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‘Amateur’ Trump gives diplomatic doomsters a kick in the Balkans


THE queue to be Barack Obama’s best friend was long, and now the queue to be President Trump’s worst enemy is longer. 

The US and European foreign policy establishment have been at the head of both queues. Yet by any objective standard, Obama was a failure and Trump the ‘amateur’ has achieved progress by ignoring the professionals’ deepest convictions.

His latest success has been to coax Serbia and its former dependency Kosovo towards a normalisation of relations 20 years after Nato air forces, including Britain’s, bombed Serbia into abandoning Kosovo. Belgrade suffered the first sustained air war against a European city since the Second World War.

The deal between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the White House last week was not bilateral. Each nation signed a separate agreement with the US. It was negotiated by Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell, who operated independently of the State Department (which, to be fair, has always been supportive of Kosovo).

At the moment it commits Serbs and Kosovans to work only on better economic ties and Serbia to a 12-month truce in its futile agitation against Kosovan independence, which is internationally recognised. But it holds out the prospect of closing one of the last open wounds in the war that destroyed former Yugoslavia.

The war was never out of the headlines for most of the 1990s because what happens in the Balkans matters to European stability and still does, given that the region is a migrant conduit to the EU. If Serbia can make peace with Kosovo – a prequisite – Belgrade can be brought back into the European fold, which would be a big win for the West. 

This matters geopolitically. What matters to us in Britain as we take sides in the US election is that it is further evidence that we can trust Trump’s foreign policy instincts no matter how hard the media try to spin him as a bungler out of his depth. 

The Serbia-Kosovo opening deal, coming after the Israeli-United Arab Emirates peace treaty, crowns a series of successful initiatives opposed by foreign policy professionals. 

They began with Trump’s open challenge to the Chinese when he called the president of Taiwan – a ghost country to the UN at Beijing’s insistence – after his election. He bucked the trend of US presidents saving Chinese ‘face’ even when it hurt America and he’s called out the Chinese Communist Party every time he’s caught it cheating. So far, Trump is winning.

American and European diplomats yelped when he withdrew from the Paris and Iran agreements entered into by Obama and again when he moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The diplomatic consensus was that each action was fraught with danger – and that consensus was wrong each time. Israeli is closer than ever before to Sunni Arab states with its UAE treaty.

When Trump hunted down the leader of Isis, liberals were appalled. When he killed the Iranian terrorist chief General Qasem Soleimani, media hysterics warned the result would be the Third World War, which appears to have come and gone without anyone noticing. 

Asking the Nato allies to pony up their fair share of the cost of their own defence was depicted as being disrespectful to debtors who had the money but preferred to spend it elsewhere.

None of this success has been given the appreciation and gratitude it deserves, especially from liberals droning incessantly like crones at a wake about the West’s inevitable decline and who, it can fairly be said, would be swooning if it had come about under Obama (except that he was the chief defeatist).

Quite apart from being a diplomatic success that all can welcome, the importance of the Serbia-Kosovo breakthrough cannot be underestimated if it stays on track. It’s an important opportunity for Serbia to rehabilitate itself from unfair blame for the Yugoslav war and rejoin the European mainstream.

The soundbite version of history, which is the one that’s always handed down and quoted, says that the war which broke out in 1991 stemmed from the fierce Serb nationalism that President Slobodan Milosevic stirred with a speech at Kosovo Polje in 1987. It established the Serbs as the bad boys of the Balkans, although Croatian and Bosnian Moslem separatist nationalism was just as potent.

When the war finally ended with the Dayton Agreement negotiated by President Clinton along with Milosevic and the late Richard Holbrooke, the future of Kosovo, officially as much a part of Serbia as Yorkshire is of England, remained unsettled. Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright resolved to prise it from Serbia’s grasp by any means.

The only way an outsider can understand the importance of Kosovo to Serbs is to imagine something that is inseparable from his own national identity. Kosovo Polje is the site of a battle fought in 1389 between Serbs and Turks. Serb defeat resulted in centuries of subjugation under Ottoman rule and made Kosovo their sacred land to this day.

Educated, middle-class Serbs who loathed Milosevic could not contemplate its loss. There existed no way that Milosevic could have negotiated its independence, although by this time 90 per cent of its population was ethnic Albanian and what remained of the Serb community was diminishing.

Clinton settled the issue by arming and training the Kosovo Liberation Army, which sprang from nowhere to confront the Serbian police, and unleashing Nato against Serbia with Britain’s enthusiastic support in what liberals boasted was ‘their war’ of good against evil.

While the Serbs were only partially responsible for the Yugoslav war – Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegović were equally to blame – they were guilty of the repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, who were the area’s historic inhabitants before Serbs.

What matters now is a normalisation of relations between the two aggrieved neighbours which will be a long haul, but which Trump and his foreign policy team have kick-started and the UK should support in any way it can.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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