Balkan Strategic Studies

June 18, 2003

US Interests in the Balkans: Balancing Perceptions, Realities and Strategic Need

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. The inevitable reality is that the Cold War is finally over. Not just historically, but also in terms of the dismantling or re-shaping of Cold War political and military structures, and from the standpoints of the new realities of strategic relations, political-economic conditions and psycho-politically. That is not to say that there are no remnants of Cold War structures, nor Cold War mentalities, still influencing 21st Century policies. There are, and these "remnants of attitudes", and a widespread reluctance to accept change — any form of change — for as long as possible still constrains strategic policy formulation as much in Belgrade as in Washington, DC, or London or Moscow.

Even so, after more than a decade in the "post-Cold War era", we are now, in balance, more looking forward than backward. But, in the case of the Balkans, there remains one great task from the past: to repair and redress the historic misperceptions about the region which were perpetuated during the 1990s. The false or distorted images and stereotypes created about the various actors in the Balkan region which were perpetuated by the media, and by some interest groups in the 1990s, still distort and constrain US and Western policies toward the Balkans in the 21st Century.

What are the new US interests in the Balkans?

Firstly, the US retains an historic and vital national interest in preserving peace and prosperity in Europe. This is perhaps the most overriding and constant aspect of all US strategic policy, and has been since the development of the colonies and the creation of the United States of America in 1776. This does not take away from the fact that the US is also a Pacific power, a Western hemisphere power, and a world power. However, the hub of US strategic power rests to a large extent on the solidarity of Western civilization in a geopolitical sense — and this embraces North America and Europe — as well as in the sense of "modern civilization" which also embraces, for example, Japan, Australia, and so on. So the US must remain engaged and embedded in Europe. Equally, it could be argued that Europe needs the power and wealth of the US, even though it often chafes at Washington’s leadership.

Secondly, the end of the Cold War has meant that Europe is no longer so harshly divided between East and West, and the US and Western Europe no longer see Russia and Eastern Europe as potential military adversaries. So the Cold War military structures are out of place, geographically, and, in many instances, out of time. There is no longer a justification for maintaining a large US force presence in Western Europe, other than for the purposes of maintaining the freedom of the Atlantic. The greatest failure of the immediate post-Cold War era was the failure to re-shape and re-task the NATO alliance, or even to re-name it to become a more appropriate tool for the 21st Century. As a result, as a directionless and yet perfect military alliance structure — perhaps the most effective in the history of the world — it was open to mis-use. And indeed it was most grievously mis-used by the Administration of US President William Clinton in the 1990s, and particularly in 1999, against the peoples of Yugoslavia. Such a unilateral mis-use of NATO could not have occurred a decade earlier, when NATO’s mission was clear. The failure to immediately re-direct and re-shape NATO in 1990-91, when the Cold War ended, allowed that organization to be mis-used, resulting in the development of a profound schism and mistrust between Europe and the US.

History will judge William Clinton for this.

Thirdly, because Europe is now restored to its broader meaning — from the Atlantic to the Urals, and from the Arctic to, literally, the southern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea — the center of gravity of Europe has moved Eastward and Southward. This means that, from the perspective of US interests, the US must re-direct its energies Eastward and Southward if it is to remain at the center of events. The "iron curtain" has been raised, and the "politics" in "geo-politics" have changed to restore the importance of the historic communities, traditional trade routes and centers of influence. It is a far more complex pattern of peoples, cultures and nation-states than was the case during the Cold War, or perhaps at any time since the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Fourth, the new strategic center not only embraces Europe itself in that new definition which stretches to the Urals and south to Malta and Cyprus, and the like, but it also brings Europe once again to the borders of what was once the Persian Empire. It has already been said that Europe, with the inclusion of Cyprus into the European Union, is now bordering the Middle East. There is some suggestion that it could go further, to include Israel into a concept of Europe, and even Morocco and much of a post-Qadhafi era in North Africa. And in as much as this brings back an orientation reminiscent of the Roman Empire which controlled much of the Maghreb, Egypt and the Levant, it also revives the importance of the territories which were once in the sway of Cyrus and Darius, the Great Kings of Persia.

Because what is central to the West’s — and particularly the United States’ — view of global balance is Iran. Iran is in many senses the lynchpin between this new "greater Europe" and Asia. It is an East-West, North-South nexus. It is vital geopolitically and civilizationally. Had Alexander of Macedon not wasted the culture and wealth of the Hellenes to destroy Persia, it is possible that today "modern civilization" would have been far more advanced. It would have embraced a union of the great philosophical and civilizational strengths of Persia to stimulate the West centuries before modern civilization was to rise from the ashes of Rome and the Dark Ages.

