Sunday, June 6, 2010

Balkan Tensions & the Future of NATO

Speech by Ted Galen Carpenter, PhD, The CATO Institute.

The CATO Institute analyst, Ted Carpenter, artfully articulates a geostrategic view on the Balkans and proposes an American foreign policy for the area that is drastically and qualitatively different from the dominant, Bush-era, view that sought NATO enlargement from Ukraine and Georgia to FYROM, Kosovo and Bosnia.
This speech was given on May 29, 2010, in Chicago, and it was part of the panel presentation at the 64th Pammacedonian Convention.

Balkan Tensions and the Future of NATO

By: Ted Galen Carpenter

A key assumption long held by proponents of NATO enlargement is that the process would both strengthen the alliance and stabilize potentially volatile portions of Europe. That assumption is dubious in general and wildly inaccurate when it comes to the Balkans. Indeed, the addition of new members such as Croatia and Albania has produced the opposite outcome with respect to both goals. Washington’s ongoing effort to add such countries as Bosnia- Herzegovina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) would likely make matters even worse. Yet that is the course that U.S. and European leaders seem determined to pursue.

New Balkan Members Weaken, Not Strengthen, NATO

It is mystery why NATO supporters cling to the notion that adding small, militarily insignificant allies makes the alliance stronger and more capable. It is an even greater mystery why opinion leaders in the U.S. foreign policy community believe that such allies benefit the security and well being of America. The opposite is true. Such NATO members are strategic liabilities, not assets, and many of them bring with them political, diplomatic, and military baggage that could prove very troublesome for the United States.

The addition of Croatia and Albania confirms that NATO enlargement has now entered the realm of farce. The military capabilities of those two countries are minuscule. According to the most recent edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Croatia’s annual military budget is a mere $875 million, and its military force consists of 18,600 active-duty personnel. Albania’s budget is an even more meager $254 million, and its active duty force is a paltry 14,295 soldiers.[1]

By not yet offering membership to FYROM, though, NATO will have to do without Skopje’s $167 million and 8,000 troops. The alliance is also missing the opportunity to add Bosnia’s $281 million in military spending and 11,099 soldiers. And, of course, there is always the prospect of gaining Montenegro’s $61 million and 3,127 troops. Serbia remains enough of a pariah to the statesmen of NATO’s leading powers that its $1.06 billion in spending and 29,125 soldiers probably will be unavailable to the alliance for many years to come.[2]

The combined annual defense outlays of all of those countries are less than the United States spends in Afghanistan in one week. Why American political leaders believe that such military pygmies augment the vast power of the United States is inexplicable.

Potential Trouble for NATO–and the United States–in the Balkans

NATO’s new and prospective Balkan members are not just militarily insignificant, they create the prospect of entangling the alliance–and its leader, the United States–in a variety of messy problems. Albania is likely to prove to be an embarrassment, or worse, for its NATO partners. The country is notorious for being under the influence of organized crime. Indeed, the Albanian mafia is legendary throughout southeastern Europe, controlling the bulk of gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking.

Moreover, Albania’s political stability remains highly uncertain, as the country is barely a decade removed from the political chaos and near civil war that led to an armed multilateral peacekeeping intervention, Operation Alba, led by Greece and Italy. Longstanding animosity between the two principal ethno-linguistic factions, the Gegs, who dominate the northern part of the country, and the Tosks, who dominate the southern portion, shows no clear signs of abating. It is important to remember that those ethnic tensions contributed to the disorder in the late 1990s, and they could easily do so again.

Problems associated with some of the countries proposed for alliance membership are even more worrisome. Bosnia in the nearly 15 years since the Dayton Accords has hardly been an unalloyed success story for ambitious Western nation builders. Although the Dayton agreement did end the tripartite civil war, Bosnia is still a country that lacks a meaningful sense of nationhood or even the basic political cohesion to be an effective state. The reality is that if secession were allowed, the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Serbs would vote to detach their self-governing region (the Republika Srpska) from Bosnia and either form an independent country or merge with Serbia. And that sentiment has intensified since the United States and its allies gave their blessing to Kosovo’s secession and unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. Most Bosnian Croats would also likely choose to secede and join with Croatia. Bosnian Muslims constitute the only faction that wishes to maintain Bosnia-Herzegovina in its current incarnation. Although the situation remains relatively stable at the moment, that could easily change.[3] And if it did, NATO would be caught up in the new turmoil.

There are even more troubling aspects if the alliance were foolish enough to add FYROM to its roster of members.[4] FYROM has a huge problem with its Albanian minority in the north and west of the country. The Albanian inhabitants there have sought a degree of political autonomy that amounts to independence in everything but name. Indeed, serious questions remain about the proper location of the border between FYROM and predominantly Albanian Kosovo–now a nominally independent country thanks to its unilateral declaration in February 2008, which occurred thanks to the instigation of the United States and the leading powers in the European Union.

