. I think it is mostly focused on disrupting European and Transatlantic influence.

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EWB: How do you see the Turkish role in the Western Balkans? The relations between the EU and Turkey have seriously deteriorated lately, and also Turkey is regarded as being an external actor in the Balkans which has its own interests. But at the same time, Turkey is a part of NATO and is considered to be an important ally to the US. How do you see the role of Turkey in the region as complementary with the role of the Western powers or it is more of an independent actor?   

MC:  The role of Turkey in the region will very much depend on how Turkey evolves as a nation state. Modern Turkey was built upon the foundation of Ataturk, as a secular Muslim nation that was a NATO ally and that was aligned with the West. Even if European integration was always far away, at least there was an aspiration towards European integration. That type of Turkey could potentially play a very positive role in the region.

More recently, however, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian, and moves towards a more radical direction, that is more in keeping with some of the governments in the Gulf region that have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. If that type of a scenario were to play out in Turkey – I am not saying that it is a foregone conclusion, because I do not think it is – but if that scenario played out then Turkey would play a much more negative role in this region. It depends on the future of Turkey, and Turkey is right now at the crossroads geostrategically. Do they choose to become essentially a Middle Eastern power, or do they continue to have one foot in the door of the Euro-Atlantic community? That is an open question.

Furthermore, the more recent rapprochement with Russia also leaves a lot of questions as to what is the future of Ankara’s foreign policy. Do they see their future in alignment with Russia through common business interests, which would be fine but has repercussions in terms of their geopolitics in Syria, or do they hedge against Moscow and continue to have close links with Washington and Brussels? Those are very important questions.  I do not think we know the answer to them just yet, but the answers to those questions will determine what kind of role Turkey plays.

EWB: How do you see the good relations between Russia and Turkey which could be seen recently? What kind of effect do you think it might have on the Western Balkans?

MC: I worry about the relationship between Turkey and Russia, and I say this as someone who would prefer if every country could have good relations with Russia. I do not wish upon any country, whether it is Serbia or Belarus or Armenia or Azerbaijan, to have poor relations with Russia. Because, fundamentally, it is also in the US interest for all those countries to have good relations with Russia, but the question is at what expense and based on what values?

If Turkey is going to be purchasing advanced air defence systems from Moscow, as a NATO ally, that leads to questions of why, what is the purpose of purchasing Russian-made equipment and supporting the Russian defence industrial complex at a time when Russia is acting aggressively against other nations? To me, it sends a poor signal.

The big question here is why Ankara would choose to align itself with Moscow when Moscow has formed a tactical alliance in Syria with the Alawite regime and with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. To my mind, that is a toxic alliance.  Every nation should want to stay as far away and as far apart as they possibly can. Why would Ankara decide to make common cause with Moscow, especially on the question on Syria’s future? That to me is a potentially very unsettling new direction pursued by Turkey’s foreign policy leadership.


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