Buoyed by the initial success, the US presence in the region has waned over time, relying mostly on the inevitability of the region’s ultimate trajectory towards Euro-Atlantic integration. However, due to the inherited problems and the failure of the weak institutions to cope with an array of issues, coupled with sweeping changes at the European and global scale, the renewed US presence in the region is called upon by many. Thus the enhanced US presence in the Western Balkans is staunchly advocated by the Atlantic Council, in the recently published report “Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region”.
Although the countries of the region have made significant progress, Slovenia and Croatia became members of the EU and NATO, Albania and Montenegro joined NATO and Serbia and Montenegro made significant progress in their EU accession talks, the authors warn that the final outcome should not be taken for granted.
According to the report, the Western Balkans is still seen as “the unfinished business of a Europe whole and free”.
“This full realization of this goal has been at the heart of the US strategy toward Europe, precisely because a whole, free Europe removes the continent as a conceivable future battleground and maximizes the likelihood that the United States will have the kind of capable, coherent partner required to address global challenges”, whereas “the instability in Europe’s Southeast could deprive the United States of a strategic partner on facing challenges further afield”.
Having been distracted by a manifold of crises abroad and thinking that “the Europeans have matters in hand”, the US has somewhat withdrawn from the region, thus leaving a strategic vacuum which other players, primarily Russia, capitalized on.
The report thus refers to several concrete steps the United States should take in order to help stabilize the Western Balkans.
The first one pertains to the establishment of a permanent US military presence in Southeastern Europe, which would “demonstrate an enduring US commitment to security in the region and anchor the United States’ long-term ability to influence developments.” Camp Bondsteel is deemed ideal for this purpose.
Secondly, the United States should pursue a “historic” rapprochement with Serbia, which needs a more forceful try by both sides. However, as the authors note, the rapprochement can only be substantial if Serbia begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia.
Thirdly, the United States also has to regain a reputation of an honest broker, because “a blind pursuit of stability at the cost of progress in democratic development virtually guarantees the persistence of the very pathologies that plague the region”. The preparedness of the US to deeply engage in the rapprochement between Athens and Skopje, as well as in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has been stated.
Lastly, the United States should draw its attention to the entrepreneurs and the youth in the region.
However, as the authors conclude, it should not be expected that once the United States recommits in the region, “the status quo ante can be restored as if nothing has happened”. What is needed is a new generation of forward-looking leaders for all this to work.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States