On December 14th, 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. Nearly four years of bloodshed in Bosnia were brought to an end. While it has had its critics, the agreement succeeded in its primary goal—bringing peace to the Balkans. Now, some 25 years later, that peace is being threatened by the very country which was mostly responsible for it: the United States. No, America is not getting ready for some kind of military action in the Balkans. Quite the opposite. The U.S. appears to want to remove itself from the picture entirely. Without any central power keeping nationalist factions at bay, collapse scenarios become more likely as rivalrous groups seize their chance for power, jeopardizing the governance structure the U.S. engineered not long ago. Although the United States has played peacemaker between warring Balkan states for close to thirty years, the new message is this: “They’ve got to solve it for themselves.”
Those were the exact words spoken by National Security Advisor John Bolton when asked whether the U.S. would support a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia. He responded that it would, which was later confirmed by a State Department spokesman. This radical shift in American policy in the Balkans—and it is a radical shift indeed—will have ramifications far beyond the borders of Kosovo. By endorsing the option of a revision of borders along ethnic lines, the U.S. risks reopening the conflict it helped bring to an end with the Dayton Agreement. A border revision handled poorly risks plunging the troubled region into open conflict—this time, a conflict which would involve NATO and EU member states, creating a huge rift in a Western world already in crisis.
Unsurprisingly, Russia has been quietly fueling tensions through military, financial, and political support for nationalists on all sides. Turkey has also been painting itself as the natural and greatest ally of not just Bosnia’s Muslims, but of the Muslims of the Balkans as a whole. Even China has recently involved itself, providing enormous loans to both Montenegro and Bosnia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The hawks are circling.
Although Bolton may be the first to state it plainly, the reality is that the West has lost interest in the Balkans. Any change to the status quo would necessitate immense political will on the part of the U.S. and the EU. But their political will is focused on more pressing issues. And so, after years of growing disinterest, the Western Balkans have been abandoned as the last remaining power vacuum in Europe. Increasingly, the region is returning to its condition as a battleground between competing powers and a land where civilizations meet and clash. For centuries the Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim worlds fought over the mountainous and sparsely populated region at the southeastern edge of Europe. This came to an end with the advent of the Cold War, when a consolidated Communist Yugoslav state found its place as a neutral buffer between the capitalist West and socialist East. The ultimate collapse of that state led to the ensuing wars in the 1990s. While they did little to stop the wars from beginning, the consensus of European powers and the United States brought the conflicts to an end.
At its height, this meant NATO military involvement in both Bosnia and Kosovo, and the brokering of a deal which ended Europe’s bloodiest war since 1945. It was thanks to U.S. pressure that Croatia abandoned its own war against Bosnia. That decision stopped the Croatian and Bosnian armies from killing the Serbian breakaway state of Republika Srpska, which was legitimized by the Dayton Agreement and continues to function to this day. The U.S. remains the most important outside player in the Balkans, maintaining a huge military base in Kosovo and recently welcoming both Montenegro and Macedonia into NATO, with Croatia and Albania having joined in previous years.
But America’s role in the Balkans has not been without its critics.
Among those critics is John Bolton himself, who wields a great deal of influence over the current administration’s foreign policy. He was highly critical of the Clinton administration’s policies towards the Balkans in the 1990s, especially of its involvement in the War in Kosovo. The U.S. effectively secured independence for Kosovo by way of a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, but Bolton argued that there was no clear strategy and was skeptical of the campaign’s prospects for success. To some extent he was right. Two decades on, the conflict is still not resolved, and the U.S. is still actively involved in the conflict, which keeps both Serbia and Kosovo in political limbo.
Two conclusions from his 1999 article in The Washington Times stand out. He writes:
“America is not doomed to having to deal with the Balkans forever. The failure of a comprehensive approach would mean only we return the matter to E.U. hands, without further U.S. political or military obligation.”
“America will not care more about peace in the region than those who live there.”
Nobody can fault him for inconsistency. In line with President Trump’s America First agenda, Bolton seems to be trying to rid America of what he sees as its Balkan quagmire. Bolton undoubtedly understands that endorsing an ethnic partition of Kosovo could reopen a myriad of conflicts across the region; he just doesn’t think it’s America’s problem. Indeed, it doesn’t seem like any major player seems inclined to stop the slow-moving crisis developing in the Balkans.
