U.S. Strategic Interests in the Balkans: Importance of Engagement and Leadership

On May 19, 2015, the Southeast Europe Coalition (SEEC), the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina (ACBiH), and the United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD) held a roundtable discussion on U.S. Strategic Interests in the Balkans: Importance of Engagement and Leadership.

The roundtable featured Sammie Smith (White House National Security Council Director for Balkans, Black Sea, and Caucasus), Robert Benjamin (National Democratic Institute’s Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe), Luke Coffey (The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Fellow), and Sally A. Painter (Blue Star Strategies, LCC’s Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer). UMD President Metodija A. Koloski and ACBiH Executive Director Ajla Delkic offered introductory remarks and moderated the discussion. Macedonian Ambassador Vasko Naumovski, Montenegrin Ambassador Srgjan Darmanovic, as well as representatives from the various Balkan Embassies and the UK and Netherlands Embassies participated.

The participants discussed the strategic interests of the U.S. in the Balkans and highlighted the importance of U.S. engagement and leadership, particularly when it comes to the Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The stark contrast between the progress made towards NATO and/or EU integration by several regional neighbors, as well as, the reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo, highlights both the stagnation and the prospects for Macedonia and Bosnia.

Sammie Smith of the White House gave an overview of the progress made in the Balkans during the Obama administration, and outlined the obstacles both within the Balkans (i.e. corruption, weak democratic institutions, and lack of rule of law) and from abroad, such as Russian and ISIS influence. Regarding Bosnia, the U.S. supports the EU initiative for Bosnia to implement reforms in the balance of power of its multiethnic state. Regarding Macedonia, the government needs to hold itself accountable for the wrongdoing released in the wiretapping scandal, strengthen its institutions, have the opposition party return to parliament, and charge those involved in the scandal according to the law in an open and transparent manner. The U.S., she stated, is committed to helping both Macedonia and Bosnia.

Luke Coffey spoke to the modest engagement the U.S. has had in the Balkans during the current administration, stating that the U.S. has not been as engaged as it could have been and that it is late to focus on the transatlantic relationship now. He noted that alternative paths have emerged and are being explored by the nations in the Balkans. Europe has been too preoccupied with internal issues to focus on the Balkans and does not have a clear plan on how to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. As a result, the Balkans fall near the bottom of the list for both the U.S. and EU. He stated the current political crisis in Macedonia is a result of the closed door to NATO despite fulfilling the requirements for membership, and calls on a renewed commitment to make all of Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Sally Painter provided a historic overview of NATO enlargement and gave a comparison between varying levels of U.S. engagement in the region over the past twenty years. The difference in years past (i.e. Clinton and Bush years) was that U.S. leadership was fundamental to progress in the region, and this leadership was committed to make NATO and EU membership a reality. Similarly, neighboring countries in Europe were more committed to helping others advance, rather than engaging in a competition of who is most advanced. She marks 2008 as a turning point. While President George W. Bush was committed to NATO enlargement, he became active too late. NATO’s failure to extend an invitation to Macedonia at the 2008 Summit, and MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine has had very apparent consequences. In her view, NATO should be inclusive of all European non-members as soon as possible, especially for countries, such as Macedonia, that want in and have had casualties in NATO missions.

Robert Benjamin explained the critical role the U.S. and EU can and should play to get the Balkans aboard. Unfortunately, several European members have been holding the Balkans back in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration. Going forward, the path to NATO and the EU needs to be clear because several small countries have made huge commitments to NATO, yet have been held out. NATO membership is critical for several of the Balkan countries, as no other viable alternative exists. The lack of engagement by the U.S. and EU has opened alternatives that were not available only a decade ago such as Russia and ISIS. He stated that the region is generally moving forward, but that there are good things happening that need to be cultivated so that the Balkans can be on par with the rest of Europe. Two areas that need to improve are the functioning of institutional democracy in the region and the inclusiveness of democracy so that politics do not fall solely on ethnic lines.