By David B. Kanin*
Not long ago, I took part in a conversation about the long-running soap opera called the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue. Not surprisingly, most Western participants stressed the need for broader and deeper European and — especially – American involvement in another round of the usual diplomacy. The majority of academics and journalists from the region were content to surrender authority for their future to the outsiders. My observation that these powers have proven they have no strategy for managing (much less solving) Balkan problems and suggestion that economic, social, and political improvement depend on indigenous authorship were politely brushed aside.
This is comprador thinking. Anti-imperialist voices, going back at least to the scholars considered part of the ”subaltern” school of thought, have chronicled the subordination of Western-educated and otherwise influenced elites and intellectuals in colonial and post-colonial settings to the rhetoric and resources of the imperial center. Some public intellectuals bask in honors and attention from the bureaucrats, diplomats and academics to whom they cede conceptual pride of place. Others simply ignore the evidence of post-imperial cupidity or incompetence. The more perceptive criticize specific Western errors but cling to the waiting-for-Godot hope that increased and/or smarter attention from the West will magically produce – something.
It is hard to know what it will take for at least some of these folks to take seriously the possibility that what they see is what they get and that they can expect nothing from the West different from what they have witnessed over the past three decades. The Americans will continue to reject, deride, or quietly discard any initiative on any topic not authored in Washington. The self-vaunted European Union will keep extending the length of every Balkan applicant’s “European path” while issuing stern demands that Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania perform various acts of contrition (under the ubiquitous slogan of “reform.”)
The guess here is that the EU, with much ceremony and celebration, eventually will advance the status of Montenegro’s, North Macedonia’s, and Albania’s applications while still relegating actual membership to the indefinite future. This might convince the others that their time will come. The admission of Bulgaria and Romania despite the fact neither had done what current Balkan applicants are being ordered to do – for example, providing transparent governance, establishing rule of law, or taming corruption and organized crime – served to kick applications from Turkey and Balkan states south of the Sava as far off as possible while keeping them in thrall as EU supplicants. Whatever happens, visits to the region by EU potentates and special rapporteurs and reviews of each country’s behavior by the European Commission and parliament will parade the EU’s authority and exploit the willingness of local public intellectuals to continue to swallow repeated promises and admonitions.
It is a shame people who should be independent thinkers and opinion makers so far have been unwilling or unable to lead. Nevertheless, they still have an opportunity to help governments and publics optimize the leverage provided by the West’s cascading weakness and lack of a strategic compass. Southeastern Europe is one of the few parts of the world where anyone actually pays attention to what the Europeans have to say on security issues. A sense that Balkan opinion makers no longer took seriously EU palaver would open the way to useful debate among Balkan communities around the question of where to go from here. Such a change of attitude also might lead the Europeans to drop a little of their haughtiness. It certainly would raise fears of future conflict, but those thoughts are already in the air in the wake of false promises and stillborn initiatives emanating from the West.
Public intellectuals in the Balkans also would become more constructive if they realized that Washington no longer is strong enough to force its rickety security constructions on the Balkans or other areas of actual or potential conflict. (To be fair, a couple people involved in the conversation I took part in acknowledged the growing perception in the region of US decline and Chinese ascendency.)
Nervous talk of a union of democracies in the face of a rising tide of autocratic alternatives is a sign of the weakness of the liberal international order and of the narrowing margin for error Washington faces. On all sides of the fragmented American political scene there is an understanding that the country cannot afford to repeat once again the serial mistakes made in wars and diplomacy in the Balkans, Middle East, Southeast Asia, and just about everywhere else. A grand gathering of democracies would feel good, make strong noises, and provide the kind of security theater so cogently analyzed by the late Charles Tilly. Of course, organizers would have to decide which countries actually are “democracies,” providing China and Russia with new or enhanced openings in places left out of the favored circle.
Rather than continue to tug at Western trousers, public intellectuals in the Balkans might more usefully start to operate from the assumption that their erstwhile masters simply will not – cannot – provide guidance and wisdom, and that it is time someone in the Balkans besides Aleksandar Vucic starts to operate as an independent actor. A good start would be for Balkan governments to tell the EU to stop giving it orders and conditions for membership; those governments might could even levy conditions of their own to be satisfied by the EU before Balkan states would consider whether to accept an invitation to join.
When it comes to the Americans, Balkan public intellectuals are in a good position to ask tough questions and not accept the usual condescending answers. A lot of people from the region have studied and worked in the West. They have the opportunity to use their experience and education to treat American rhetoric and behavior from an anthropological perspective, translating the symbolic forms of official and academic communication so Balkan publics can understand the content and practice of strategic decline. It is important for regional decision makers and opinion leaders to become aware that deep domestic social divisions and political paralysis will prevent Washington from doing much beyond using calls for “reform” to mask the persistence of post-1990s inertia. A more independent approach from public intellectuals would only enable preliminary work. The real heavy lifting would come if academics and journalists began to tackle the regional pathology whereby Balkan states and elites slough off responsibility for their future(s) on outside powers. Generations of work avoidance have produced a strong reluctance to take the risk of shelving local and regional disputes for the sake of common social, economic and security needs. It is much easier to be spectators to failed efforts by outside powers to dictate your behavior than to take charge yourself of managing persisting and emerging disputes. These might frustrate work by indigenous actor as much as they have defeated successive serial great power security regimes, but without this kind of effort Balkan futures are not likely to be much different than Balkan pasts.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
- For a taste of these thinkers, see Ranait Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed., Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.