The visit by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar to the region this week comes as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) faces its greatest security challenge since the war in the 1990s. Yet in an approach that seems driven primarily by the desire to declare some – any – forward movement, he is pursuing a policy that single-mindedly focuses on deals with illiberal nationalist politicians, arrangements that would be good for their power, but detrimental – even dangerous — for their citizens.

Milorad Dodik, the separatist Serb member of the three-headed BiH Presidency and de facto Bosnian Serb leader, is threatening to withdraw the predominantly Serb entity Republika Srpska from state institutions and pull troops from the unified BiH Armed Forces to construct a separate Bosnian Serb army. The commander of the European Union’s anemic peacekeeping force, EUFOR, Major General Alexander Platzer, claims – like Dodik – that this would not be out of line with the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war, though the international community’s Peace Implementation Council, with the exception of Russia, has long interpreted the Dayton Peace Agreement otherwise. (Platzer’s position might not be surprising, considering he is a member of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a pro-Russian far-right party that has expressed support for Dodik for some time.)

Yet, Escobar’s answer to the challenge is to assert that Dodik is simply trying to protect his power and money, that neighboring Serbia is not backing Dodik, and that the Open Balkan initiative, an economic-integration project, would allow Serbs to travel freely and bring financial investment, implying that cause for division would be obviated. Escobar even suggested that Bosnian Serbs could be trained by U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces, as soldiers in Serbia have been under bilateral cooperation with the United States.

In effect, the United States has adopted the same functionalist, economics-first approach that the EU has pursued for years without succeeding in driving political progress. But in the current security crisis and regional context, in which all unfulfilled nationalist agendas are being pursued without restraint, this a wildly dangerous and inappropriate response. It amounts to meeting a threat to peace with appeasement and bribery.

The Open Balkan initiative, previously known as “Mini-Schengen,” is an initiative championed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, presently including Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia. Its supporters assert that it is compatible with the German-initiated Berlin Process’ Common Regional Market, though others disagree. The agreement, signed in Skopje this summer, would open borders and commerce among its members. It is allegedly open to all Western Balkan states, including Kosovo, which Serbia refuses to recognize as being an independent state. There is considerable skepticism in BiH and Montenegro as well. It has recently become a centerpiece of American policy on the region under the Biden administration, gaining prominence in official talking points in the past two months. Escobar raised it repeatedly in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe last month. The central idea of the initiative is that regional economic integration in advance of EU membership will deliver benefits to citizens – itself a sensible argument.

But implicit in the initiative is the idea that progress on the economic front will help resolve outstanding political frictions in the region, such as Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo, ethnonationalist projects of Dodik and his Bosnian Croat ally Dragan Čović, Serbian nationalist designs on/in Montenegro, and so on. The initiative seems to be intended to address the fact that the political influence of the West has not been so weak in the region since the last war was ended within six months by joint U.S.-EU diplomacy in the (former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia (now called North Macedonia) 20 years ago. At the same time, geopolitical challengers such as Russia and China are far more assertive.

A `Kids’ Table’

But the lack of enthusiasm among EU member states for enlargement, for a variety of reasons, is another factor behind the Open Balkan initiative, making it essentially a feeble consolation prize – effectively a “kids’ table.” The strongest advocates for enlargement now are illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and President Janez Janša of Slovenia, and their motives are suspect. Both are allies of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and want Serbia in the club as soon as possible, as they are keen to grow their nationalist camp’s membership in the Union. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, proposed what amounted to a cordon sanitaire in the Western Balkans, offering economic partnerships to these countries, with little focus on how they are governed, at least in his first “non-paper” two years ago. Since then, there has been a proliferation of non-papers, including one in April promoting ethnic partition in the region, a document that allegedly originated in Janša’s office. (He has disavowed it, but Slovenian President Borut Pahor reportedly floated the same idea during a visit to Bosnia).

At the core of the Open Balkan initiative, as on display in Glasgow last week, is the relationship between Serbia’s Vučić, who currently has no political opposition at home, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. Vučić has long spoken of a need for a rapprochement between Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans, but by not naming states and rather referring to peoples, he implies borders are flexible. This has been a long-standing Serbian nationalist policy goal, given the ambition to unify Serbs in one state. The U.S.-led interventions of the 1990s had been seen as putting paid to this goal; Western weakness is now perceived based on the EU’s Balkan posture and the determined U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That expansionist vision is now encompassed in the Serbian World (“Srpski Svet”) ideology, which Vučić – when pressed – claims not to support, while his ultranationalist Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin actively promotes it in neighboring states. Though there is no equivalent idea with official or social traction in Albania or Albanian-populated regions in other countries, Rama clearly sees himself as a national leader of broader resonance. Needless to say, this makes avowedly multiethnic states – and Kosovo, unrecognized by Serbia (and BiH) – nervous. Such fears are reflected, for example, in media interviews, as when FACE TV anchor Senad Hadžifejzović in Bosnia asked my colleague at the Democratization Policy Council, Toby Vogel, whether the Open Balkan initiative was part of the Srpski Svet idea.

