What Biden should do about the Balkans

Biden’s re-engagement with Europe can start with an easy diplomatic win in the Balkans that would secure the region.

Senator Joe Biden stands in front of a Danish armored personnel carrier at the UN-controlled Sarajevo Airport on April 9, 1993, making a statement about his trip to the besieged Bosnian capital. [File: AP/Michael Stravato]

As United States President Joe Biden passed his first 100 days in office, it appeared that his administration was putting foreign policy lower on its agenda of priorities to focus on domestic issues. But perhaps the expected receding of the pandemic in the coming months due to the success of his vaccination drive could provide space 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 US’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, one region where he can strike an easy foreign policy win is the Balkans. Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, this part of Europe is where American military intervention in the 1990s is considered a success.

Three decades ago, the Balkans captured then Senator Biden’s attention. He was firmly critical of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s wars of conquest and actively supported US military action in both Bosnia and Kosovo. For this reason, Biden’s election last November was widely celebrated in both countries and brought high expectations for renewed positive US involvement in the region.

While other states of former Yugoslavia have moved forward with European Union and NATO integration, Bosnia and Kosovo are lagging behind. Croatia is a member of both. North Macedonia recently joined NATO while accession talks with the EU are expected to begin soon. Montenegro also has become a NATO member and it is currently in accession talks with the EU. Serbia is adamant that it would stay out of NATO, but it is moving forward with membership negotiations with the EU.

This dynamic effectively leaves Bosnia with no 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 a concern that Bosnia could descend into a dysfunctional state marred by ethnic tensions and that Kosovo’s development will stagnate without a clear roadmap to EU and NATO membership.

Much of this has to do with the fact that for over a decade the region has been largely neglected by successive US administrations. Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump pursued an incoherent foreign policy that produced no tangible result. A summit in the White House last September with Serbian and Kosovar leaders failed to tackle the most pressing issue for the two countries: the recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Biden can correct the consequences of the neglect and inadequate policies of his predecessors by taking decisive action on Kosovo and Bosnia, where the US largely enjoys positive perception.

There are two policy avenues that he should pursue. First, Biden can push for finalising the process of NATO enlargement in southeast Europe. Kosovo is eager to join the Alliance while Bosnia has made some progress, despite domestic political roadblocks. The majority in one of its entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is in favour of joining NATO, while most political leaders of the other entity – Republika Srpska – are actively opposed.

But that was not always the case. Just over a decade ago, then 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 American diplomatic drawdown – have taken an officially more anti-NATO and pro-Russian stance. Despite the public opposition to Bosnia’s NATO membership, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik green-lighted the country’s increasing cooperation with the Alliance, including participation in the US-led Defender Europe 2021 exercise.

In fact, Bosnia’s decision to commit to NATO membership is part official policy with the support of Bosnian Serb leaders. The country’s recent Foreign Policy Strategy for 2018-2023 reaffirmed that “a continuation of policies related to NATO remains a priority for institutions of Bosnia.”

The Biden administration should push for fast-tracking 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. The American political, military and economic investment in Bosnia and Kosovo over the past two decades would be secured.

Amid the dysfunctional response of Bosnian institutions to the pandemic, firmly entrenched ethnic leaders have turned to warmongering which serves to draw public attention away from rampant corruption and gross incompetence and which dangerously incites violence. The hope that existed over a decade ago that EU and NATO membership could ameliorate some of the tensions built up in the Dayton Peace Accords has given way to a general sense of hopelessness. Fast-tracking Bosnia’s NATO accession now could prevent the country from becoming another European frozen conflict.

Making progress on Kosovo’s NATO bid would likely jump-start reform and development in Europe’s newest state, which has long struggled with socioeconomic stagnation. It would also alleviate fears that conflict with Serbia can be rekindled and that tensions in the ethnically mixed regions of the north can escalate. By pushing for Kosovo’s NATO integration, the Biden administration would be sending a clear signal to Belgrade that Kosovo will move forward irrespective of the pace of full normalisation. It could also help pressure Serbia to fully recognise its neighbour and normalise relations.

Second, the US should push the EU to provide a clear membership prospect for Bosnia and Kosovo. Bosnia is further ahead in the process of joining the EU and awarding it a candidate status for membership would be crucial to get the country out of its current dysfunction. This would provide Bosnia with valuable momentum to undertake political and economic reforms that Bosnian politicians would not do and, more importantly, it would gain access to more EU funds to invest in much-needed educational, health and infrastructural projects.

Progress on EU accession is also very important for Kosovo. Serbia is far ahead of its neighbour in the negotiations process and if it joins soon, it could block Kosovo’s membership bid. The American push to step up EU incentives for Kosovo in the form of a candidate status would help even out the current situation and guarantee its membership. A candidate status for Kosovo would similarly provide both EU funds for reforms and infrastructure but also serve to pressure politicians to undertake more serious steps in fighting corruption and economic underdevelopment.

In sum, the Biden administration is in a unique position to anchor the Balkans firmly within the Atlantic Alliance and secure peace in this volatile part of Europe. Both states have small populations and their integration within NATO would be cost-effective. Biden also can help speed up their integration into the EU which would help with the political and economic development of these countries.

The opportunity for a policy push in this direction will present itself on June 14 at the NATO Summit in Brussels. Such a foreign policy success for the 46th US president is within easy reach, achievable in his first term in office, and would constitute a lasting legacy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.