Reimagining U.S. Policy toward the Western Balkans

The United States was the driving force behind the international mobilization that brought peace to the Western Balkans in the 1990s, ending bloodshed first in Bosnia and Herzegovina and then in Kosovo. A decade-long, intensive diplomatic and economic investment by the United States supported reconstruction and post-conflict stabilization into the 2000s and was further bolstered by NATO and EU integration. This effort delivered tangible results: Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009, while Montenegro and North Macedonia joined the alliance in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, the last country to do so for the foreseeable future.

After 2008, the United States disengaged from the Western Balkans in the belief that the region could be left to the European Union to manage and that NATO and EU accession processes would eventually secure the region’s peace and prosperity. Instead, the region has undergone a decade of democratic decline, and meaningful reform has been impeded by corruption and patronage networks led by long-standing political figures.

Weak rule of law across the region has reduced economic opportunities, aggravated environmental pollution, and weakened public services, all driving forces for citizen frustration and a rising wave of emigration from the region. With the exception of Croatia, EU membership is no longer a realistic prospect for many in the Western Balkans. Renewed ethno-nationalism and historical revisionism have been deftly used by regional leaders to advocate for ethnic partitions of land and border corrections.

Whereas transatlantic policymakers may once have hoped the gravitational pull of the European Union and NATO, along with ad hoc engagement by the United States, would be sufficient to complete the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration, this is no longer the case. The United States and the European Union must now actively compete for influence in the region as China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states offer these countries alternate paths.

As the United States painfully learns time and time again, when it leaves the international pitch, others take the field and play according to their rules. The costs of reentry are substantially higher, paid in diminished influence and regional instability. The European Union has not been able to take full responsibility for the region’s development. Therefore, the United States must recalibrate its policy and assistance tools to restore U.S.—and ultimately transatlantic—influence, while working closely with the European Union. 

In 2019, CSIS embarked on a two-year research effort to rethink what a new, dynamic, and cohesive U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans could look like, taking into account present-day dynamics both in the region and across the European Union. To do this, the authors focused on two specific and mutually supportive policy strands: (1) developing a new U.S. strategy for Serbia and Kosovo normalization, and (2) creating a new paradigm for U.S. assistance for the “Western Balkans 6.”

The first strand examines the current stalemate and increased instability surrounding the Serbia-Kosovo normalization process, which remains the region’s largest source of tension. More than a decade since the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue began, a comprehensive normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo remains elusive, with neither state prepared to make the compromises necessary to break the status quo. The Serbia-Kosovo Normalization Process: A Temporary U.S. Decoupling makes the case for a new U.S. strategy toward Serbia and Kosovo that creates separate but parallel bilateral tracks of engagement, prioritizing internal reforms and economic revitalization in both states in order to strengthen each one and better prepare them to achieve normalization in the future.

The second strand focuses on reshaping the framework of U.S. assistance to the region. Improving political and economic outcomes for citizens across the Western Balkans must be the priority, including fostering trust that reform, government accountability, and transparency can have a positive impact on everyday life. However, doing so will require reversing political stagnation and breaking the “stabilocratic” nature of regimes across the region—a status quo that has been perpetuated in part by the top-down approach of U.S. and EU engagement. Confronting Stabilocracy in the Western Balkans: A New Approach for U.S. Assistance outlines a new strategy for U.S. assistance that focuses on two pillars: (1) a bottom-up grassroots approach that places civil society, activism, transparency, and accountability at the center of U.S. efforts, and (2) the development of a transparent economic system that prioritizes young people and diversifies economic opportunities.

In the Western Balkans, memories of war, ethnic cleansing, and massive refugee outflows still leave their scars on the region and its people. While the United States once achieved diplomatic success in the Balkans, its policies and assistance have not evolved, contributing to the region’s stagnation. With renewed purpose and engagement and cooperation with European partners, the United States may once again achieve policy success by recentering values and citizen prosperity.

This project was made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.