An independent Kosovo is already exacerbating problems with several neighboring countries, especially FYROM. There is scant evidence that advocates of a “Greater Albania” have relinquished their territorial ambitions in the Balkans. It was an ominous development that less than a month after Pristina’s declaration of independence, the leading ethnic Albanian party in FYROM threatened to withdraw its support and bring down the government because of what party leaders described as a failure to support minority rights or to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Among that party’s demands were greater use of the Albanian language and flag in the increasingly autonomous northwestern region of FYROM and increased benefits to veterans of the 2000-2001 Albanian guerrilla insurgency.[5]

The situation has not noticeably improved over the past two years. Indeed, there was an especially alarming incident in early May 2010. Four individuals were killed in shootout with FYROM police near the northwest border hamlet of Radusa. They were driving a van transporting illegal arms from Kosovo.[6] Unless we assume that the FYROM police are exceptionally competent at their interdiction efforts, it is highly probable that there have been other shipments and that this is part of an ongoing campaign to foment a new insurgency.

If FYROM ever becomes a member of NATO, that nasty ethnic separatist problem becomes a matter of direct concern to the alliance. One would think that the United States has enough foreign policy headaches around the world without adding that one to the list.

Fortunately, it is doubtful whether FYROM will gain membership soon. Its ongoing quarrel with Greece remains a major impediment. The primary reason that FYROM was not invited to join NATO when Albania and Croatia received invitations was because Athens continued to object to that country using the name “Macedonia,” which Greeks rightly insist applies only to a region of their nation.

That controversy is not merely over a historical and linguistic point. Greeks worry the Skopje government’s insistence on calling its country Macedonia implies a territorial claim to Greek Macedonia. Maps circulating in FYROM that include major chunks of Greek territory as part of a “Greater Macedonia” do nothing to allay such fears. In early 2008, FYROM’s prime minister was photographed laying a wreath at a monument that featured a map of Greater Macedonia, which even included Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki.[7]

Such provocative territorial claims are hardly consistent with the view of FYROM that the U.S. State Department has tried to promote. The nature of Washington’s continuing lobbying campaign for NATO membership for FYROM can be seen in a gushing article about the country in the April 2010 issue of State Magazine, the department monthly publication. The cover described FYROM as the “pearl of the Balkans.” The title of the article itself was “Skopje: Ancient Macedonia Builds Modern Democracy.”[8] The American Hellenic Institute issued a scathing 5-page letter rebuking the State Department for publishing such a puff piece, and the letter effectively debunked several of the article’s claims.[9]


NATO expansion into the Balkans is a spectacularly bad idea, for it entangles the alliance in an assortment of murky disputes and potential dangers. Most of those issues are of little relevance even to NATO’s other European members, much less to the United States. The alliance has not been strengthened by the process of enlargement; to the contrary it has acquired new strategic liabilities rather than assets.

The new Balkan members are militarily useless, and they all bring with them a variety of unpleasant problems. Enlargement has been an especially bad deal for the United States. As NATO’s leader, America is responsible for implementing the alliance’s goal of maintaining stability throughout its membership zone in Europe–and in even in security arenas beyond the continent. Given the history and current condition of the Balkans, U.S. policymakers have now made all the quarrels and problems of that volatile region America’s problems. That is an extremely unwise strategy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books and more than 400 articles on international affairs. His most recent book is Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He is a contributing editor to the National Interest and serves on the editorial boards of Mediterranean Quarterly and the Journal of Strategic Studies.


[1]. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2010 (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119, 123.

[2]. Ibid., pp. 179, 186, 189, 190.

[3]. See Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western, “The Death of Dayton: How to Stop Bosnia From Falling Apart,” Foreign Affairs 88, no.5 (September-October 2009): 69-83.

[4]. For a good overview of the costs and potential problems (substantial) and prospective benefits (meager) of admitting FYROM to NATO, see Scott N. Siegel, “Weighing Macedonia’s Entry into NATO,” Mediterranean Quarterly 21, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 45-60.

[5]. Kole Casule and Matt Robinson, “Albanian Party Threatens to Bring Down Macedonian Government,” Reuters, March 12, 2008.

[6]. Jasmina Mironski, “Four Dead in Macedonia-Kosovo Border Shooting,” Agence France Presse, May 12, 2010.

[7]. Dora Bakoyannis, “All In a Name,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2008.

[8]. Stephanie Rowlands, “Skopje: Ancient Macedonia Builds Modern Democracy,” State, April 2010, pp. 22-25.

[9]. Aleco Haralambides, President, and Nick Larigakis, Executive Director, American Hellenic Institute letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton, April 27, 2010.

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