Austria, Russia, and the EU have all indicated they will not stand in the way of a partition. While Germany and the UK have indicated opposition, the days for both their governments are limited. In any case, far more important than the British and German positions, is the fact that America is not only supporting the deal, but is actively pushing for it. For the first time since the end of the Yugoslav Wars, the architect of the fragile and dysfunctional Balkan order is coming around to the idea that past solutions have failed, and new “creative” ones are needed.
Bolton is absolutely correct that the U.S. does not have to deal with the Balkans forever, but to choose now as the moment to withdraw will have dramatic consequences. Can a divided, disunited, and crisis-ridden European Union really be expected to fill the void left by America in the Balkans?
While a land swap in Kosovo per se does not entail a withdrawal from Kosovo, it accepts the legitimacy of ethnic spheres of influence as against the Kosovar state and would undermine the political balance in Bosnia. This would occur at a time when tensions between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, not to mention tensions between the three titular nationalities within Bosnia, are higher than they have been since the end of the Yugoslav Wars. Politics in all three countries is dominated by revisionist nationalist politicians who were all heavily involved in the previous wars, and most of whom are deeply unsatisfied with their conclusion.
With its enthusiastic support of an ethnic partition in Kosovo, this administration has essentially moved America’s position to that of the revisionist Balkan politicians who have long been waiting for their chance to redraw Bosnia’s borders. Since 1996, there has been no doubt that America stood by the Dayton Agreement and was committed not just to the borders it created, but also to the idea of a multi-ethnic, liberal, and democratic Bosnia. With the new administration’s willingness to redraw international borders, its hostility to international treaties (something Bolton is also famous for), and its ambivalence towards the liberal ideology that was meant to be the foundation of the Bosnian state, its position vis-à-vis Bosnia cannot be taken as a given as it once was.
Instead, the change in America’s policy in Kosovo seems to signal a wider shift toward formalizing on-the-ground territorial control, even if it falls outside of formal internationally recognized borders. This policy is echoed by the administration’s peace plan for the Middle East, as well as its recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Could this shift be the spark that lights the proverbial Balkan powder keg?
With America’s shifted policy, the political calculus for regional leaders has now changed dramatically. These same regional leaders are overwhelmingly followers or (allegedly) ex-followers of the same nationalistic ideologies that plunged the region into several wars in the 1990s. In recent years, the same groups have reemerged with a force and could lead the region once again towards conflict.
Past is becoming present once again in the Balkans.
From roughly 1919 to 1991, the seven modern day countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, made up the country known as Yugoslavia. From 1945 to 1980, the country was ruled by the Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito, who kept a strong lid on ethnic and nationalist tensions through the repressive Communist state and his wildly successful foreign policy. Following his death in 1980, the state began to slowly unravel. As was characteristic of Eastern European communist regimes as they drew nearer to their collapse, the official ideology became empty. Ideas which had long been repressed began to reemerge.
In Poland and Czechoslovakia, it was forces such as liberalism and Christian democracy rallying behind the broad banner of anti-communism that would bring the socialist state to an end. But in Yugoslavia, it was the various nationalisms of the constituent republics which would tear the country apart.
Nowadays, and in most of the years since independence, Croatia is ruled by the same Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which governed during its War of Independence. The party made its own attempt at carving out a sizable chunk of Bosnia before U.S. intervention convinced Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman to abandon the campaign and ally with the Bosniaks against the Serbs.
Meanwhile, Serbia is ruled by Aleksandar Vučić, who was a longtime member of the Serbian Radical Party—a party with the impressive achievement of being the most nationalistic of all Serb nationalist parties. It played the role of a kind of Serbian nationalist vanguard party while dictator Slobodan Milošević still maintained the Communist facade. Vučić also served as Minister of Information under the Milošević regime for several years. Until 2008, he subscribed to the idea of creating a “Greater Serbia”—the driving ideological force during the Yugoslav Wars—which meant absorption of all ethnic Serb parts of Croatia and Bosnia and in practice the ethnic cleansing of huge swathes of territory.
Only since then has he split off from his former radical party and formed a new one, the Serb Progressive party (SNS). Since coming to power in 2014, he has come to dominate the Serbian state. He has been widely accused of amounting to a weak dictator, and at the very least the most powerful Serbian leader since Milošević.
