U.S. Foreign Policy in Kosovo: A Brief Introduction from Bush to Biden

26.11.2021 Charles King

U.S. engagement in the former Yugoslavia did not begin in earnest or develop into a robust foreign policy scheme until the years immediately following World War II, at which point it proceeded in two phases. The first phase occurred during the Cold War, from 1947 to 1991, and was catalyzed by President Harry Truman. At this point Kosovo was a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, thus its relations with the U.S. were inextricably linked to those of Yugoslavia and the larger Soviet-American conflict. But despite the influence of Soviet principles on Yugoslavia, Josep Tito’s unwavering commitment to a policy of nonalignment and disdain for Soviet intermeddling in his country’s affairs created opportunities for President Truman and the U.S. foreign policy establishment to contain the spread of communism and an increasingly ambitious Soviet Union. So began a foreign policy towards Yugoslavia involving steady economic and military support that would continue mostly uninterrupted under subsequent administrations until the end of President George H.W. Bush’s tenure in 1993.

The second phase began with the election of President Bill Clinton in 1992. The Soviet Union had collapsed, bringing with it an end to the Cold War, U.S. hegemony, and a radical shift in American foreign policy. No longer was the emphasis on containment of Soviet ideology and aggression but was instead on promoting a liberal democratic world order, linking international markets through increased trade and open borders, and establishing a global society in which people everywhere could live with dignity and security. A new emphasis was placed on coalition building and multilateral intervention, bolstering the legitimacy and expanding the mandate of security organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and economic partnerships like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (eventually the World Trade Organization (WTO)). Foreign policy decisions no longer depended on preserving traditional U.S. security interests but were increasingly justified on humanitarian grounds. So long as the risk to U.S. service members was reasonably limited and the threat to civilians reasonably grave, the U.S. seemed poised to intervene.

This calculus at least partly explains President Clinton’s decision to contribute air support to the NATO coalition tasked with expelling Serbian forces from Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs were engaged in the systematic persecution of minority ethnic Albanians. Informed by NATO’s successful involvement in the Bosnia War, which relied on air and ground forces to bring an end to the conflict and prevent ethnic cleansing occurring there, Clinton believed a similar result could be achieved in Kosovo, namely a swift victory in the name of humanitarianism that posed little danger to U.S. service members but significant promise for a liberal democratic world order. Importantly, this was the first time NATO inserted itself into a conflict in Yugoslavia, and at the time it was the largest operation the organization had ever undertaken.

U.S. participation in the Kosovo War, which contributed to driving Serbian forces out, marked the high point of American involvement in Kosovo. American air support was regarded as crucial to, but not decisive in, Operation Allied Force’s success and no lives were lost in the process. Indeed, American intervention under President Clinton is primarily responsible for Kosovo’s exceptionally pro-American attitude. In the years following Clinton’s term however, U.S. foreign policy towards Kosovo reached another inflection point, becoming an increasingly lower priority as the U.S. turned its attention to other parts of the world, including regional conflicts in the Middle East. While engagement certainly has not stopped, actions taken have been largely insufficient and ineffective. In the face of increased pressure from international competitors like China and Russia, whose aspirations abroad and anti-democratic systems of government threaten the liberal democratic world order contemplated and advanced by a post-Cold War American-European alliance, nascent democracies like Kosovo face a grave threat from an apathetic, disengaged U.S. foreign policy.

The balance of this paper will look at U.S. foreign policy under previous presidential administrations, beginning with President Bush in 1989 and continuing through President Trump. It will then make the argument that, in light of varied approaches utilized in the past, President Biden must rely on his extensive foreign policy experience and implement a modified scheme in Kosovo and the Balkans if he is to successfully promote U.S. interests in Southeastern Europe. President Biden must continue advocating for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, develop Kosovo’s economy with a particular emphasis on agriculture and energy, legitimize Kosovo’s independence within the international community, and work directly with Kosovo’s recently elected administration to bolster democratic institutions. Not only has an active, tailored foreign policy in Kosovo been continuous and bipartisan since the early days of the Cold War, such an approach will advance our economic and security interests, including Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkan region, securing the region’s energy sources, increasing regional investment and commercial development, advancing and strengthening Kosovo’s rule of law institutions, and ensuring equal treatment and access to all blocs of Kosovo society. It will also signal to the rest of the world President Biden’s commitment to repairing U.S. alliances and partnerships denigrated by President Trump and ensure long lasting peace and prosperity in Kosovo.