What defines foreign policy of one country, and what of Serbia?

Marko Savković

28. September 2017

What defines foreign policy of one country, and what of Serbia?

One of the leading “realists” in understanding international relations, Stephen Walt, has recently dealt with a dilemma that has occupied researchers for decades: what defines the conduct of a state in foreign policy. Inspired by Austin Long’s book, “The Soul of Armies”, as well as the academic work Ariane Tabatabai and Annie Tracy Samuel, “What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us about the Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal” (published in International Security 42 (1), pp. 152-185), he believes that the war, that is, the experience of participation in the war, is one of the factors that has not been paid due attention, which decisively influences the actions of a particular state.

Our intention is, before we consider the formative role of the conflict, to list the factors that Walt first takes into consideration and at the same time apply them to the current state of international relations of Serbia. Of course, we are aware that the text we write can only be an introduction to a more thorough research and are ready to accept responsibility for all the errors in interpretation. Moreover, it would be great if this text would start the debate.

In the first place in Walt’s review comes power, always understood relative to the power of other countries. It is already difficult to determine the position of Serbia here. On the one hand, Serbia is spatially and by population the largest state of the narrowest region to which it belongs politically – the Western Balkans. Serbs remain present in all the countries formed following the dissolution of former Yugoslavia. It is therefore in the highest interest of Serbia that they become inclusive and prosperous societies. The importance of these facts can not be underestimated; but overestimated either – because some countries in the region, by entering the EU or NATO, greatly strengthened their position. Also, in the wider region (which is Southeast Europe), there are other countries that are economically, military, and politically more powerful than Serbia – Romania, Greece, Turkey.

The second determinant is the geographical position. The centuries-old aspiration of Serbia – to reach the sea – today is a desire and a need, but it is deliberated peacefully, in terms of improving the transport corridors towards Bar, Durres and Thessaloniki (and Ploče, Rijeka and Koper) achieved through cooperation with its neighbors. Most of these corridors must pass or already pass through its (our) territory. The geographical position, therefore, strongly influences the foreign policy of Serbia; it is good; and maybe it’s time to stop using the (negative) metaphor “house built in the middle of the road”. That is why the borders, which stand in close connection with the geographical position, do constitute a problem: in the case of Serbia they are not rounded up; nor is it certain what the “internal dialogue” will bring about.

The third determinant is type of political order. Following the typology of magazine Economist, Serbia is a “flawed democracy” in which the rights and freedoms of citizens are not limited, but are often inaccessible; where political culture is not participatory, and generally developed; participation of citizens in political processes is low, as well as interest. So, Serbia – we take an extreme counter-example – is not a dictatorship with an expansionist agenda used to hide internal problems; but it could promote the culture of real, democratic dialogue, also in the field of foreign policy. With all respect for professionals working in the system, foreign policy remains managed in a closed way, with many resources available (especially within the civil society) not used; there is no coordination of “key actors”, resulting in a number of disagreements on priorities – that our partners certainly see. If we continue with Walt’s typology we will see that in Serbia, parliament is weak and marginalized in terms of decision-making in foreign policy; and that there are, perhaps not so strong and unique, groups in our society which believe that policy has to be fundamentally changed.

In fourth place is the personality of the leader. Walt is here guided by numerous examples from the past, concluding with Trump (“if a great and powerful democracy were to elect an unqualified, ignorant, vain, and insecure narcissist as its chief executive, we might expect this decision to have deleterious effects on that country’s foreign policy and international standing”). Serbia is led by a indisputably politically powerful figure, which – judging by the interviews – does not see anything wrong in prioritizing stability as the highest value; sees no interest in disturbing relations in the region (although the elements within the executive contribute to this – not going into their motivation); but can not be certain how his “base” (which, when it comes to Serbian Progressive Party now very wide, heterogeneous) sees the whole story about “internal dialogue”. In public appearances, he often speaks in counteract, and also corrects the foreign minister. The point is that in the case of Serbia, foreign policy does not simply reflect the personality of the leader; reality is more complex.

The decision makers, who represent Serbia can be held to account for a lot of things when it comes to international relations; but not for misunderstanding the relative weakness of its (theirs) position. Serbia – despite numerous contradictory arguments – strives for co-operation in the region; except when it comes to the “most difficult and painful” of all issues (Kosovo). The basic problem runs deeper and has to do with the interpretation of the 1990s, the responsibility for war, perceived historical (un) justice and, above all, uncertainty about the course the country should take. Hence, European integration can not be seen a substitute for foreign policy. Soon to come – for those who run foreign policy – are difficult decisions in terms of Kosovo; relations with Russia; the Western Balkans. It is them who will have to make these decisions, as they accepted the responsibility when entering political and election game. They will not be able to transfer it to Brussels, Berlin or someone else.

First published in Novi Magazin weekly No. 335, 28 September 2017