U.S. Policy in the Balkans: Priorities for a New Administration

Balkans Forum, September 18, 2000, Washington, D.C.

September 18, 2000

For the last ten years the succession of crises in the Balkans has challenged the international community to devise a long-term policy aimed at resolving and preventing conflict in the region. At the inaugural meeting of the Council's Balkans Forum, keynote speaker Warren Zimmermann exhorted the United States and its European allies to meet that challenge over the coming decade. Zimmerman was the last American ambassador to Yugoslavia (1989-1992). His 1997 book, Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers, is a candid account of the failure of American and European diplomacy to prevent a catastrophe that, in his view, was not only foreseeable but entirely preventable.

Lest history be tempted to repeat itself in the Balkans, Zimmermann called on the next U.S. administration to formulate a policy that addresses:

  1. U.S. interests in the Balkans
    The Balkans are geographically close to important U.S. allies, such as Italy, Hungary, Greece, and Turkey. Even more importantly, the United States has a stake in upholding human rights and humanitarian interests the region, having participated in the NATO intervention of Kosovo. It must see that commitment through.

  2. The danger of ethnic partition
    With the exception of Slovenia, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union produced smaller multi-ethnic states. Ethnically homogenous states are rare in the world, and the arguments for the division of states into ethnically homogenous entities tend to rest on racist beliefs, putting one race above the rest and creating an apartheid. Ethnic partitioning can lead to grievances that can later ignite into war. Innocent people are victimized, like those in mixed marriages. It also sets dangerous precedents for the rest of the world, most of which is ethnically heterogeneous. Countries or groups proposing ethnic partition should be required to demonstrate:

    • a history of persecution;

    • a credible commitment to a democratic state;

    • the will of the majority;

    • the ability of the new states to be economically viable; and

    • the effect -- stabilizing, destabilizing, or neutral -- that the partition will have on the region.

  3. The use of force
    The Powell Doctrine, an approach the U.S. military strategy that supports the use of force only in the last resort, was useless in the Balkans. Without the use of force, there would not be Albanians left in Kosovo today. President Milosevic and his kind only understand force. We need to rethink force as a last resort. Credible threats or military actions might have brought Milosevic to the negotiating table earlier.

  4. The role of Europe, NATO, and the United Nations
    Europe should play a bigger role in the Balkans, and the United States should eventually reduce its presence. That said, the United States must keep troops in the region to maintain credibility and to support the NATO alliance. The Clinton administration and the current U.S. Congress can be faulted for failing to take the United Nations seriously, particularly when expressing the U.S. desire to play a reduced role in the world. The United States should pay its debts to the UN and support the efforts of the organization to reform itself, especially with respect to upgrading its peacekeeping capabilities.

  5. Commitment vs. exit strategies
    Exit strategies do not make good policy; they erode credibility and weaken objectives. The United States must recognize that solutions to problems tend to be long term. If things are to get better, they will get better slowly. To build sound democratic institutions and to inculcate a respect for democracy amongst citizens could take several generations -- not years or even decades. The recent Northern Ireland agreement deserves praise for recognizing the validity of positions on both sides of the conflict, for setting up institutions, and for including objectives that can only be achieved over time. Like Northern Ireland, the Balkans requires stamina on the part of the international community. The United States should stay in the Balkans until all of the Balkan communities feel they have a legitimate stake in democracy and the creation of a tolerant society.

Following Zimmermann's presentation, forum participants discussed:

  • Montenegro
    Montenegro's bid for independence will be a real problem for NATO and the United States. The Yugoslav army is stationed all over Montenegro, and NATO has expressed doubts about its willingness to intervene in the mountainous region.

  • Kosovo and autonomy
    There is growing support for an autonomous Kosovo -- as long as it stays within Yugoslavia. Should President Milosevic be re-elected in the coming elections, he will feel mounting pressure to grant Kosovo independence.

  • Elections
    No matter who is elected in the upcoming presidential elections in Serbia, there will be great pressure on the next president to take a liberal view toward the issue of autonomy for Kosovo. If Milosevic loses, the economic embargo should be lifted.

  • NATO expansion
    The United States has sent mixed signals to countries interested in becoming NATO members. The more NATO expands, the more chance it has of provoking Russia. Also, the Baltic republics seem to be qualify for membership -- a particularly thorny issue that will need to be dealt with sooner or later. Zimmerman said he objects to NATO enlargements insofar as it creates a line between those who are in and those who are out; also, a security alliance cannot be built of mini-states. NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative was a brilliant idea, said another participant, but is now seen as the only path to NATO membership.

  • Slobodan Milosevic
    President Milosevic is not the sole cause -- or the solution -- to the problems in the Balkans, said one participant, while another contended that Milosevic is evil. Offering a "golden parachute" to the Yugoslav president as an enticement to leave office is not an option, added someone else, as he has been indicted on charges of war crimes.

  • Apprehending war criminals
    Apprehending President Milosevic by force is too risky, but Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic should be arrested. That said, the arrests of the latter two men would put NATO troops in considerable danger. Zimmermann reminded the audience that there is an executive order regarding the illegality of killing heads of state. He concluded by quoting St. Augustine: "Faith must be kept, even with the enemy."


The Balkans Forum was a series of monthly dialogues co-sponsored by Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, Search for Common Ground, and the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. This brief was prepared by staff at the Council's former Conflict and Prevention Program and at the Search for Common Ground. The opinions expressed at the forum do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsoring organizations.
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