Americans still have questions about their future, even a month after the elections. But for Europeans in general, and the Western Balkans in particular, a few things are clear. The style of American foreign policy will change, and it will align itself more with the efforts and preferences of the EU (especially Germany) when it comes to questions of peace in the Balkans. This will likely be the case for all European Union accession for aspirants, and overall economic development schemes. After a period of creative diplomacy (but often unsubstantial) on the part of the Trump administration, Joe Biden’s team will most likely be careful, steady, and predictable. Above all, Balkan issues will be linked to other important transatlantic questions. With this as a backdrop, it will be wise for Balkans leaders to see their issues in broader contexts rather than from the typical Balkans’ stand-alone perspective.
There is common acknowledgement that the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region has witnessed a general “enlargement fatigue” in European Union countries and institutions, accompanied with a decreased appetite for reforms and a significant lack of overall progress in the region. Disputes remain an open wound in a region entrenched with political and ethnic divisions, stoking fears that the ethnic, institutional and political crises could devolve into new ethnic and geopolitical confrontations. Add to these issues is the terrible toll to the economies and the disastrous impact the coronavirus pandemic has levied on the fabric of civil society in a region already critically disadvantaged compared to the EU countries.
While the EU, through its political and economic instruments, has focused on keeping the allure of EU accession alive in a region where nefarious actors are quickly gaining influence, the coming years will be a litmus test for the Western Balkans and the transatlantic community. While the full accession to the EU will take many years, the political West needs a visionary interim strategy to improve democratic developments, extend economic opportunities, and foster reconciliation in the Western Balkans. But, this is a two-way street, and the Western Balkan leaders need to be smart in seeking and capturing new opportunities.
On the economic development front, we should expect (and indeed hope for) increased U.S. attention to bilateral efforts like the Development Finance Corporation, or for support on broader European plans such as the German-led Berlin Process or the new nine billion Euros European Investment Plan and Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. However, it’s unlikely these projects will move ahead for their own sake. Rather, they’ll be seen in a broader context of the realignment of American and European priorities, such as transatlantic trade arrangements, fallout from Brexit, adjustment to key sectors of the global economy after the hoped-for recovery from the coronavirus crash, and perhaps most important, the enormous importance of alignment of U.S. and EU policies toward China. Key developments to watch are what will happen in 2021 and beyond to global supply chains, especially for strategically critical items such as public health equipment. It’s reasonable to expect that Europe and America will try to craft a common economic policy toward China that will cast a new eye on the impact of Chinese infrastructure investments, either directly related to their Belt and Road Initiative or the “17+1” initiative, to find ways to contain Chinese expansion in the region. In these, and in other areas critical to the future of Balkans countries, local leaders would be wise not so much to compete for resources or to try to play global giants off against each other, but rather, to find out where their economic priorities fit into the overall designs of a new Euro Atlantic vision. It may not place the Balkans at the head of the negotiation tables but in some ways it may mean that the Balkans become recognized as a derivative of larger issues that capture the interest of Washington or Paris or Berlin.
When it comes to security, one can expect that the Biden team will respond favorably to the oft-stated claim by European allies that security is more than traditional hard power. Not only in talks with the EU, but also inside NATO headquarters, it’s likely you’ll hear more talk about security issues ranging from cybersecurity and asymmetric warfare to the development of new generations of high-tech weaponry. It is also safe to expect much deliberation on the security dimensions of pandemics (given the assumption that coronavirus is not likely to be the last public health crisis we face), and perhaps most intriguingly, the impact of climate change on security. Migration is a key issue for all European governments, but migration patterns will doubtless be affected in years to come by desertification, access to water, and other climate consequences that will impact large regions in Africa and the Middle East. In this regard, the Balkan States are in the line of fire as the most likely human transit corridor for mass migration movements based on climate change. leaders in the Balkans would be wise to work closely with Euro Atlantic security experts to demonstrate that they can play a key part of the answer to everyone’s security concerns.
None of the broad range of transnational threats are new. The leaders of Balkans states have been wrestling with them for years. What’s important now, at this particular inflection point, is that the biggest and richest countries of the West are likely to work closely with one another to find solutions. Balkan states should try to be part of that discussion, rather than retreating to tired public laments about promises not kept or worse, focusing on squabbles internal to the region. Such topics as North Macedonian or Albanian accession to western institutions, or Kosovo’s relationship with Serbia, or the crises of governance in the unwieldy structure of Bosnia, should be recast in search of twenty-first-century solutions that are built on the foundation of EU values. Now is the time to open the aperture to give the picture some breadth and depth. When Ms. Von der Leyen announces that there are four key areas in which the EU seeks to work with America; and when Antony Blinken indicates that multilateralism will be a key tenet of American policy; Balkan leaders should make themselves part of that conversation.
Cameron Munter is a retired American diplomat who lives in New York and consults globally. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Serbia 2007–2009.
Valbona Zeneli is a professor of national security studies and chair of the strategic initiatives department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.