By David L. Phillips
Kosova used to enjoy broad bipartisan support in the United States. President Bill Clinton led NATO’s action to stop Serbia’s genocide of Kosova Albanians in 1999. President George W. Bush coordinated international recognition of Kosova’s independence in 2008. Today, the Trump administration has an ambiguous approach to supporting Kosova. John R. Bolton, the National Security Adviser, has an anti-Albanian bias that undermines Kosova’s sovereignty, as well as U.S. interests in the region.
For decades, Bolton has been unabashed in his preference for Serbia. He backs Belgrade’s present plan to partition Kosova in exchange for normalization of relations between Kosova and Serbia.
Bolton’s anti-Albanian bias dates back to the 1990s when he objected to America’s “illegal” intervention to stop the genocide of Kosova Albanians by Serbia. He downplayed the killing of more than ten thousand Kosova Albanians and the displacement of one million. According to Bolton, “[There is] not sufficient American interest to take the side of either the Kosova Albanians or of the Serbs.”
Bolton went on to oppose U.S. recognition of Kosova in 2008. Bolton slammed the U.S. Government’s “anti-Serbian politics ever since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.” “I think the U.S. would be making a mistake if they unilaterally recognized Kosova. The only reasonable solution would result from talks between the Serbs and Kosova Albanians. A potential imposed solution could lead to violence, which is in no-one’s interests.” In an interview with Russia Today, Bolton warned that Kosova’s independence would “increase the risk of instability and attract Islamic extremists from around the world.”
Nobody paid much attention to Bolton’s incendiary and irrelevant comments in the past. He was a crackpot pundit, shunned for his radical views by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now as National Security Adviser, Bolton is in a position to do some real damage. In August, Bolton blew up the Kosova-Serbia dialogue by declaring: [“The U.S.] will not exclude or oppose territorial swaps between Serbia and Kosova.” Echoing Moscow’s position, he arranged a letter from Trump to Thaci endorsing partition if the two sides agreed to it.
Bolton recently slammed Kosova’s adoption of a 100 percent tariff on Serbian exports to Kosova. The U.S. threatened Kosova for acting without its permission.
Bolton turned a blind eye to events that preceded imposition of the tariff. While showing up in Brussels to discuss normalization with Kosova, Serbia was playing a dirty double game discouraging countries from recognizing Kosova and even lobbying countries that have recognized Kosova to withdraw their recognition. Absent effective U.S. diplomacy, Kosova’s INTERPOL candidacy went down to defeat.
Bolton says he is agnostic, but actually favors partition. He dangled the prospect of a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House if Kosova concedes to foreign pressure and agrees to adjust its borders. His approach tracks a history of anti-Albanian views over decades. He obfuscates the difference between aggressor and victim.
Martii Ahtisaari, the world class diplomat who served as Finland’s president and received the Nobel peace Prize in 2008 for his work as UN Special Envoy on Kosova, was strategically focused and tactically flexible. He had a vision for negotiations. According to Ahtisaari, independence was the only outcome. “The train has left the station and we know where it will arrive.” He told me, “In all my negotiations, I knew from the beginning what the outcome would be.”
Ahtisaari’s mediation was guided by principles: no return to the status quo; no partition of Kosova; and no greater Albania. He understood America’s importance. “U.S. leadership was so clear and firm. My biggest problem was the Europeans.”
Bolton’s approach is diametrically different. Bolton says the parties should decide, warning against “deciding the outcome in advance.” Instead of being principled and resolute in pursuit of an outcome, Bolton behaves in a way that is beholden to Serbia and acquiescent to Russia. He relies on European-led mediation.
His diplomacy is either technically incompetent, morally bankrupt – or both.
On this anniversary of Kosova’s independence, we recall Bush’s promise to President Sejdiu on February 18, 2008: “The United States will be your partner and your friend. As Kosova opens a new chapter in its history as an independent state, I look forward to deepening and strengthening our special friendship.”
The Government of Kosova must recognize the uncertainty of America’s support. Comfort can be found in the fact that Bolton is a passing figure. His anti-Albanian bias will end up in dustbin of history.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He worked with Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke as a Senior Adviser at the State Department. He has written many books including Liberating Kosova: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention (Harvard’s Kennedy School).