The Impact of “America First” On US-Kosovo Relations

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In President Trump’s “America First” world, Kosovo cannot only ask what the United States can do for Kosovo. It must also consider what Kosovo can do for the United States.

There is a lot to build on. Albanians are staunchly pro-American. In turn, Albanians have had no better friend than the United States.

US support for Kosovo, a country of two million people in the western Balkans, has always been bipartisan. With the collapse of Yugoslavia, Kosovar Albanians declared independence in 1992. Successive US administrations championed democracy and human rights in Kosovo, including the right to self-determination.

Serbia’s aggression resulted in the death of more than 10,000 Kosovar Albanians and the displacement of nearly a million. President Bill Clinton launched air strikes to drive out Serbian forces and prevent ethnic cleansing in 1999. President George W. Bush led Kosovo’s coordinated declaration of independence in 2008. Today, 113 countries recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty and statehood.

Yet, Kosovo is still not stable. Twenty percent of Kosovo, including Mitrovica and territory north of the Ibar River, is under Serbian control. Serbs have built a wall separating Mitrovica from the rest of Kosovo. Serbia threatens to annex Mitrovica, citing the “Crimea model.”

Kosovo always enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. After Trump’s election, however, a resurgent Russia (Serbia’s backer) and an intransigent United States puts the special relationship at-risk.

Vojislav Seselj, the leader of Serbia’s Radical Party, urged Serbian-Americans to vote for Trump. He called it a vote “for the future of Serbia.” Serbs celebrated the US election outcome, heartened by Trump’s pro-Russian stance. Days after the US election, billboards went up in Mitrovica with Trump’s picture proclaiming: “Serbs stood by him all along.”

Kosovo is a tinderbox. A Russian donated passenger train traveling from Belgrade to Mitrovica was stopped by Kosovo authorities at the Serbia-Kosovo border on January 18. The train was decorated with Serbian Orthodox icons from monasteries in Kosovo. “Kosovo is Serbia” was written on the train in 21 languages. When Kosovars protested, Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic threatened to send the Serbian army to defend the Serbian minority in Kosovo.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis offered assurances to Kosovo during his confirmation hearing: “[Kosovo is] an example of what happens when the international community, led by America, commits itself to the defense of its interests and values.” He endorsed a constitutional change with parliamentary support allowing Kosovo to establish an army. Kosovo currently only has a National Guard.

According to General Mattis, the US remains committed to Kosovo’s security. About 4,600 NATO troops from thirty countries are deployed to Kosovo as a trip wire against renewed Serbian aggression. About 650 US troops are based at Camp Bondsteel in Eastern Kosovo.

While the testimony of General Mattis was welcome, Trump’s patience is not without limit.

Kosovo’s political elite are notorious for corruption. Some Kosovar officials remain in office simply as a shield from prosecution.

Kosovo’s economy is a basket case. Unemployment is 45 percent; youth unemployment is much higher. With limited economic opportunity, Kosovo youth are susceptible to radicalization.

The rise of Islamic extremism is especially worrisome. Though 90 percent of Kosovo is Muslim, Kosovars were known for their nationalism not religiosity. The US Institute of Peace (USIP) has documented shocking levels of religious militancy. Hundreds of Kosovars joined the Islamic State. According to USIP, “Kosovo has become a prime source of foreign fighters in the Iraqi and Syrian conflict theaters relative to population size.”

Like it or not, “America First” is the current credo now defining US-Kosovo relations.

Kosovo can demonstrate its value as a partner by highlighting efforts to prevent violent extremism (PVE) and to combat terrorism. As a bastion of religious tolerance and moderation, Kosovo can be a positive model for countries in Southeastern Europe.

In November 2016, Kosovo’s counter-terrorism police arrested 19 people allegedly preparing to attack a soccer match between Israel and Albania. In addition, the cell was plotting other attacks in Albania, Kosovo, and across the Balkans. The Kosovo Intelligence Agency should declare and deepen its cooperation with US officials in the field of counter-terrorism.

Kosovo’s justice ministry is taking a hardline on Kosovars returning from the Islamic State, instituting a mandatory sentence of six months and up to 15 years for ex-combatants. Beyond law enforcement, Kosovo has also developed a soft power response, emphasizing education, economic development, and moderate messaging by imams.

More can be done. Kosovo politicians are in denial about the ongoing problem of radicalization. Honesty and political will could establish Kosovo as a leader in prevention, enforcement, and re-integration.

Kosovo’s National Guard can be an asset to NATO-led peacekeeping and stability operations. As the National Guard moves towards becoming a bona-fide army, the Kosovo government should offer to partner its security forces with NATO. Inviting capacity building would accelerate Kosovo’s integration into NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures.

In addition, Kosovo has extensive experience with detection and removal of anti-personnel land mines and improvised explosive devices. Kosovo demining experts could be the core of special units, working with UN Demining Action Centers around the world.

Kosovo was a project of the international community for decades. To remain relevant, Kosovo must demonstrate its value to the Trump administration. Greater security cooperation would serve Trump’s “America First” agenda. It would also advance Kosovo’s interests.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Export to the State Department during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. He has written many books including “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.”

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