Photo Katie Drazdauskaite
When colleagues at Talas invited me to write a text within the series “Serbia and the West: Beyond the EU”, I thought a lot about the title they chose. In everyday speech, the West is a geographical, cultural, political and socio-economic determinant. It has its meaning also in the context of the science of international relations, as one of the two blocs opposed in the Cold War. Although this has little to do with geography, one can become part of the West: by socio-economic transformation (‘transition’) and democratic consolidation (by adopting a set of values, consistent separation of powers, and institution building). Entry into membership of the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is taken as an indicator that a country has become or “returned to” (depending on the ideology advocated by the policy) the “West”.
My starting point is a question I recently asked at an event organized by the Center for European Policies (CEP) in Belgrade. Is there still a united West? If not, what are the implications?
For years, we have been undergoing reforms by following an example. This pattern is in the West and most countries created by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia have yet to reach it. It is advocated as a set of values and institutional solutions of EU and NATO member states (“Euro-Atlantic integrations”). Under strong ideological and national impetus, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc in 1989 (Krastev speculates that they, in addition to the democratic revolution at the time, went through the national revolution) opted for a “return to Europe” or “turn to the West”. Serbia experienced this moment in 2000, following a democratic revolution that was at the same time the “zero point” (stunde null) of an authoritarian regime. It was the West that isolated us and sentenced us to sanctions, as punishment for the disastrous policies we pursued; we expected them to acknowledge the changes we had gone through and to accept us once again.
The pattern was not perfect. Both Serbia and other countries in the process have come a long way from “naive positivism” and uncritical adoption to a realization of a reality that is different. The EU became a “normative” and “transformative” actor; and the “peace project” – the only place where we, the Western Balkans, will not strangle one another. The leading Western powers were now the undisputed mediators in interethnic conflicts; the “owners” of the security architecture of the emerging region.
These processes were possible in the context of a unipolar world, liberal order, multilateralism, globalization and supranationalism. However, a series of events – the global recession, the sovereign debt crisis, the war in Ukraine, the migrant crisis, the rise of China and its model – have made the West inevitably weaker. Now the idea of a united West is under threat of abandoning that same multilateralism, by leaders who believe they can “do it themselves”. It’s not just Putin, Trump or Xi; there are numerous examples and the impression is that the strategic divergence of the leading Western countries is increasing. Among the reasons are: the way these leaders view the world around them; awareness that agreeing on a common policy is difficult and slow; interests that are mutually exclusive but urgent; the debts owed by the politician to the groups that helped to get elected; the appeal of nationalism as a formula that brings results in elections. Hence the “great return” of identity politics (as if it was going somewhere), of “history”, of “geopolitics”. Taken together, these factors are no less a threat to liberal order than the subversive activities of Russia, China, or a third country.
In practice, this is how the West looks like today: Trump offering peace plans by himself. France and Germany, the “engine of Europe” that fails to agree on how to proceed with the European project. Brexit with no winners. NATO allies that are one or two steps away from the conflict (Greece and Turkey). No joint approach towards Russia (“North Stream 2”) and China (5G technology). And perhaps most importantly, the gap opening between Germany and the US – thus calling the axiom of the transatlantic partnership into question.
One example of this latest divergence took place in 2018/2019 around the issue of Kosovo. At the time, as the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina came to a halt, the views of the US and Germany diverged significantly. The change in approach was initiated by local actors, who saw no purpose in continuing normalization without a clear outcome. The latest initiative by Trump’s special envoy, Grenell, which seems to have taken place without the knowledge of Berlin or Brussels, is another reaffirmation of what Washington thinks of Europe’s leadership.
Perhaps the most significant implication of a weaker West is the weakening of policy of conditionality – for years seen as the only way to “get things done” in this region. It is coupled with the distancing of the famous ‘European perspective’. Take a look at the EU’s role in Kosovo today. From celebrating regional co-operation, through regional competition, we have come to a confrontation. The affirmation of Kosovo’s statehood, NATO entry and membership, identity policies, problems in economic exchange make – sometimes – Serbia sits on one side and everyone else on the other, and this must be a cause for deep reflection.
Yet, the security architecture of our region is difficult to imagine without the involvement and patronage of the leading Western countries. If they are not united they are weak. The reactions of the Quint countries and the EU institutions to denying crimes committed during the 1990s show that there are topics and problems that the West will not allow to be reinterpreted. The EU remains the “exporter of norms”: under the guidance of the European Parliament and the European Commission, progressive policies are being pursued in the areas of environmental protection, privacy and consumer rights that others rely on. Finally, Western societies themselves remain a source of inspiration in education, inclusion, social innovation, media freedom (regardless of the pervasive problem of polarization). However, in the field of international relations, things have changed and will change further.
Text was first published on February 10 as part of the “Beyond the EU: Serbia and the West” series by the portal “Talas”