It is from that position of significant power that he has pushed for a partition of Kosovo, which is a move deeply unpopular in Serbia, especially with the still-powerful Serbian Orthodox Church. But the pursuit of such an unpopular policy could have more ominous motivations. If they are right about just how unpopular the move would be, surely Vučić would be aware, and compensate for it elsewhere.
The only thing that could come even remotely close to compensating for the loss of Kosovo would be a partition of Bosnia. Having such a conversation about Bosnia preceded by a successful partition of Kosovo, with the U.S. involved, would be an incredible diplomatic coup for Serbia.
Since the creation of the Bosnian state, the U.S. and its allies have been committed in principle to its multi-ethnic, democratic, and liberal development. In practice, it has been nowhere near successful, but failures are not easily digested in the realm of foreign policy. U.S. acceptance that it has failed in Kosovo would naturally move the conversation to Bosnia, the other unresolved Balkan conflict. It would be a total reversal of decades of policy, even if spun by the Trump administration as a diplomatic victory. If Kosovo is solved in the same way as the Greece-Macedonia dispute—bilaterally between presidents—it would give Vučić the foreign legitimacy he sorely needs to pursue the real prize and fulfill a centuries long dream of uniting (most of) the Serbs of the Balkans into a single state.
Difficult? Certainly. Impossible? Maybe not. But it’s not entirely up to Serbia. If it was, Bosnia never would have existed in the first place. But in their struggle against the fact of its existence, the Serbs in that country have been doing everything in their power to ensure it never succeeds.
The Failing Project
Far from creating a functional multi-ethnic state, the 1995 Dayton Agreement created the world’s most complicated system of government. It is barely functional, and has had little power to improve living conditions in Bosnia since the war. Bosnia remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe, boasting the highest youth unemployment rate on the planet at 56%. It heavily relies on remittances from its sizable diaspora, which make up close to a quarter of its economy.
And when it comes to inter-ethnic relations, it only gets worse. The Dayton Agreement meant Bosnia became a collection of three subnational units. It legalized the Bosnian Serb breakaway state of Republika Srpska, which, together with the Croat and Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the multi-ethnic Brčko District, comprise modern Bosnia. Additionally, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina is appointed by the United Nations. This High Representative is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, and is endowed with a broad range of powers such as dismissing public officials.
Meanwhile, Republika Srpska is run as the personal fiefdom of local strongman Milorad Dodik. With the Bosnian central government functionally irrelevant, Dodik has been free to build his own Nationalist Serb state since he came to power in 2006. And the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself under constant attack by its Croatian element, which consistently claims the Croatian population is unrepresented.
Their claims are not unreasonable. Bosnia has a rotating presidency between representatives of the three nationalities, but while only Serbs vote for the Serbian one in Srpska, Bosnians and Croats vote unrestricted in the remainder of the state. This means that in the latest election of 2018, the Croatian president won fewer votes in actual Croatian areas, instead being voted in largely by Bosniaks. In the Croatian areas, the votes were mostly in favor of one Dragan Čović, president of the Bosnian arm of Croatia’s HDZ.
Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Croats in Bosnia support the HDZ, much to the consternation of many Croats within Croatia itself. These Croats in Bosnia not only vote in Bosnian elections, but in Croatian ones as well, where they form the bulk of the HDZ’s electoral base. That Bosnian HDZ also finds itself aligned with Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik on several fronts, with the two happy to team up to express their dissatisfaction with Bosnia’s mere existence any chance they get.
Far from easing ethnic tensions for the last two decades, the mess of Bosnian politics only seems to worsen them. To be fair, a large degree of dysfunction was baked in from the start, but the continued separatist aims of Serbs and Croats were not.
The federal state has stood by powerlessly while Republika Srpska arms its “police” force with assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns. Russia’s security services play an active role in providing arms and training. Russian paramilitary groups, which were crucial in the conflict in Ukraine, are also present in Bosnia, closely connected with Serbian paramilitary groups.
On top of the dysfunction, Dodik adds an extra layer by maintaining one foot out of the country and the other in. While he builds his own state, complete with hard power and an independent foreign policy, he can also keep the rest of the country hostage when it comes to something like NATO membership.
