US Sledgehammer Diplomacy on Kosovo Won’t Budge Serbia

Joe Biden’s tactless message to Serbia on the need to recognise Kosovo won’t unnerve Belgrade – and risks pushing it further into the waiting arms of Russia and China.

The 18th-century English dramatist Edward Moore may not be deeply ingrained on the collective memory of the Anglophone world, yet his 1748 comedy The Foundling has, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, bequeathed to the English language the idiom “to add insult to injury”. The phrase, whose etymology goes back to the Classical world, is defined in the same dictionary as to “act in a way that makes a bad or displeasing situation worse”.

“Adding insult to injury’ was what sprang to mind when reading what should have been a mundane diplomatic congratulatory note from US President Joe Biden to Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, published on February 7 on the official web page of the Serbian Presidency.

In his “congratulations” to his Serbian counterpart ahead of Serbia’s Statehood Day, on February 15, Biden underlined his support for Serbia’s goal of EU accession and all the tough steps on that road. So far so good. However, one of these tough steps, according to Biden, is “reaching a comprehensive normalization agreement with Kosovo centred on mutual recognition”.

Reading the “congratulatory” note must have been bitter-sweet for President Vucic and for much of the Serbian public – probably more bitter than sweet.

Congratulating another state on its statehood day while in the same breath negating its perceived statehood – by calling on it to recognize a polity that broke away from that state against its (continuing) firm wishes – is bizarre, to say the least.

From the point of view of successive Serbian governments and most of the Serbian public, US support and that of most European countries for Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was an injury. Despite this – in testimony to Serbia’s orientation towards “the West” – successive Serbian administrations – from Boris Tadic’s to Vucic’s – have worked hard to prevent differences over Kosovo from derailing Serbia’s EU accession path.

Immediately after Kosovo declared independence, then President Tadic managed to create the illusion within Serbia that Serbia’s EU accession path and the dispute over Kosovo were separate processes. Vucic more or less kept up this pretence, albeit with less pro-EU zeal.

The EU has played along with this, often obfuscating the issue of whether Serbia had to recognize Kosovo in order to join. Phrases like “normalization of relations” and “legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia” became EU-speak for a process that was intended to lead to some kind of de facto – if, Belgrade hoped, not de jure – recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

This was done in part because five EU member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain and Slovakia – also do not recognize Kosovo, but also in part to help pro-Europeans in Serbia prevent the country’s EU accession process from being derailed. The EU wanted to avoid making a bad situation worse.

By contrast, the US was always blunter about what it expected from Serbia – recognition of Kosovo. This may have irritated Belgrade, but, given that Serbia had no plans to join the United States, it could agree to disagree with Washington and leave it at that.

Biden’s words, therefore, will not have been a surprise to Belgrade. In 2019, then President Donald Trump’s congratulations on the same occasion also suggested that mutual recognition should be part of the process of “normalizing relations”, although Trump omitted such explicit references in 2020. A search of similar congratulatory words from former President Barak Obama similarly suggests that such wording was avoided then as well.

There is a time and place for everything. Basic empathy and common sense would suggest that, when congratulating another country on its statehood day, it might be a good idea to pass up the opportunity to badger it to recognize a territory that seceded against its wishes.

From the US point of view, it would be worth sticking to such diplomatic niceties, not merely out of basic consideration for Serbia’s feelings but out of a sense of US self-interest.

Successive US administrations and diplomats stationed in Belgrade have tried to build better relations with Belgrade and position the US as a friend. A recent PR campaign by the US embassy in Belgrade, under the slogan, “You are the world”, seemed to reflect that agenda. Failing to show basic tact when congratulating Serbia over its Statehood Day shoots such efforts in the foot.

If tactlessness might have been something to expect from the Trump administration when it comes to foreign policy, the new Biden administration was supposed to be about mending fences and doing things differently. Was this act of adding insult to injury a slip-up by an administration that has just come into office? Unlikely. Biden has been immersed in foreign policy for decades, as has most of his foreign policy team.

The only real conclusion is that the new US administration wants to send a message to Belgrade that the time for niceties is over: “We are in a hurry.”

There is no denying that the Biden Administration has a right to communicate in any way it wants, just as President Vucic was within his rights to comment wryly that he could think of similar messages in response – perhaps having in mind various fringe secessionist movements in the US.

The real question is whether such sledgehammer diplomacy will achieve anything. Thirteen years after Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia, it is hard to imagine any Serbian leader signing any act of recognition. There is even less evidence that Serbian public opinion has moved in the direction of supporting anything of the sort.

Antagonising Serbia’s leaders or public over Kosovo will not help the US achieve its foreign policy goals. Vucic has achieved a degree of control over Serbia’s politics and public opinion which is so unprecedented that he is better positioned than any of his recent predecessors or potential successors to “deliver” on some kind of historic compromise that would resolve Serbia’s dispute with Kosovo.

The first question is whether Vucic even wants to deliver such a deal or not. The answer is probably not a binary yes or no.

No Serbian leader wants to go down in history as having signed away Serbia’s claim to Kosovo. Vucic the master chess player’s willingness to deliver on some kind of deal on Kosovo will be conditioned on what sweeteners Serbia is offered. As Vucic likes to put it, the definition of compromise is not that one side gets nothing, while the other side gets everything, meaning independence.

Unlike the ancient Gordian knot, the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia will not be resolved by sword or sledgehammer diplomacy, but some kind of creative thinking and compromise, which avoids leaving either side humiliated and provides plenty of fig leaves to all.

The Biden administration would do well to grasp this. If it adopts a “get-tough” approach to Serbia over Kosovo – or any other problem in the Balkans – it will merely force Serbia to box itself into its “we-will-never-recognize-Kosovo” bunker.

This will further entrench what is becoming a frozen conflict. It should also not surprise the US if it pushes Serbia further into the embrace of rival powers, such as Russia and China – which for the US would be an unnecessary, self-inflicted, foreign policy own goal.

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