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Diplomacy is not The Apprentice: Serbia-Kosovo issue requires a long-term commitment

The Trump Administration’s Serbia-Kosovo agreement may achieve short-term successes, but it could also result in long-term negative consequences for the two adversaries.

September 15, 2020 - Leon Hartwell - Hot Topics

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, participates in a signing ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House (CC) Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen

On September 3rd and 4th, the White House brokered a strange agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in an attempt to promote economic normalisation of relations between the two states. President Donald Trump hailed the agreement as “historic” no less than four times. His family members and close associates, including Robert O’Brien (national security advisor), Richard Grenell (special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo talks) and Kayleigh McEnany (White House press secretary) soon followed suit.

When most pundits think of historic agreements, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), Paris Peace Treaties (1947) and the Dayton Accords (1995) come to mind.  What happened at the White House more closely resembled The Apprentice – a reality show that gave the illusion of Trump’s success in neat 60-minute episodes – rather than a momentous agreement. 

Political theatre

Shortly before the White House talks kicked off, a special advisor to the president alleged during a background briefing that Trump “has been a part of the [Serbia-Kosovo] discussions” on a regular basis. The senior advisor claimed that Trump made proposals on what Washington should “push forward” and “how we prioritize these economic projects.”   

The president’s involvement and the timing of the White House talks merely reinforces the idea that Trump is mainly concerned with a quick foreign policy win before the presidential elections in November. The United States is currently facing a series of cascading crises: real GDP from April to June declined by 32.9 per cent from the preceding quarter, while 188,907 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic to the day the White House talks kicked-off. This is the equivalent of three and a half times the amount of American battle deaths during the First World War.   

The president justified his participation in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue due to the supposed seriousness of the situation at hand. Trump stated: “After a violent and tragic history, and years of failed negotiations, my administration proposed a new way of bridging the divide.” Similarly, O’Brien claimed that the “Serbia-Kosovo conflict has gone on for decades.” When Trump stepped in, he brokered what he defined as “a major breakthrough” agreement that “nobody thought was going to be possible.” 

First of all, Serbia and Kosovo have not been waging an armed conflict against one another since 1999. While Serbia and Kosovo experienced a handful of incidents of inter-ethnic violence, the situation is technically a “dispute” rather than a “conflict”. 

Secondly, there are plenty of individuals who said that a minimalist agreement focusing on economic cooperation is possible. In fact, over four months ago, an American diplomat told me that Washington can “strongarm” Serbia and Kosovo into some form of agreement. However, the diplomat cautioned that a comprehensive agreement addressing the underlying issues haunting Serbia and Kosovo is not possible at this stage, as that would require much greater collaboration with the EU. 

A transatlantic divide

Before the White House talks, I interviewed Nicolas Burns, former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, about the key obstacles to Serbia-Kosovo normalisation. His main concern was the lack of co-operation between Washington and Brussels. Burns stated that “most Americans of both parties who have been involved with the Balkans in the past 20 to 30 years understand that diplomacy works best when the US and [European Union] member states work together – when we are integrating our policies.” 

The Trump Administration deviated from the long-established bipartisan approach towards foreign policy. According to Burns, “President Trump personally seems to have animus towards the EU. He sees the EU as a competitor to the US  He does not see it as a partner.”

The concerns raised by Burns have largely been proved to be correct. Asked about transatlantic co-operation on the Serbia-Kosovo issue, a special advisor to the president noted during a background briefing that “we are not a member of the European Union and are not involved in the very important process that the EU has with each of the parties. They have their own process.”

To demonstrate the disconnect between the dialogues, following the White House talks, the EU even expressed “regret” that Trump brokered an agreement that included moving the Serbian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Brussels views as “a matter of serious concern”. Such a move could impact Serbia’s ability to integrate into the EU.  

Although the US special envoy for the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, debriefed the EU on the September agreement, the governmental organisation was not represented at the White House talks. At the same time, Washington was not represented during last week’s EU-led talks in Brussels. According to Peter Stano, the EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy: “There is no need to have an EU representative at the White House talks or a US representative at the EU-facilitated Belgrade Pristina Dialogue in Brussels, because these are by nature and design two different events taking place in different frameworks.”

If the US and the EU are not on the same page with regards to resolving the Serbia-Kosovo issue, there is a smaller chance of overall success. These current uncoordinated efforts are risky as Serbia and Kosovo can play off mediators against one another. Lack of co-operation also weakens the ability of the mediators to collectively push for the implementation of agreements.        

Implications of the White House talks

Trump and Grenell decided to “flip the script” because previous mediation processes failed to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo.  Consequently, the Trump administration decided to only focus on “economic normalisation” while claiming that the EU is responsible for facilitating political normalisation. However, diplomacy is not The Apprentice – it takes time. Failure to produce mutual recognition is no excuse for side-lining the EU and for abandoning the desire to broker political normalisation between Serbia and Kosovo. 

Diplomacy is part of an intricate process that requires diplomats to take a long-term perspective. US mediation should not be a political tool for scoring short-term political victories.   

According to a study by Jacob Bercovitch focusing on 137 mediated disputes, conflicts about sovereignty and security are statistically the toughest issues to resolve. Those two issues are at the core of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. Due to this, resolving those issues will require a long-term collective commitment from the mediators, and more importantly, political will from Serbia and Kosovo.   

The Trump administration’s September agreement may achieve short-term successes, but it could also result in long-term negative consequences for the two adversaries. Grenell’s strategy was to lock in economic agreements and then hope that it would have a positive spill over effect into the political arena. Sometimes, those strategies work, but given the nature of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, it is unlikely. 

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić is one of the key players of the negotiations and a major obstacle to a political agreement. He desperately wants to be seen as a winner, which means that economic and political issues should have been packaged together so as to make concessions more palatable. If, in a seemingly uncoordinated manner with the EU, easily agreeable and attractive issues have already been negotiated away at the White House, why would Vučić later on compromise on more difficult political issues?   

Following the White House talks Vučić already noted to Pink TV that this is an “excellent agreement” and added, “We will not get an agreement like this for a long time, with anyone, about anything.”

On the other side of the table were the Kosovars. Some influential politicians and the largest political party – Vetëvendosje – have already expressed great disappointment with the September agreement. Whether the agreement will be ratified by Serbia and Kosovo’s legislatures is also yet to be seen.

Dr Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. He specialises in mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution. Twitter: @LeonHartwell ,

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