International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. After the presidential elections in the US, which took place on 3 November 2020, IFIMES analyzed the foreign policy of the new US administration with respect to Europe, the Middle East and Western Balkans. We bring the most important and interesting excerpts from the analysis titled “2020 United States of America: Foreign Policy of the New US Administration for Europe, Middle East and Western Balkans.”
The US policy towards US’s most loyal Arab allies will not undergo radical changes. Biden wishes to remodel the relations with the allies in the Gulf, and particularly with Saudi Arabia, on new basis.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and the Saudi state media have openly sided with Trump in the election campaign, because he led a foreign policy in an informal way based on personal relations. It was easy to bypass the US State Department and Pentagon, when Prince MBS could send a WhatsApp message to President's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner.
The case of the assassination of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has shocked the US public, Congress and the international public. His body was dismembered in the Saudi Consular Office in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. Assessments made by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed involvement of the Crown Prince in this crime. Despite numerous evidence provided by US intelligence agencies, particularly after the visit of the CIA Director Gina Haspel to Turkey on 18 October 2019 and her briefing to the Congress on 4 December 2018, President Trump only mildly and indirectly criticized the orderer of this heinous act.
On the anniversary of the assassination of reporter Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2020, Biden pledged that, if he wins, he shall re-asses the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, end the military support to the devastating war led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms.”
Biden's arrival to the White House will hinder the process of transfer of the throne from King Salman to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, particularly after the court in Washington has sent summons on 29 October 2020 to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and nine more Saudis within the investigation pertaining to the lawsuit initiated by a former Saudi intelligence agent Saad Al-Jabri before the US court, accusing the Crown Prince MBS and a number of persons associated with him for an attempt on his life from May 2020 on the territory of Canada.
The US-Turkish partnership, which has existed for decades already between the two countries particularly within the framework of the NATO alliance, has faced serious challenges during Trump's administration because of the disagreements on the policy towards Syria, close connections between Ankara and Moscow, Turkish procurement of S-400 anti-rocket systems from Russia, Turkish ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, US accusations regarding the Turkish national bank and the human rights and civic freedoms situation in Turkey.
Several days after Turkey had received Russian S-400 anti-rocket defense systems in July 2019, senior security officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump unanimously agreed on the necessity for Washington to decide on introduction of sanctions to Turkey, its NATO partner.
The US State Department referred its recommendations to the US National Security Council and called on them to urgently impose sanctions against individuals and entities in Turkey, whereas these measures were to be enforced as soon as President Donald Trump approves them. However, the President did not approve them and did not agree with his closest advisors because of the friendly and special relations he has with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Namely, Trump had publicly praised Erdogan and his leadership style, as well as described him as a “friend” and “brilliant leader”.
It is expected that Biden, who described Erdogan last December as a „despot“, will take a stronger stance on Turkey, particularly with respect to human rights and democratic norms. During the campaign Biden suggested that Washington should support the opposition in Turkey, so that it could defeat Erdogan. This angered Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin, who posted a twit in which he described Biden's words as “based on pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy.”
One of Biden's first foreign policy steps will be reestablishment of Washington's commitment to US allies in NATO, which was weakened during Trump's era by skepticism regarding the relevance and role of the NATO alliance. Hence, Biden will try to cooperate with Turkey within the NATO framework in order to distance Ankara from Moscow.
Political changes in the Western Balkans begun in North Macedonia in 2017. The success of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and his government is proof that changes are possible. Another testimony of this is the Washington agreement between the official Belgrade and Priština, signed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (LDK). The central issue in the region is finalization of the political dialogue between official Belgrade and Priština, which is mediated by the EU, with the signing of a legally binding agreement. Serbian President Vučić has played an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
An important impetus to the changes in the Western Balkans was also the fall of the 31-years-long regime of Milo Đukanović (DPS). The results of local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, held on 15 November 2020, also show that changes are possible. This was evident in the entity of Republika Srpska were the regime of Milorad Dodik (SNSD) was defeated in Banja Luka, which is the largest city in the RS, as well as in Bijeljina and three important economic centers (Derventa, Modriča and Brod). Political changes also took place in Sarajevo where Bakir Izetbegović's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) was defeated. The results of local elections will lead to a new wave of political changes and represent a prelude to tectonic political changes expected at general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022. A point of concern is the situation in Albania, which is extremely polarized and at the verge of a civil war. Namely, it is only thanks to the multiyear political experience and political wisdom of Albanian President Ilir Meta that the civil war has been avoided.
Analysts believe that the arrival of new US administration headed by President Joseph Biden is the key element for political changes in the Western Balkans, and particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new US administration in collaboration with the EU has to seek new political leaders who will lead the country to necessary political changes, which will ultimately result in prosperity of Western Balkan countries. Majority of current political leaders in the Western Balkans cannot be partners to the new US administration for comprehensive political changes. Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have the political will or strong institutions for the fight against crime and corruption, which is why BiH will need assistance from US security- intelligence agencies, similar to the one provided to Italy after World War II in the showdown with the mafia. The current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is similar to the one in Italy after WWII. In this respect, it is important to investigate and establish the origin of property of numerous senior officials. Namely, without strong US engagement nothing will function.