It might be assumed that it is only the Serbs in Bosnia who align closely with Russia, owing to their historically close relationship. However, Russia has also been supportive—the only foreign country other than Croatia itself—of Croatian initiatives in Bosnia to change the electoral law in favor of Croats. While the Serbs got their own state in Bosnia, Croatia didn’t, and it has long been the dream of the HDZ to create for Croats what the Serbs had legitimized by the Dayton Agreement.
Herein lies the fundamental problem with any kind of revision—or reform—in Bosnia. While the Serbs have their own state and could simply declare independence, the state is not geographically viable without the Muslim-majority Brčko district. Croats, meanwhile, don’t have a state at all, which means borders would need to be decided, a near impossible task in a still ethnically mixed country. Even worse, the revision of borders offers encouragement and reward for ethnic cleansing, on which the current internal border in Bosnia is in large part based.
While Kosovo is relatively homogeneous and the Serb-dominated northern provinces are de facto still ruled by Serbia, Bosnia is nowhere near as straightforward. Whether a deal is reached in Kosovo or not, the change in Western policy could be enough to encourage Dodik to act in Bosnia, depending on the terms of the final agreement. Assuming independence is his aim, what has thus far stopped him from declaring independence is a fear of intervention and loss of the privileged status his state enjoys. After all, the status quo works well for Dodik and his ruling elite. As it is, the world is apathetic to Bosnia. There is no reason to invite unnecessary attention when he is already basically free to do what he pleases.
However, emboldened by Russia and Turkey and encouraged by a disinterested American administration and a divided Europe, he may feel that a push for independence would be worth the risk. His Croatian counterparts could find themselves in agreement.
But the even greater danger of conflict in Bosnia extends far beyond the Balkans, in ways many may not even realize.
Bosnia On The Brink
In many ways, Bosnia is a relic of a bygone era. Though the country is especially ethnically mixed, the whole of Central and Eastern Europe was not too different until very recently. Following the First World War, not a single new country in Eastern Europe was ethnically homogeneous. While titular nationalities generally were in the majority, millions of Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Turks, and others found themselves in a country that was not their own, not to mention stateless nationalities such as Jews, Vlachs, and Gypsies. Relics of the fallen empires of Eastern Europe, they were soon to fall prey to the nation-state.
Now, the ethnic map is incredibly homogeneous. While certain countries have small minorities still remaining, the genocides and population transfers of the Second World War and its aftermath solidified ethnic boundaries along state borders. Bosnia, by contrast, has remained divided between three nations, and that despite several wars and years of ethnic cleansing. To make matters worse for the troubled country, those three nations each tend to see themselves as belonging to different civilizations.
Croats are Catholics, and have always been Western-oriented, spending centuries ruled by Austria and Venice. Serbs are Orthodox and historically align closely with Russia. And Bosniaks are Muslim, tracing their origin to the Ottoman past of the Balkans. Now, this does not mean that conflict between the three is evidence of some grand clash of civilizations, but it does offer a potential battleground for those who are convinced of such a clash.
With Islamic extremism puzzling Western observers to no end, and corresponding anti-Islamic extremism becoming an increasingly global phenomenon, any armed conflict involving Bosnia would almost certainly transcend mere nationalism. This brings yet another problem to the fore. Even if Bosnia could somehow be peacefully partitioned between the three nations in a “Kosovo style” partition, it would effectively mean the end of Bosnia as a state and a country. A rump Bosnian state, abandoned by its Western allies, struggling with unemployment and disillusionment for its youth could easily turn Bosnia into the kind of hotbed of Islamic extremism it isn’t at the moment.
The Croatian government claims otherwise. In March, the Bosnian Security Minister accused Croatia of trying to destabilize Bosnia through staging a false flag operation, so as to make Bosnia look like a terrorist haven. Though the Croatian government has denied it, the claims appear credible. The accusation is that the Croatian security services attempted to blackmail an Islamic extremist into smuggling arms and explosives into Bosnia, placing them in a mosque, and then the cache would be “discovered.” The plot implicates not just Croatian security services, but top Croatian diplomats in Bosnia as well as a Croatian journalist from Srpska’s state television known to be close with Dodik.
If it turns out to be true, it would be in line with Croatia’s recent actions, which have been described as Croatia’s most serious challenge to Bosnia’s sovereignty since the 90s. In late 2018, the Croatian parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging Bosnia—a foreign country—to change its electoral law following the country’s election in 2018 where the HDZ candidate was defeated. Russia supported the Croatian government’s motion, but no other country did.
