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The Failures of Potemkin Diplomacy

Trump's outgoing acting DNI Richard Grenell. Credit: photocosmos1/Shutterstock

The Trump administration recently touted an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo that has proven to be much less than it appeared. Majda Ruge explains:

Despite the unpredictability that surrounded the negotiations, one thing was clear from the start about the much-hyped U.S. effort to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo: It would be light on substance and heavy on publicity.

So it came as no big surprise that the result — two separate documents signed by each party individually — reflected the superficiality and lack of planning involved. Essentially a restatement of things already agreed between Kosovo and Serbia, the primary purpose of Friday’s “deal” was not to advance dialogue but to advance Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

Like the Israel/UAE deal that preceded it, the one between Serbia and Kosovo has been celebrated by the White House as “historic” and a significant breakthrough, and much like that other deal it is not nearly as significant as the hype would suggest. The portion of the agreement that concerned their bilateral relations contained provisions that both governments had previously committed to, and even that part is on very shaky ground because the two governments signed separate documents. They had to do this because of the ongoing dispute over Kosovo’s status, since Vucic did not want to give the impression that he was recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

Some of the major pieces of the agreement are already falling part, and it seems unlikely that any of it will be approved by Kosovo’s parliament. The former prime minister of Kosovo denounced the agreement in very strong terms yesterday:

Kurti is understandably opposed to this agreement because it was the end result of U.S. machinations that led to the fall of his government. Ric Grenell pressured Kosovo to force a deal, and Kurti objected to his strong-arm tactics. Kurti’s domestic opponents organized against him with U.S. encouragement, and that brought down his government. In a struggle between a corrupt establishment and a popular challenger, the U.S. sided with the corrupt:

The toppling of Kurti’s government, when the public sought a common front against the coronavirus, is again seen as proof that the old guard will get together to protect their ill-gained profits. Unfortunately, the US is seen as having sided with the kleptocrats who are less likely than Kurti to question Washington’s policies on solving the Serbia-Kosovo stalemate.

Given Kurti’s intense opposition to the agreement and his popularity in the country, it seems unlikely that this deal will be enacted. The Trump administration’s practice of dictating terms to other states seems to have backfired once again.

The Jerusalem Post also reports that Israeli recognition of Kosovo would ensure that Serbia does not relocate its embassy in Israel:

Israeli recognition of Kosovo as an independent country will strain relations with Serbia, despite it being in the framework of agreements the Balkan countries signed in the White House, a source close to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

“Serbia will not move its embassy to Jerusalem if Israel recognizes Kosovo as an independent country,” according to the source, who has close knowledge of the agreements signed in Washington. “Moreover, this move by Israel would harm the otherwise intimate relationship between Israel and Serbia and it will never be the same. It’s that simple.”

Gaining Israeli recognition for Kosovo was one of the few significant things that either country was going to get out of the agreement, and Serbia has now made it fairly clear that this will be a deal-breaker and will have consequences for the relationship with Israel as well. Vucic seemed surprised to learn the other day that he had agreed to move the embassy, and this will give their government a way to get out of it.

The quick unraveling of the agreement in a matter of days is a measure of the amateurish, slapdash nature of Trump administration negotiations. They can’t resolve any major issues, so they settle for the lowest-hanging fruit, and even then they seem incapable of nailing down those details. They refuse to do the necessary preparatory work that ensures that an announced agreement will actually be implemented, and that is because the president just wants the good publicity and couldn’t care less about the substance. The biggest problem with all this is that these empty agreements end up doing real harm to the cause of patient, careful diplomacy that might make some progress. Resolving Serbia and Kosovo’s disputes was already difficult enough without the fallout from this farce, and now it will be even harder.

The Trump administration has specialized in this sort of flashy, ineffective diplomacy for the last three and a half years. Summits with North Korea made for great headlines and photo ops for a brief time, but the administration never did the work required and never offered the concessions needed to deliver a meaningful agreement. U.S. officials hold pointless meetings with their Russian counterparts on arms control while issuing ridiculous demands that Russia will never accept. The administration announced a “peace” plan for Israel and Palestine with great fanfare but no Palestinian involvement and no concern for Palestinian rights and interests. Pompeo put on a big show of invoking “snapback” to reimpose sanctions on Iran only to be thoroughly humiliated and rebuffed by almost the entire Security Council. It comes as no surprise that this kind of diplomacy fails, because it isn’t real diplomacy at all. It is a Potemkin diplomacy created for the benefit of the president in an attempt to trick the public into thinking that he has achieved more than he has.

It is very difficult to identify any American interests that would be served by these recent agreements even if they weren’t just P.R. stunts. While administration officials waste their time and energy trying to strangle Iranian civilians with sanctions and cook up Potemkin agreements for the president’s re-election, U.S. interests around the world and at home are neglected.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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