Today, however, while Persia — in the form of modern Iran — represents a long-term hope for modern civilization, it also represents a short-term threat which could ultimately be the revenge of Persia against Alexander. The US has recognized what the Iranian ruling clerics have stated unapologetically; that the Iranian clerical Government is an enemy of the US and the West. It is committed to a conflict with the West, and, indeed, began that conflict immediately after the clerics, led then by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, came to power in 1979.

Significantly, the Iranian clerics saw the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s as a unique opportunity to assert themselves into the heart of Europe. And now, as Iran is surrounded and isolated by hostile forces in Iraq, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Arab states, the clerics will not hesitate to use the terrorist infrastructure they built in the Balkans to strike back at the West and the US. So this, too, will place a new focus by the US on the Balkans, and particularly the areas harboring Islamist terrorists in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. This will bring a new wave of negative attention to the region, and, at the same time, those groups harboring the terrorists in Kosovo and Bosnia will draw upon their proven ability and financial commitment to manipulate the Western media perceptions to hide what is going on.

What, then, is in the US interest? And what is in the interests of the Balkan states?

Despite statements by the US State Department, the US will do what the Defense Department is advocating. It will move most of the US forces out of Germany. Most, indeed, are already deployed out of the region, in Iraq, for example. Those forces which return to Europe will start to utilize basing in South-Eastern Europe. Romania and Bulgaria have been mentioned as most likely to be the alliance partners of choice, because they have access to an area long denied to the US: the Black Sea. Consideration has been given to Serbia-Montenegro, as well, because history has determined that Belgrade, for example, remains a critical cross-road of trade in the region and its influence on the Danube artery is vital. Albania, too, must be considered by the US, because of its access to the Mediterranean.

All of this will occur over time, and not as a single, sudden move. Indeed, it is necessary to buffer the changes so that they do not also have a negative impact on the economy of Germany, which benefits enormously from the US investment. And the US cannot afford to allow the creation of a Berlin-centric European Union which could emerge as a hostile and destabilizing force, opposing the US. It would be foolhardy for the US to encourage such a development.

From the standpoint of the Balkan states, it is in their interests to be an integral part of this new strategic picture so that they benefit from it economically, politically and socially. Romania and Bulgaria are already well advanced in the diplomatic and practical aspects to make their states integral to the European and US postures. Croatia has moved to ally itself almost totally with Germany, but invested so heavily in developing strong political influence in Washington during the 1990s that it will continue to exercise whatever influence it can on the US. Bosnia, even after the fall of the Izetbegovic usurpation of the state, remains far behind in overcoming its problems and even in eliminating the terrorist infrastructure. Serbia-Montenegro, which has been so preoccupied for so long in dealing with purely domestic issues, now needs to totally re-think and re-energize its foreign and strategic policies. This would require putting an unprecedented investment into a new diplomacy which would start the process of redressing the propaganda slanders which isolated the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It also must develop a strategic development plan and sectoral plans, harmonized with legislation which accords with EU requirements. So it must simultaneously revise the slanders of history while communicating its development needs and how it is eliminating the black and grey economies which are the enemies of stability and investment.

But this education process must work both ways: Serbia-Montenegro needs not only to educate the West in terms that the West (including the US) understands, but it also needs to harmonize its communications so that it understands the US. Unless Serbia-Montenegro works to demonstrate to the US that it is strategically vital, it is entirely possible that the US will, simply for ease of action, work around it, regardless of how historically attractive the Belgrade nexus once was.

In a sense, then, the Balkan states need to be able to advise the US as to what its interests are in the Balkans. Romania and Bulgaria are doing that. So, too, are Croatia and Albania. And Greece has historically been able to make its views known in Washington. Significantly, Serbian-Americans have won more US Congressional Medals of Honor — the highest US decoration for courage in war — than any other US immigrant group. And yet modern Serbs, despite their sacrifices in World War II to save downed US airmen and to save the Jews of the region from the Ustaše and nazis, have yet to be able to turn this into a strategic alliance between Washington and Belgrade.

This represents the greatest "black hole" in the US strategic posture which is emerging in South-Eastern Europe. And it can only be redressed by efforts beginning in Belgrade.