Democratization Policy Council

"An initiative for accountable democratization policy worldwide"

Erratic Ambiguity:

The Impact of Trump’s Unpredictable Foreign Policy in the Western Balkans

DPC Policy Paper

By Kurt Bassuener and Valery Perry

Executive Summary

The situation in the Western Balkans has been on a perilous trajectory for more than a decade, a point acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. President Donald J. Trump’s actions since assuming office have accelerated existing negative trends in the region – an increase in autocratic behavior and abuse of power by self-dealing regional leaders, and more assertive engagement of illiberal and undemocratic powers such as Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states, and China. The avowed goal of a majority of citizens of the Western Balkan countries – to become “normal countries” and join the EU (and, except for Serbia, also NATO) – looks less attainable now than any time since the prospect was formalized 14 years ago.

Trump has broken with almost seven decades of unwavering US commitment to Europe’s defense – to ensure a “Europe whole, free, and at peace” – by refusing to commit to NATO’s Article 5 – that an attack on one is an attack on all. The unreliability of that backstop will increase tensions and amplify the potential for continued escalation and dangerous miscalculation by Western Balkan actors. Doubt has crept into the transatlantic relationship from multiple directions, not least from the still murky, but highly disturbing, Trump-Russia relationship.

American officials and legislators – especially those Republicans willing to put the interests of country before party – must demonstrate steadfastness in the face of destructive and erratic ambiguity at the top. But EU leaders cannot afford to leave Europe’s interests and the future of the Western Balkans to chance. The EU has the potential leverage and the capability to reverse the negative dynamic in the Western Balkans, both for its own benefit and for that of the peoples of the region. But to do so, it must acknowledge the vacuum its policies have enabled – and act decisively to fill it. If ever there was a real “hour of Europe,” it is now.

In this context, DPC recommends the following (each detailed further in the report):

To Senior US Government Officials:

Shoring up deterrence against renewed violence and support for beleaguered advocates of liberal democratic values – both in terms of policy and programs – is essential to America’s immediate and longer-term interests. Senior US government officials must speak and act assertively in upholding the fundamental underpinnings of US foreign policy in the Western Balkans – support for the democratic process, rule of law, transparency, and civic initiative. When this proves impossible under this administration, or when actions or rhetoric from the White House fundamentally undercut such principles, senior officials should resign, highlighting the dangers of the Trump policy to both Congress and the public. This duty will fall most squarely on National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

To Members of the US Congress:

Congressmen and Senators whose commitment to liberal democratic values transcends partisanship must, both publicly and in private meetings with colleagues, consistently demonstrate this through active engagement such as the following:
  • Advocate for active US promotion of democratic values and principles in the Western Balkans.
  • Speak out in defense of US officials, at home and abroad, who actively support efforts to entrench democratic practice and the rule of law in the Western Balkans.
  • Advocate for the development and funding of US State Department and USAID programs designed and calibrated to promote democratic principles and values in the region.
  • Provide support to advocates of liberal democratic values and practice in the region, through public diplomacy aimed at a foreign audience and by applying pressure on their behalf when needed against governments that curtail civic space.
Where there is space between the White House and the legislative branch on these matters, legislators must explain to their own constituents and the citizenry at large why promotion of these values abroad secures American interests and security.

To the European Union (including member state leaders, officials, and legislators):

Limit Balkan politicians’ options to employ fear and distribute patronage to insulate themselves from public dissatisfaction through the following:
  • Guarantee the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Western Balkan countries, dedicating sufficient forces to that task, based on professional military assessments by DSACEUR.
  • Follow reassurance of security with a strict application of financial conditionality to promote and defend democratic practice and rule of law, bilaterally and via the international financial institutions.
  • Foster and politically support a popular and informed constituency for the EU and, most importantly, for its values.

To citizens' associations and activists working to build support for liberal values in local communities and beyond:

The struggle against populism and for rights-based values and the rule of law is increasingly global. While there seemingly are more challenges than ever, there are more allies than ever. Civic activists should undertake measures that will increase the possibility to speak out and be heard such as:
  • Join forces with established civic partners in the West to more effectively lobby policy-makers in Brussels and European capitals to more assertively leverage support for liberal democratic policies and principles.
  • Use the ongoing political crisis playing out in the US to underscore the importance of developing and maintaining robust checks and balances at home.
  • Maintain efforts toward establishing good governance, inclusion, and rights-based social development while reaching out to a broader constituency aimed at members and partners, as opposed to donors.
  • Develop and cultivate constituencies in the West who are aware and supportive of the challenges of activism in this turbulent period, to undergird policy demands to Western policymakers and legislators in the capitals and in EU representation offices, to ensure the megaphone is not dominated by the voice of a handful of officials.