U.S. policy in the region, again following the EU, is increasingly Serbia-centric (Escobar previously served as the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Serbia for two years and earlier spent most of three more years in the region also in Serbia or Bosnia’s Republika Srpska). And when American diplomats first visit Zagreb and Belgrade for talks concerning BiH before arriving in Sarajevo, this amplifies these fears. Both Croatia and Serbia have become far more assertive in BiH, both claiming “guarantor” status under Dayton (they are signatories, not guarantors); both were predatory neighbors and appear to be today as well.  A long-standing tendency to address problems involving Dodik and Čović via Belgrade and Zagreb has failed to deliver results, while executive tools to confront threats to the Dayton order – the Office of the High Representative and EUFOR – remain largely unused and have seen their authority undermined, as was the case at the U.N. Security Council last week, when the West bent to Russian blackmail and accepted stripped-down language on the OHR to maintain the EUFOR mandate. In the present crisis, this posture telegraphs that BiH is a Serbian-Croatian condominium.

`Unnatural’ Allies in Fruitful Partnership

Escobar’s predecessor as deputy assistant secretary, Matt Palmer, also continues making the rounds in the region, having retained a parallel position as U.S. special envoy for electoral and constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Also having served a previous diplomatic tour in Belgrade, he appears to be approaching his current task with a hard-sell “let’s make a deal” approach, in concert with his EU counterpart Angelina Eichhorst. In a recent BiH visit to pursue electoral law reform and “limited constitutional reform,” diplomatic sources say he commented that it was “unnatural” for Dodik and Čović to be allies, and that a return to the 1994 Washington Agreement (which ended the war between Bosnian Croat separatists and the Republic of BiH government) was needed.

This has been a deluded tic of U.S. policy for a decade. But why would Čović and Dodik part after such a fruitful partnership that has effectively defined the West’s policy around their wants for so long? Croat and Serb centers of power — Mostar, Zagreb, Banja Luka, and Belgrade — are all benefitting, at the expense of Sarajevo. The result is that the (rightful) holdouts on the deals – on election law and constitutional change to satisfy Čović, and on getting BiH to join the Open Balkan initiative – are feeling pressure from the United States and the EU, even as those attacking the state institutions of BiH are being rewarded.

All of the above sends a message of American acceptance of a de facto Greater Serbian/Albanian/Croatian co-prosperity sphere in the Western Balkans. While there is not a parallel impetus for a Greater Albania at the political or popular level in the region, it is evident that Albanian Prime Minister Rama enjoys the role of regional ethnic leader and his partner relationship with Vučić, to the detriment of Kosovo. Rama also reportedly said he’d been consulted on the above-mentioned proposed ethnic carve-up of the Balkans allegedly floated by Slovenia.

Talking Economic Development in a Security Crisis

The policy response to Dodik’s threat to peace is not only incommensurate with the nature of the threat, it also indicates that preserving the possibility of pursuing the above strategy – if that is what it should be called – is worth the risk to BiH statehood, despite Escobar’s assertion that, “One of the things we want to make sure of is that Bosnia remains independent, sovereign and territorially whole.” In practice, the United States is undermining that goal, with its apparent conclusion that it is sufficient to simply say “there will be no war,” without demonstrating that it will not allow one to break out. It appears that Washington concludes that a modest but strategically deployed contingent of troops to BiH to deter violence or to prevent precipitous action would set the wrong tone and go down poorly in Belgrade – again making Serbia the epicenter of U.S. policy. The opportunity to reinforce the standing force in-theater came with regularly scheduled exercises that ended just over a month ago, as this crisis loomed. That opening was squandered. The fact that Escobar returned in his statement Monday to economic development during a security crisis underscored the main line of the American policy.

Another apparent motivation for the U.S. backing of the Open Balkan initiative appears to be that it could help wean Vučić from geopolitical relationships with China and Russia. But Vučić sees the project as a force multiplier for his ambitions, not a substitute or diversion. The initiative will do nothing – and is not designed – to compel Serbia to adopt EU standards on democratic practices, media freedom, and rule of law, nor curtail its regionally destabilizing role.

In addition, Vučić can conclude that his geopolitical arbitrage has paid handsomely for him, particularly in the pandemic. He made Serbia, already Beijing’s regional hub for economic engagement, the center for “mask diplomacy” and then “vaccine diplomacy,” using Serbia’s securing of vaccines as leverage in regional relations. His dominance of the Serbia media landscape has also helped shape perceptions that China and Russia are better friends and more generous partners, even though this is not the case. This makes the EU and the United States look like desperate suitors – a vibe clearly seen in the region.

So Vučić has continued to juggle his geopolitical suitors – the United States, the EU, China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states, gaining resources and legitimacy without losing support from any of them. Betting on winning him over, based on a fear of “losing Serbia,” is a sucker’s game, though the Biden administration seems to be engaging in it wholesale, even at the cost of the U.S. president himself sullying his legacy of defending BiH sovereignty through its darkest hours in the 1990s.

Instead of cleaning up the mess left in the Western Balkans by the Trump administration, which had broken with decades of bipartisan policy for maintaining the current borders in the region, the Biden administration seems committed to compound those errors. While it says it opposes border changes, it is aligning behind big-man politics in pursuit of short-term “wins” and to simply clear the docket for other foreign policy issues. While the intent of the Biden policy may differ from Trump’s, the results will be similar: the reduction of U.S. credibility with those supporting genuinely accountable open societies under law, and whetting the appetites of irridentist ethnonationalist leaders fomenting violence. Relying on the Open Balkan initiative to secure peace instead creates a scenario that is more like open season in the Balkans.

IMAGE: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Balkans Daniel Escobar (L) meets with member of tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik (R), in Sarajevo, on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)