There is nothing like an international peace deal to make a president seem — well, more presidential.
The fact that President Donald Trump lacked the foreign policy experience of many of his predecessors did not stop him from getting involved in one of Europe’s most intractable political issues: the long-running dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. And the fact that this month’s White House meeting between the two sides didn’t actually accomplish much didn’t stop him from hailing it as a major deal.
Tensions between the two countries have lingered since the bloody conflict that took place during the fall of communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kosovo and Serbia have complex territorial and ethnic disputes that have boggled the minds of many a UN and European delegate previously handed the task of trying to bring a lasting peace to the region.
The US has great standing in Kosovo, a tiny country that used to be Serbia’s southern province until a NATO bombing backed by Bill Clinton in 1999 led it to break away and eventually declare independence in 2008. Serbia still doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence.
While the active conflict ended two decades ago, Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo — a position that is backed by Russia and China — has led to a range of disputes. Serbia has boycotted international meetings where Kosovo is on the participant list. International troops, including ones from the United States, still maintain the peace by mediating between Serbs and Kosovars, although not a single shot has been fired between the two sides since 1999.
Somehow, someone persuaded Trump that this, of all foreign policy problems, would be an easy win — and, moreover, that it would give him bragging rights ahead of the November elections. “President brokers peace deal between two European foes” is the kind of headline Trump would love, especially now.
Last October, Trump picked Richard Grenell, a relative novice on the foreign policy scene, and gave him the takes-more-than-a-novice task of resolving the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. European observers were puzzled. At the time, Grenell was already the US ambassador to Germany, a key European ally, and the State Department already had a special representative trying to negotiate peace between Serbia and Kosovo: Matthew Palmer, a diplomat with a solid record in southeastern Europe. The European Union, too, had been involved in trying to solve the Kosovo-Serbia issue since at least 2011 through a myriad of proposed deals.
During his time as the ambassador to Germany, Grenell became known as the most controversial of Trump’s appointees on the ambassador circuit in Europe. He defied diplomatic standards by lecturing his host government on Twitter. He advocated for a “maximum pressure” campaign to spearhead regime change in Iran when Germany rejected Trump’s Iran policy and tried to keep the Iran deal afloat, and said he would proudly support conservatives all over the continent — unlike previous US ambassadors who have refused to take sides in Europe’s complex political landscape.
Early in his tenure in Berlin, Grenell defined the “Trump Doctrine” of foreign policy as squeezing countries ranging from Russia to Iran while dangling the prospect of a “different path if they change their behavior.” The “our way or the highway” approach was an unusual thing to hear from a diplomat — and it’s also how he appears to have handled the Kosovo-Serbia issue.
Grenell’s appointment coincided with elections in Kosovo, where for the first time since the war in the 1990s, a reform-minded party dead set on removing the corrupt political class won the national elections. That’s a big deal in eastern Europe, which is beset by corrupt politicians who use political instability to maintain power while lining their pockets through shady deals and nepotistic hiring practices. Any previous US administration would have welcomed Kosovo’s Self-Determination Party to power.
Instead, Grenell openly clashed with the new prime minister, Albin Kurti, who refused to participate in a meeting in the White House with Serbian representatives and said that the Kosovo side was being rushed into signing a peace deal for the sake of optics.
Grenell called the party and its leader “anti-American,” and supported a no-confidence vote in March, pushing the parliament of a staunchly pro-American country to topple its own government in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
“My government is facing a coup,” Kurti said at the time. “The US envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia crisis is backing the criminals and corrupt officials in the country.”
In a multiparty parliamentary system, a vote of no-confidence strips the prime minister, various ministers, and other officials of power and calls for a new government to be formed with officials from other parties. And that’s precisely what happened.
Fast forward to this month, when the new prime minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, and the president of Serbia flew to Washington to meet with Trump and sign what the administration dubbed a historic deal. Very little of the content was known ahead of the meeting, and European outlets speculated that the deal might lead to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo.
Instead, the agreement mainly amounted to a rerun of deals already signed by the two countries in talks brokered by European diplomats. Worse, many aspects of what was announced in Washington are not even being implemented and are unlikely to be fully implemented in the near future. For example, the sides already agreed in 2011 to recognize university diplomas issued by the other country, which would improve employment prospects for people in both countries, but there’s no indication that will actually happen anytime soon.
The only truly new element in the deal Washington presented was the inclusion of Israel’s recognition of Kosovo, and the commitment of both Serbia and Kosovo to move their embassies to Jerusalem, as Trump did with the US embassy there. The location of embassies in Israel is a contentious and unresolved issue in negotiations with the Palestinians, who still hope to claim part of Jerusalem as their capital. Most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. A European Union spokesman said the deal “calls into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem” and is “a matter of serious concern and regret.”
In other words, Trump’s deal not only failed to solve the Kosovo-Serbia impasse — it injected it with a difficult issue from another part of the world.
Once Trump started basking in the nomination he got for the Nobel Peace Prize after the deal, its real purpose became clearer.
It was never about Kosovo or Serbia at all, or bringing any modicum of a real solution to one of Europe’s most difficult foreign policy issues. It was about giving President Trump an event, a media spectacle with publicity and photos, with the supposedly consummate dealmaker at the center of it all bringing peace to two enemies by dint of his own powers of persuasion.
But none of that was achieved. And, despite the praise Trump received from his supporters and appointees at the time the deal was signed, the vicious election year news cycle has already moved on — deal or no deal.
Una Hajdari is an independent journalist focused on the Balkans and central and eastern Europe. She was an Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the Globe in 2018.