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Trumping the Balkans

While a number of commentators have noticed the parallels between Milošević and Trump (see here and here), little has been said on the impact a Trump presidency is likely to have for the Balkans. The only two places which have expressed their enthusiasm for Trumps victory are Sevnica and Serbia  or in the latter case of the latter mostly the nationalist fringe and tabloids. However, what Trump means for the Balkans, as for much of the world remains unknown.

Trumps foreign policy ideas have been sketchy, changing and based on a characteristic mixture of «gut instict», isolationism, and hyperbole. As a guide what policies the United States will puruse under his presidency this is little to go by. However, one of the recurring themes in his speeches, pre-dating the presidential campaign has been his rejection of the alliences the US has forged, including NATO. While most observers note that it is unlikely that the Trump presidency will abandon NATO, the alliance will greatly diminish in the coming years. This coincides with the relationship the Trump campaign has had with Russia which might furthermore weaken the alliance. We can assume that NATO expansion is over and that the allience wil be less influential. This will be more a worry for countries directely closer to Russia than most of the Balkans. Here, NATO the main question is presumably Montenegro, which has been accepted to NATO, but a number of NATO members, including the US have not yet ratified the accession. Will the US ratify Montenegro joining NATO, we dont know, but while a week ago, this was a near certainty, there is now a question mark.

The three most important consequences for the region stemming from the Trump presidency are

  1. The demonstration effect
  2. The end of the transatlantic alliance
  3. The importantce of access

First, the success of a populist, far right candidate is an encouragement eleswhere, including in the Western Balkans. The Irony of the past year has been that populist far right candidates and parties have been stronger in «established democracies» rather than in the semi-authoritarian systems of the Western Balkans. This is in part due to the past experience with such candidates in the region, as well as the fact that the incumbants skillfully combine reform rhetoric with populism and finally, the neverending crisis in the Western Balkans has made populations more resiliant or more willing to suffer than more privileged populations in North America or Western Europe. Yet, the signal that a far right candidate can win the US presidency should not be underestimated as a signal elsewhere.

Second, the institutions of the transatlantic allience, such as NATO might hold, the shared promotion of certain values and reforms will cease. It is hard to imagine that the new US administration will support EU efforts in the region the way the Obama administration has done. While this support could be criticised for being too little and too timid, we might look back at the Obama era as a period of strong and positive pressure from the US for reform in the Western Balkans. Instead, governments in the Balkans can now play a three way game, playing off the EU, the US and Russia. This will weaken the EU hand, which it iself is already much diminished. With the EU, as we have noted in the latest BiEPAG brief (link), in deep crisis over itself and enlargement, this must be bad news for reform in the Balkans.

Third, the Trump presidency threatens to be driven more than other presidencies by the erratic and highly narcicist personality of the president. Without a clear policy orientation and based on the whims of a president who is unlikely to care about long-term strategic goals, access matters supreme. Having the attention of the president will be crucial and withit, a much more a presonality driven policy will emerge. Thus, much of what the United States will pursue in the coming years in places which have no clear foreign policy priority (and few will), will be driven by access and power of persuasion of the president and maybe a few advisors. Thus expect foreign governments, including some from the Western Balkans taking great efforts to get the attention of Trump. Thus, the policy is likely to be more erratic and less predictable than it has been.

The direction of US foreign policy under Trump stands in sharp contrast with the country’s policy to date and one can expect a discrepancy between the larger erratic behavior at the top and the more steady hand in embassies around the world, including the Balkans. A more radical scenario would be the US abandoning key pillars of its policy for the last decades in the Balkans, such as the territorial integrity of Bosnia, the independence of Kosovo and the investigation of war crimes. While clearly nationalist politicians, in particular in Serbia, hold their hopes up high, such a scenario seems unlikely: First, the Trump presidency is unlikely to invest time and effort in such change which few Americans care for. With his isolationist instincts, Trump is likely to maintain the status quo where it costs little and change is likely to incur greater costs. Furthermore, with little foreign policy staff, much of the foreign policy, excluding high profile issues, is likely to be run by “realist” conservative republicans rather than by the far right circle close to Trump.

Yet, the promotion of human rights, reform and holding a helping hand to the EU are all going to be a thing of the past and, hopefully of the future, but not for another four years.


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