Of the slightly over 21 minutes of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, less than a minute was devoted to foreign policy – and that minute was dedicated to generalities about working with allies and for the U.S. to lead by example.
Judging by pre-Donald Trump standards, this marginal reference to America’s global role may have provided underwhelming reassurance to millions across the globe. But by today’s standards, Biden’s address at least inaugurated the beginning of a return to a normal taken for granted until just four years ago.
In a strange twist of fate, Biden, who boasts strong foreign policy credentials over decades of work in the Senate and the White House, will need to focus firmly on a host of pressing domestic issues, from coronavirus to the rise of the far right. But many regions will still be scrambling for the new president’s attention, among which Europe stands out.
To quote the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, America is a European power. In fact, it has been since 1945. But Biden now faces a Europe far more complex and divided than Vice-President Biden or Senator Biden had to deal with.
It’s a post-Brexit Europe where Russia is resurgent, China has been making significant inroads, an escalating unleashing of nationalism and with several European states taking a decidedly illiberal turn. America’s return to the Old Continent is essential for maintaining its global role, but also for European stability.
Perhaps nowhere else has the recent lack of U.S. leadership in Europe been felt more than in one corner of the continent: the Balkans. Biden’s victory was a cause for celebration in much of the region, and hopes are running high.
Biden’s advocacy for Bosnia and Kosovo during the war years of the 1990s is still fondly remembered. When the Clinton administration dithered on Bosnia, the senator who’d overcome a speech impediment emerged as one of the most eloquent supporters of the newly independent country. He had spoken up forcefully against Serbian strongman Slobodan Miloševic’s wars of conquest and called for U.S. airstrikes to pre-empt further atrocities.
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For Bosniaks and Albanians, the beleaguered minorities of the Balkans, Biden has come to symbolize all the good that America stands for.
Those hopes may be hopelessly inflated, and there are certainly many other foreign policy priorities, but America is uniquely positioned to move things forward.
There are two strategic imperatives for U.S. policy in the Balkans, both of whom aimed at grounding Balkan states in multilateral frameworks: To finalize the process of NATO enlargement to include the rest of the Balkans – Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo – and to push the EU on enlargement.
NATO enlargement has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. But the achievement of Democratic control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives means there is a rare opportunity to push through this agenda before the midterms. NATO enlargement would secure a return on America’s three-decade strategic investment in the region and would extend the zone of security in this corner of Europe.
No NATO member states have ever fought a war against each another. If that trend continues to hold, and more states are brought under the NATO security umbrella, that could mean a once-in-a-generation chance to ensure a more stable Balkan region.
To trigger the momentum towards these core objectives, there are several low-cost but effective foreign policy measures the Biden administration can undertake, simultaneously.
The U.S. is uniquely positioned to fast-track Bosnia’s NATO accession. Until a decade ago, there was general optimism about joining the trans-Atlantic alliance. But opposition to NATO has been steadily building in the constituent political entity of Republika Srpska, and will continue, via obstructionist politics and Russia’s encouragement.
Fast-tracking Bosnia’s NATO accession now would prevent the country from turning into Europe’s next "frozen conflict," stuck in limbo between war and peace with no multilateral institutional anchors. Anchoring Bosnia firmly in NATO would also safeguard the considerable American investment in rebuilding and stabilizing the war-torn country since 1996.
The new administration should also accelerate the process of moving Kosovo towards NATO membership. Joining NATO would ensure that the American investment in Kosovo since 1999 is secured, and would offset Pristina’s sense of being left behind in the EU accession process.
Serbia has been moving forward on its EU path but Kosovo is still not recognized by several EU member states, whether out of fear of encouraging separatism at home or for reasons of cultural and historical solidarity with Serbia.
This effectively means that, as things currently stand, Serbia is set to join the EU before Kosovo and will then be poised to veto or slow down Kosovo’s EU accession bid. In fact, Balkan countries that joined the EU over the past 20 years have routinely used their membership in the club to extract unrelated concessions from their next-door neighbors: Slovenia blocked Croatia, Croatia blocked Serbia, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia. This tradition of punitive grandstanding is always framed as simply ensuring adherence to "European standards."
Despite acceding to NATO in 2017 pursuing both reforms and its candidacy for EU membership, the new administration of neighboring Montenegro, has raised concerns about its commitment to NATO, thanks to the participation of nationalists and anti-Western, anti-NATO factions in government. The Biden administration needs to follow closely Montenegro’s commitment to its pro-Western course – and whether it wavers.
A new member of NATO, North Macedonia even went so far to change its own name to join the club. But now Bulgaria is vetoing North Macedonia starting accession talks with the EU – over disputes over historical and linguistic heritage – and that is exceptionally unfair. Blocking North Macedonia on its path to the EU slows down the momentum generated so far. Biden could press Bulgaria to lift the veto.
American influence in the region has produced results even when low-cost leverage has been applied. Asset freezes and travel bans on corrupt politicians and their hand-picked bureaucrats blocking reforms geared towards EU and NATO are particularly effective.
In tandem with the EU, the imposition of such targeted sanctions on several dozen individuals should be a part of the Biden foreign policy toolbox. Even the mere threat of it can have an impact.
During the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, and in the shadow of genocide, Biden was a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His advocacy and passion for the Balkans placed him on the right side of history and continues to reverberate today.
A fitting legacy for President Biden would be, by finalizing NATO enlargement, the anchoring of the Balkans firmly in the Atlantic alliance, strengthening their economies and democratic and multilateral values in a perilous time for even far wealthier, larger and well-established European states. Ensuring that outcome, though, requires consistency and commitment – and starting the process as soon as possible.
Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo. Twitter: @KarcicHamza