The West’s Rube Goldberg Schemes in the Balkans Come Apart

The West’s Rube Goldberg Schemes in the Balkans Come Apart

The Balkan nation-building fiasco is no longer Washington's problem. It's time to let go of American national narcissism and let the EU handle the newest Bonsia-Herzegovina-Serbia-Kosovo mess.


Tensions and violence are again on the rise in the Balkans. The latest incident, which Morton Abramowitz and James Hooper document in depressing detail, was a dust-up between government forces and angry Serbs in northern Kosovo. That episode follows on the heels of renewed efforts by Bosnian Serbs to prepare the ground for a new secessionist bid amid the continuing political disarray in the faux country of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The admission that instability and violence have returned to the region must be an especially bitter pill for Abramowitz to swallow, since he was one of the more vocal proponents of the U.S-NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. But only the most optimistic (or the most obtuse) analysts can deny the mounting evidence that the West’s grand nation-building plans in the Balkans have failed. The twin notions that such Rube Goldberg political entities as Bosnia and Kosovo would prove stable and economically viable and that ethnic hatreds would subside when the European Union dangled the carrot of eventual EU membership were always naïve.


The EU, facing its own daunting economic woes, now has a fundamental choice. It can persist with the policies initially adopted in the 1990s and resign itself to indefinite peacekeeping and economic life-support missions in the two dysfunctional entities it created, or it can adopt a radically different course and cut its losses. The latter approach would involve promoting (and possibly imposing) a comprehensive settlement based on significant territorial adjustments and mutual diplomatic concessions. The broad outlines of such a settlement would mean allowing the Bosnian Serbs to secede and perhaps merge their Republika Srpska with Serbia, and allowing Belgrade to reestablish sovereignty over the predominantly Serb portion of Kosovo north of the Ibar River. In return, Serbia would need to recognize the independence of a downsized Kosovo.

Such an initiative would require EU policy makers to overcome their allergy to partitioning Bosnia and Kosovo. Partitions are never perfect solutions, but they are sometimes better than the alternatives. And given the ongoing fiascos in Bosnia and Kosovo, partition would almost certainly be better than the status quo in those cases.

For the United States, the policy choice should be easier. Abramowitz and Hooper exemplify a national narcissism that is all too common in the American foreign-policy community. They casually assume the need for a U.S. leadership role without making the case why that should be necessary. As I’ve written elsewhere, Washington needs to do a much better job setting foreign-policy priorities. It should focus on dealing with developments that have the clear potential to threaten America’s security or pose a major threat to the stability of the international system.

Parochial quarrels in the Balkans do not come even within hailing distance of reaching the proper threshold for U.S. action. The Obama administration should inform its European allies that the ongoing mess in the Balkans is the EU’s problem to handle. If necessary, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon should block phone calls and emails coming from EU capitals. That way, policy makers wouldn’t have to listen to pleas from whining European officials seeking to entangle the United States once more in that chronically quarrelsome region.