When U.S. President Joe Biden spent his first 100 days in office, it seemed like his administration was putting foreign policy on its agenda of priorities to focus on national issues. But perhaps the forecast pandemic recession in the coming months due to the success of his vaccine could provide room for the president to pay more attention to foreign policy as well.
While Biden seems to have focused on reaching a new deal with Iran and ending the U.S. “war forever” in Afghanistan, one region where achieving an easy foreign policy victory is the Balkans. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, this part of Europe is where US military intervention in the 1990s is considered a success.
Three decades ago, the Balkans caught the attention of Senator Biden. He strongly criticized the wars of conquest of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and actively supported U.S. military action in Bosnia and Kosovo. For this reason, last November’s Biden elections were widely held in both countries and generated high expectations of renewed positive US participation in the region.
While other former Yugoslav states have advanced with the integration of the European Union and NATO, Bosnia and Kosovo are lagging behind. Croatia is a member of both. Northern Macedonia has recently joined NATO, while accession talks with the EU are expected to begin soon. Montenegro has also become a member of NATO and is currently in accession talks with the EU. Serbia is firm that it would stay out of NATO, but is moving forward with accession negotiations with the EU.
This dynamic effectively leaves Bosnia without a clear path to the EU or NATO in the near future. Kosovo’s prospect of joining either is currently even more remote. Left in limbo, there is concern that Bosnia may descend into a dysfunctional state marked by ethnic tensions and that Kosovo’s development will stall without a clear roadmap for EU and NATO membership.
Much of this has to do with the fact that for more than a decade the region has been largely abandoned by successive US administrations. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, pursued an incoherent foreign policy that produced no tangible results. A summit at the White House last September with Serbian and Kosovar leaders failed to address the two country’s most pressing issue: recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
Biden can correct the consequences of the negligence and inappropriate policies of his predecessors by taking decisive action on Kosovo and Bosnia, where the US largely enjoys positive perception.
There are two political paths you should follow. First, Biden can push for the completion of the NATO enlargement process in southeastern Europe. Kosovo is eager to join the Alliance, while Bosnia has made some progress, despite internal political obstacles. Most of its entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are in favor of joining NATO, while most political leaders of the other entity, Republika Srpska, oppose it. actively.
But it was not always so. Just over a decade ago, then-Bosnian Serb member of the Bosnian presidency Nebojša Radmanović sent a letter to NATO expressing Bosnia’s commitment to becoming a full member of the Alliance. What has changed since 2009 is that Bosnian Serb leaders – in the void left by the US diplomatic withdrawal – have taken a more officially anti-NATO and pro-Russian stance. Despite public opposition to Bosnia’s NATO membership, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik gave the green light to the country’s growing cooperation with the Alliance, including participation in the Defender Europe 2021 exercise. led by the United States.
In fact, Bosnia’s decision to commit to NATO membership is part of official policy with the support of Bosnian Serb leaders. The country’s recent foreign policy strategy for the period 2018-2023 reaffirmed that “the continuation of NATO-related policies remains a priority for Bosnian institutions”.
The Biden administration should push for rapid monitoring of Bosnia and Kosovo’s accession to NATO. This would give both countries a sense of a brighter future and help anchor them firmly within the Atlantic Alliance. U.S. political, military, and economic investment in Bosnia and Kosovo over the past two decades would be guaranteed.
Amid the dysfunctional response of Bosnian institutions to the pandemic, entrenched ethnic leaders have resorted to belligerence that serves to divert public attention from rampant corruption and grave incompetence and dangerously incites violence. The hope that existed more than a decade ago that EU and NATO members could improve some of the tensions accumulated in the Dayton peace agreements has given way to a general feeling of hopelessness. Rapid monitoring of Bosnia’s accession to NATO could now prevent the country from turning into another frozen European conflict.
Advancing Kosovo’s NATO commitment would likely drive reform and development in the new state of Europe, which has long struggled with socio-economic stagnation. It would also alleviate fears that the conflict with Serbia could be resurrected and that tensions in ethnically mixed northern regions could escalate. By pushing for NATO integration in Kosovo, the Biden administration would send a clear signal to Belgrade that Kosovo will move forward regardless of the pace of full normalization. It could also help pressure Serbia to fully recognize its neighbor and normalize relations.
Second, the US should push the EU to provide a clear prospect of accession to Bosnia and Kosovo. Bosnia is later in the process of joining the EU and granting it the status of a candidate for accession would be crucial to get the country out of its current dysfunction. This would provide Bosnia with a major impetus to undertake political and economic reforms that Bosnian politicians would not do and, more importantly, have access to more EU funds to invest in much-needed education, health and infrastructure projects.
Progress on EU membership is also very important for Kosovo. Serbia is well ahead of its neighbor in the negotiation process and, if it joins soon, could block Kosovo’s candidacy. The US push to step up EU incentives for Kosovo in the form of candidate status would help equalize the current situation and ensure its membership. A candidate status in Kosovo would similarly provide EU funding for reforms and infrastructure, but would also serve to pressure politicians to take more serious measures in the fight against corruption and economic underdevelopment.
In short, the Biden administration is in a unique position to firmly anchor the Balkans within the Atlantic Alliance and ensure peace in this volatile part of Europe. Both states have small populations and their integration into NATO would be profitable. Biden can also help accelerate its integration into the EU, which would help the political and economic development of these countries.
The opportunity for political impetus in this direction will be presented on 14 June at the NATO Summit in Brussels. This foreign policy success for the 46th president of the United States is easily accessible, can be achieved in his first term, and would constitute a lasting legacy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.