The United States should cease abdicating leadership in the region to the EU and the Trump administration should take a more proactive and strategic role in the region.
In recent years, the United States has ceded leadership roles to the United Kingdom, Germany, and other EU countries. However, these countries have failed to achieve results and people are noticing. People in the region welcome U.S. leadership.
For diplomats and others, this means working with a broad range of political parties to foster the next generation of regional leaders by providing civics, economics, and communications training through programs like the International Visitor Leadership Program at the State Department. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the State Department and USAID should support consensus-building among political parties, particularly as a means of fostering a democracy based on issues rather than identities. In addition, the U.S. government should support or scale-up existing programs that draw on best practices from other countries with complex cantonal structures, such as Switzerland, to help improve local governance while increasing dispute resolution, coordination, and cooperation between the local and the federal levels. In addition, the United States should also increase the number of intelligence personnel working on counterterrorism in the region, particularly in BiH. According to a regional security expert, current numbers are a fraction of what they were in the 1990s.
In Serbia, the United States should seek ways to strengthen Voice of America or provide an attractive soft-power alternative to compete with Russia’s dominant position in Serbia’s media.
Across all countries, the United States should develop programs that help to reduce the size of governments throughout the region in order to foster efficiency and increase the attractiveness of working in the private sector and speak out quickly and definitively when rule of law, human and minority rights, or press freedom is threatened.
As noted above and in recommendations for business leaders, the IT sector presents a potentially stabilizing opportunity for the region. Washington can encourage the growth of this sector through USAID in BiH and Kosovo and through the U.S. embassies and chambers of commerce in Croatia and Serbia as a means of unlocking an alternative source of economic and political power while simultaneously encouraging programs that focus on IT security. Furthermore, embassy officials should consider using State Department and USAID programs to press on countries to create the business conditions that will help grow the private sector. Focusing on labor law, tax policy, and ease of doing business would help eliminate some barriers to entrepreneurship.
The United States should work with the countries in the region as well as with other countries with stakes in the region—including EU countries, Russia, and Turkey—on areas of mutual interest, such as security and creating conditions for economic development.
Although the United States should take a leadership role, Washington needs to work with its allies and even adversaries—as well as with the countries in the region—to tackle areas of common interest. Foremost is ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to counter-terrorism efforts and arms trafficking. While the United States and its European allies are devoting resources to the region they are not, as one security expert mentioned, of the caliber necessary to tackle the potential of the problem.
In addition, Kosovo’s lack of recognition by the UN presents barriers to participation in the international system. There are security implications for the United States as well, as Kosovo cannot participate in Interpol without being recognized by the global institution, leaving a broken link in a global security chain. Kosovo must also rely on Slovenia and Monaco for its country code, which hinders the country’s ability to fully participate in global trade and commerce without confusion.
Economic development could counter the possible draw of extremism in some of these countries. Continuing to use U.S. government programs to promote IT development—perhaps with a security focus—will help. Developing programs that promote rule of law is another. Corruption remains a challenge for each of the countries in the region. The United States should remind its partners that engaging in bribery and corrupt practices only perpetuates this system.
The United States should develop a contingency plan for renewed conflict in the region or the breakup of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Similar contingency plans should be made for a radical restructuring or dissolution of the EU.
As unpleasant and unwelcome as the task may be, it is important that the State Department have a contingency plan for the breakup of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including how it will react if the Republika Srpska declares independence, if the Croats move toward greater autonomy or independent institutions, if Bosniaks seek to alter the political structure due to their majority status, or if fighting again breaks out.
Similarly, if EU membership becomes a waning beacon or vanishes altogether in the event of further EU fracturing, the United States should be ready to propose alternative alliances as a means of countering the pull of Russia, China, and others. NATO becomes an increasingly potent unifying force in the case of an EU breakdown. Although EU membership is decades off for three of these countries, if viable at all, NATO is a much more attainable union that has taken on more political significance over the years. If European countries take a more proactive and financially responsible role in NATO, in response to the Trump administration’s demands that NATO member countries increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, then Washington should encourage them to include the countries of Southeast Europe as a placeholder for EU membership. Although NATO expansion following the collapse of the Soviet Union was criticized by some as a provocative action toward Russia, having a unified, strong, and expanded NATO is important given the aggressive actions by Russia in recent years