The encouraging fact is that in his conversation with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the newly elected US President Joseph Biden touched upon the Western Balkans as well. In addition to putting politicians who undermine peace, stability and social order on the „black list“ of the US administration, the success of changes will also require a more radical US approach to the proponents of retrograde and outdated policies, (international) crime and corruption. A point of concern in this respect is the fact that some international representatives in BiH act together with proponents of crime and corruption in specific states and that with such international representatives it will not be possible to conduct comprehensive changes.
Although specific countries in the region present themselves as US allies, and even purchase US weapons and F-16 aircrafts, i.e Bulgaria, the reality is different. Namely, Bulgaria still closely cooperates with Russia, as well as international criminal organizations. Such states block progress and activities of the EU. An example are the Višegrad Group member states. Currently, Hungary and Poland are blocking the EU budget, which is earmarked for assistance for mitigation of consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and are obviously acting in someone else’s interest. Specifically, not in the interests of the EU or the US, but their opponents.
Bulgaria is a typical “case state”. Although an EU and NATO member, not just that now it would not meet even half of the conditions for membership in the EU, but it also does not cultivate high democratic standards, which are binding for NATO members. Bulgaria is stuck in the vicious circle of “politics-crime-mafia.” The fact that the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borissov (GERB/EPP) is controlled by the mafia, as Bulgarian President Rumen Radev had stated, gives reason for concern. The question to be asked is does the mafia participate in the decision-making process and the blockades at the EU level?
For already a year France and its President Emmanuel Macron have been slowing down the progress on the Western Balkans, because in October 2018 they blocked the beginning of the talks of the EU with North Macedonia and Albania by requesting adoption of a new methodology in the accession process for candidate countries. While the new EU methodology does not bring any new additional value, such obstructions for integration into the EU have encourage the forces in the Western Balkans that wish to change the geopolitical orientation of Western Balkan countries, that is to turn away their respective countries from the West.
The Bulgarian blockade of the beginning of talks with North Macedonia on membership in the EU indicates that the EU does not have control over the integration and processes within the EU. A point of concern is that Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU/EPP), which is currently chairing the EU Council, did not have the influence or the strength to eliminate the Bulgarian blockade of North Macedonia. EU needs thorough reforms and legal order which would eliminate all those who wish to use obstructions and blockades to impede the necessary development and progress of the EU, which already lags behind global processes and is paying a high price for that.
It is important that the establishment of the “Mini Schengen”, as the most important regional initiative, enjoys strong support of US administration. Bearing in mind that in its recent history the region experienced bloody conflicts, it is important that in their legal systems the states have laws that ban denial of genocide and holocaust, as it would be the correct civilized way to face the past.
The EU has to be more decisive and speedily integrate Western Balkan countries into the EU, as otherwise other spheres of interest will integrate them and then the Western Balkans will be lost for the EU forever.
Joseph Biden will take the office of the US President under unprecedented internal divisions in the US and at the time when the main US rivals have become significantly stronger and cannot be easily stopped. Particularly the aggressive penetration of China and Russia in Asia, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, which means that he will have to face difficult foreign policy challenges. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives (218 D/202 R), will allow Biden to have flexibility to quickly and efficiently work on foreign policy issues. This however does not apply for the Senate where for the time being the Republicans have a majority (46 D/ 50 R).
The new American administration will face a divided Europe where populist leaders in Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, undermine the EU from within, while the transatlantic alliance is rather shaken.
Biden and his team are well familiar with the Middle East, and will understand, just like the previous administrations, that deterioration of relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey does not suit America interests. You cannot chose who will sit on the other side of the table, particularly not when you are trying to achieve consensus on Iran, resolve the war in Syria and further the peace process between Israel and Palestinians.
It is expected that the newly elected US president Joseph Biden will follow some kind of modified Obama's policy towards the Gulf states, which will be focused on preservation of foundations of security and stability in the region without allowing use of force (as in the case of Qatar) and on calling for steps towards democracy and promotion of human rights and civic freedoms, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Biden will definitely not seek new friends by quoting President John F. Kennedy (D) (1961-1963) when he said “The presidency is not a very good place to make new friends. I am going to keep my old friends.”
The Middle East has great expectations from new US president Biden because of the reduced role of the UN and Europe in the Arab world. Former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre (1995-2001) said: “If America is doing well, the world is doing well, and if America is not doing well, then the world is not doing well. “
That is why without the engagement of the US there can be no enduring peace, stability and prosperity in the Balkans, because a significant part of political structures in the region have strong connections with and are in the service of some other interests- interests of US rivals. During Trump's administration the US departed from democratic values that give America the power and make it a unique nation. Hence, hard work to return to the true democratic values that America cherishes will follow.