Transatlantic Burden Sharing for the Western Balkans: The Route to Strategic Alignment


The full and strategic alignment of policies and strategies between the United States and the EU regarding the Western Balkans region needs to be prioritized in the current challenging security context. It has worked before and will work again.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană and the Ambassadors of Allies and of KFOR troop-contributing Partners sitting on a large blue table
Teaser Image Caption
The North Atlantic Council visits KFOR, 2022.

Back to the future

When asked to identify the main security threats for 2024, geopolitical experts often mention the Western Balkans, alongside Ukraine and the Middle East, where full-fledged wars have been taking place over the last months.

The rising instability in the region, with persisting hotspots in northern Kosovo, Bosnia and recently in Montenegro, is an indication that optimistic expectations about a region at peace and with a dynamic EU integration process in place have not been met. On the contrary, NATO finds itself compelled to increase its troops in Kosovo and increase its presence and commitment in the entire region. Towards the end of 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited four out of six countries in the region and met with all the key political leaders, reaffirming the commitment of the alliance to being one step ahead of mounting security challenges.

In addition, the region continues to be divided when it comes to aligning with the security and foreign policy of the West. Positions vary across the spectrum. For instance, while Albania has kept itself aligned with Western positions during its tenure of the nonpermanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, Serbia has refused to implement sanctions against Russia. Other countries affected by feeble internal political equilibriums stand somewhere in the middle. This has consolidated the influential position of third actors, primarily Russia and China, allowing them to exert both hard and soft power. 

EU integration, regional cooperation – yet to deliver when it comes to security

The concerted effort to integrate the Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic structures stands out as a key element of the Transatlantic Partnership. It is rooted in the shared conviction of both the United States and the European Union that European integration offers the most viable pathway for sustaining peace, fostering democracy, and promoting prosperity in the Western Balkans.

However, 2023 marked a significant deterioration in the security situation, which once again raises questions as to why the ongoing processes of EU integration and regional cooperation are not resulting in a more peaceful and stable region. There are several explanations for this observation:

First, the overall stagnation and the ‘game of vetoes’ that have characterized roughly the last decade of EU enlargement policy have in turn significantly reduced the credibility and therefore the influence of this process to make lasting changes.

Second, there has been a lack of clarity when it comes to the legality of fragile agreements such as those reached between Serbia and Kosovo. Also, there are serious questions over the real costs of noncompliance with regards to these agreements. The failure of the EU to achieve any real mediation has reaffirmed the need for continued US engagement on the one hand and has further encouraged other stirrers of instability in the region on the other.  

Finally, the premise of tolerating autocracies for the sake of preserving stability (the famous coined term of ‘stabilitocracy’) has come full circle. Cases like Serbia demonstrate that President Vucic has simultaneously eroded the health of Serbian democracy, while at the same time ceasing any substantial progress on the prospects of peace with Kosovo. Worse can be said about the behavior of the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is stoking tensions and presenting a real risk of secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would spiral the country down into a dangerous vortex.

Security, peace and democracy need to be considered together once again under the EU perspective, which in turn needs to regain clarity, credibility and persuasion power. 

Preparing for all scenarios

One key upcoming challenge for the coordination between the transatlantic partners are the 2024 U.S. presidential elections. It is no secret that in the past the likely Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump has not been a fan of NATO. This is not to say that, if elected President, he would dismantle the Alliance as some experts fear. However, his potential presidency could and will once again bring significant levels of unpredictability and animosity to the table.

One serious point of contention has been the issue of burden sharing in NATO; more specifically regarding military expenditure (or the lack thereof) in Europe. However, there are some factors in place that can appease the United States when it comes to this complaint. European NATO members, prompted by the conflict in Ukraine, have made serious pledges to increase military expenditure. Countries ranging from Germany to Albania, my own country, have put plans in place and will definitely scale up military spending.

Previous experience has shown how a Trump administration would think of this region. With Richard Grenell, a spring-source of controversial communication and a preference for personal relationships, as the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, the key intervention was the Washington agreement between the two negotiating countries. This entirely ad-hoc and legally non-binding text was far-ranging in scope and method, as far as to include the relations of the two countries with Israel. While pragmatic thinking is not unfamiliar to the other side of the Atlantic, the Trump administration’s messy approach was contrary to the strategic, clear and decisive approach the region needs.

In this context, some experts argue that more local ownership from the EU in the region is necessary, especially when it comes to security. However, the leverage that the US enjoys cannot be easily replaced even in the medium term. Therefore, the realistic way continues to be the coordination and alignment of policies between the United States and the European Union.

Moving forward

It is necessary to develop a new framework of thinking about security. Some experts rightly argue that a shift in methodology is due, especially when it comes to factoring in spending. For instance, strategic investments in increasing resilience should also count towards meeting the 2 percent target of NATO. Furthermore a conceptual shift from ‘burden sharing’ to ‘responsibility sharing’ would imbue the debate with a more positive and proactive rationale.

There are a number of new and hybrid challenges that the Western Balkans have been facing in the last decade. These include cyber-attacks, the episodic rise of violent extremism and religious radicalization as well as failures in managing natural disasters that often put critical infrastructure at risk. Transatlantic burden-sharing in these fields of security engagement also needs to be revamped. For example, cyber-security and the impact of artificial intelligence in the field of security in general are topics where the technological might of the United States and the solid regulatory framework of the EU can assist the region to consolidate its preparedness, which currently stands at amateur levels.

Related to this, the impact of disinformation and misinformation, fake news and propaganda from third parties in the region is significant and is gnawing away at the euro-Atlantic rationale of promoting democratic values. Transatlantic coordination in this field can and should become more creative and resourceful in order to win the battle for the attention and persuasion of the regional public. This includes joint and coordinated efforts in increasing media literacy as well as counteracting malignant and incendiary narratives.

Strategic alignment and complementary interventions, combining the strengths of the EU and the United States and consolidating the NATO engagement in a region with already three NATO member states continue to be the safe and effective option. However, in the context of a continent at war and with rising instability around and within it, the EU needs to take a clearer and stronger position on its enlargement policy and the relevant conditionality.