Bosnian analysts have gone as far as to call it a hybrid war, with the ultimate aim of a Croat entity in Bosnia—a goal which, if achieved, would be a further step towards the ultimate dissolution of the country. At minimum, it would require a revision of the Dayton Agreement.
With every new development in the Balkans, the outlook becomes grimmer. Open conflict is not imminent. But the region is definitely traveling down the road to conflict. Bosnia is a dysfunctional, semi-sovereign country with two hostile neighbors actively trying to undermine and tear it apart. Its most important ally is actively pushing for the same policy in Kosovo that the Croats and Serbs in Bosnia fought, killed, and ethnically cleansed for.
Bosniaks themselves have found their fair share of controversial allies. Islam and Ottoman heritage connects Bosniaks to the Muslim World—especially Turkey—like no other nation in Europe. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan kicked off his reelection campaign in 2018 with a rally in Sarajevo. Some 12,000 people came out to hear him speak, including the Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegović, who proclaimed to the crowd “President Erdogan was sent by Allah to you.” Alignment with Turkey is one thing, but alignment with a neo-imperial and strongly Islamic authoritarian Turkish leader is something else altogether.
At campaign rallies for Turkish local elections in 2019, Erdogan showed crowds footage of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, as evidence of anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe. Happily using the tragedy for votes, he has framed the attack as yet another incident in the same long-standing clash of civilizations between Turkey and the West.
Just how influential more radical strains of Islam are in Bosnia is unclear, but the country has provided the second most foreign fighters per capita of any European country to terrorist organizations in Syria. Belgium is first. More worrisome is that Bosnia hosted up to several thousand foreign fighters from across the Muslim world during the Bosnian War, known as the ‘Bosnian Mujahideen.’ With Islamic extremism becoming only more widespread since then, it is not hard to imagine foreign fighters pouring into the area in any renewed conflict. Particularly with Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting several proxy wars in the Middle East, a conflict in Bosnia could become a proxy not just between Russia, Turkey, and the EU, but between competing factions in the Islamic world, as well.
Once again, the absence of Western liberal powers in Bosnia’s internal development is stark.
Adults In The Room?
Returning to the words of John Bolton, if the U.S. is to slough off the Balkans to its EU allies, what can we expect? Since Bolton wrote those words 20 years ago, the EU is no closer to a common foreign policy, so the statements of EU bureaucrats matter little compared to those of national leaders. That said, the EU’s foreign affairs chief has been supportive of a land swap in Kosovo. Angela Merkel has signaled opposition to a deal in Kosovo, but her time is limited. It’s not clear that she could, or would, stand in the way of a U.S.-brokered bilateral agreement.
Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz has also signaled support for the deal, as has Merkel’s more conservative sister party, the CSU of Bavaria. Indeed, right-wing parties on the rise in Europe have no allegiance to dreams of multi-ethnic, liberal states. If anything, they would be happy to solve problems such as Kosovo—or Bosnia—at the expense of such concepts.
If a conflict does break out, the EU would inevitably split along revisionist and status-quo lines. As it stands, the EU doesn’t even agree on Kosovo, with Slovakia, Romania, and Spain still recognizing Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia. To think that the EU would have any semblance of unity in any new conflict on its borders is laughable. Even the monolithic external threat of Russia has received a lukewarm response from Europe. Hungary and Italy openly court Russia, while Germany only goes as far as to symbolically oppose Russia, even as the two partner on globally significant energy projects.
Critically, a partition of Kosovo does not by any means mean a U.S. withdrawal from Kosovo. But by ceding the north of Kosovo to Serbia, there is a recognition that it is not in America’s sphere of influence. In fact, Serbia is the one country in the region which is not a potential NATO ally. Instead, Serbia has in recent years become one of Russia’s few strategic partners and makes a point of aspiring to mere European integration, and not “Euro-Atlantic” integration (i.e. NATO membership). Bosnia could not join NATO either without Srpska’s approval, which it would never agree to. Dodik serves as Russia’s main proxy in the Balkans, making a pro-Western turn in Srpska even less likely than in Serbia itself. If the U.S. is to formalize its de facto sphere of influence in the Balkans, Republika Srpska lies firmly outside of it.
