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On the Back Burner

Now that the wars of succession in the states of the former Yugoslavia have ended, the Balkans are no longer on the front burner of American politics. No candidate will be able to score points on the region the way Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he accused George H. W. Bush of passivity over Bosnia. Almost certainly, the moment in the first presidential debate of 2000 when both George W. Bush and his opponent, Al Gore, declared the necessity of standing with the Serbian people, will never be repeated.

But there are still some differences between the two main candidates that could have implications for southeastern Europe.

Concerns about U.S. foreign policy are much more prominently directed toward the Middle East and Central Asia, where the Bush administration is embroiled in controversial military and political engagements. Two elements of these controversies are likely to affect the Balkans, however.

First, the rapidly growing disillusionment in the United States with the occupation of Iraq is likely to reduce enthusiasm for international interventions in general, especially for initiatives to build state institutions where they have been destroyed. Just as the failure of the U.S. mission in Somalia in 1993 probably deterred the Clinton administration from attempting to intervene in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the debacle in Iraq could very well deter any new undertakings in intervention or state-building.

This may mean that the United States will be less inclined to maintain its commitment in Kosovo and in Bosnia--regardless of which candidate is elected Tuesday.

Second, the relationship between the United States and Europe has been called into question. Bush and the Republicans are adopting increasingly hostile rhetoric toward international institutions and for some reason against France in particular. Meanwhile, John Kerry has been warning against the increasing political isolation of the United States and the degradation of relations with European democracies.

The question of closer relations between the United States and Europe probably has the greatest implications in terms of trade policy and the war in Iraq; southeastern Europe figures pretty far down on that list. Neither candidate is likely to alter prevailing policy, which envisions the Balkan countries as peaceful democracies associated with the EU. However, should Kerry win and begin trying to rebuild bridges between the United States and the EU, this will defuse the favorite game of Balkan politicians: playing the Europeans and Americans against each another.

If Bush wins, the game is likely to continue.

(TOL 29.x.04)

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