When it comes to Russia itself, its interests are not so much in the Balkans themselves as they are in what a conflict would do to its geopolitical foes. Creating further divisions in the EU and among America’s allies is the focus of much of Russia’s foreign policy. Inciting conflict in the Balkans would go further towards achieving that aim than anything Russia has done before.
In the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, however, Russia was nowhere to be found. Still suffering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was in absolutely no position to project any power in the Balkans or stand up for Serbia, its traditional ally. But things have changed. Russia has regained geopolitical clout and Moscow has been taking a renewed interest in the Balkans as of late. On the eve of Montenegro’s accession to NATO, an attempted coup by pro-Russian forces was thwarted. Likewise, Russia-backed forces in Macedonia opposed the changing of the country’s name and subsequent accession to NATO.
In 2018, extreme nationalist Russian oligarch and funder of Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Konstantin Malofeev, purchased hundreds of millions of euros worth of Srpska government bonds. Malofeev was used as a proxy for funding military operations in Ukraine and was involved in the attempted coup in Montenegro. Russian state-owned bank Sberbank also purchased Croatian megacorp Agrokor—the largest corporation in the Balkans—in 2018, saving the entire region from recession. Employing some 60,000 people in the former Yugoslavia, it accounted for some 12-15% of Croatian GDP at its height. Relatively small amounts of money buy great amounts of leverage in this small and volatile region.
Leverage is about all Russia can get. Moscow does not offer a serious alternative to European integration in any way for the Balkans. All it can do is use the corrupt and poorly run countries to sow divisions within the EU and position itself to benefit in case any more serious conflict breaks out. But it is really the disinterest of Western countries in the first place that has allowed such foreign incursions. The Russian Ambassador to Croatia had as much to say in the wake of Sberbank’s acquisition, asking “I wonder why your Western friends and strategic partners did not come and help with the Agrokor situation?”
It’s a very pertinent question. When the EU and NATO’s most important regional ally was on the brink of financial collapse, Russia was instead allowed to step in and save the day. Just one instance in years of growing Western disinterest in the Balkans.
In the years since the United States helped Bosnia achieve its independence and legitimacy, it has mostly dropped further involvement. The frictions of Bosnian politics are taken as a given. Tensions are allowed to rise unabated. Meanwhile, Vučić enjoys the strong support of the European Union despite his nationalist and authoritarian tendencies. And now one step further, the U.S. is giving up on the idea of a multi-ethnic Kosovo.
But no one nationality can be given special treatment without the rest of the region demanding their fair share, as well. Large swathes of Macedonia are ethnically Albanian, as parts of Serbia are majority Bosniak. This once again recalls the problem of Kosovo. An ethnic partition is basically a reward for the region’s nationalists, one that has long been denied by Washington and Brussels.
That’s what makes the position of foreign countries—particularly the United States—crucial in the maintenance of peace and stability. In many ways, they have an impossible task, as Kosovo definitely is a problem that needs to be solved. There is no reason to keep millions of people in political limbo affecting their economic and life prospects for decades. The same goes for Bosnia. But it’s the way they go about solving it that is likely to be the issue. If the U.S. mismanages its position in Kosovo, it could easily result in the overturning of the American-built Balkan order and possibly with violent consequences.
If, however, the U.S. does indeed have some grand Balkan strategy to purge the region of foreign influence and close the power vacuum at the heart of Europe and Kosovo is simply the first step, then it would be a constructive step. But there is little indication that the political will to deal with Bosnia exists, so it is far more likely that Kosovo is being handled as an independent issue.
Fundamentally, the U.S. and the EU—but especially the U.S.—bear responsibility for what happens in Bosnia. The state did not come about by accident; it is directly thanks to American diplomacy that the state survived and achieved international legitimacy. They take personal responsibility for ensuring the Dayton Agreement is followed, but that isn’t enough. With slim prospects for EU membership anytime soon, the West doesn’t appear to be offering a concrete vision to Bosnia, allowing states like Russia, Turkey, and China to step in and fill the void.
At best, Bosnia will become a black hole for foreign powers to buy an easy and cheap foothold in Europe. At worst, it could be the next stage for a bloody proxy war at the heart of Europe. Rest assured, the leaders of the region are watching the Trump administration’s actions in Kosovo with great interest. Washington has included the Balkans in its foreign policy rewrite, and this time the rules are different.