The Washington Times

The bottom line is this: Are we going to finish the job in Europe, or are we going to turn our backs on those who haven’t yet made their way in from the cold? At a summit meeting in Croatia, that is the question as much on the minds of the representatives of the major Euro-Atlantic institutions, namely the European Union and NATO, as on the minds of those knocking on their doors in hope of joining fully in the modern Western world.

Dubrovnik was hardly Ground Zero of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But it’s hard now to believe that this spectacularly picturesque city on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea could have been the scene of shelling a scant decade ago as part of the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Yet it was, and far worse took place not so far from here, up to and including “ethnic cleansing” and genocide in Bosnia and a NATO-led war that prevented a reprise of genocide in Kosovo.

Now, however, the Balkans are poised on the threshold of European normalcy, a share in the permanent peace and prosperity young Europeans think of as a birthright. Do they cross over? Or do they remain outside, where peace and prosperity are subject to being dispelled by a resurgence of a politics of murderous nationalism? In a way, “the Balkans” is more than a geographical designation; it is also a shorthand term for a place where politics is impossible, the very origin of “balkanization.” It is, therefore, a convenient designation for anyone eager to turn his back on the region. As James Baker, secretary of state in the first Bush administration, notoriously said at the time of the breakup of the Yugoslavia, in a line that will follow him beyond the grave, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” By this reckoning, centuries of “ethnic tension” posed too intractable a problem for any rational outsider to involve himself in. So let the dogs have at it.

I don’t approve of the moral calculus behind such a statement. Worse than a crime, however, it was a blunder. It was analytically wrong. Eventually, the United States and European governments figured it out: If you hold out the prospect of joining the Western world or “Europe” to countries on the periphery, you encourage the politicians there to make choices that are hospitable to European integration. They see the benefits of membership in the European Union and NATO in terms of peace and prosperity, and the potential gains to be realized from setting out on that path make possible the often hard political and policy choices necessary for membership, from settlement of long-festering border disputes to holding free and fair elections (and accepting the results) to embracing transparency in business and government to fighting corruption.

If, on the other hand, you write off the Balkans (or elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, including some of the territory of the former Soviet Union), you positively invite a politics based on grabbing what you can get by whatever means available, including force. This was the genocidal politics of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and I think it could easily have been the characteristic politics of the post-Cold War era if the United States and Europe had failed to reach out.

So spare the balkanization, please, and consider the countries in question in relation to the attributes specific to each of them in terms of how far they have come and what more they have to do.  Croatia is far along the path of reform, and the most serious bar to its entry into NATO now is that the government needs to mobilize public opinion in its favor.

Serbia needs to decide whether its future is Western integration or instead a return to dead-end nationalist politics. A key test will be the “final status” negotiations over Kosovo, which are headed in the direction of independence for territory Belgrade once controlled.  Montenegro has opted for independence, and now faces the task of succeeding despite its smallness.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state created by the Dayton Accords that ended the genocidal war, needs still more state-building in order to be viable.  Macedonia has been doing very well. The best way to encourage more progress in all cases is a guaranteed destination once the relevant criteria have been met.

But how well are the institutions of Euro-Atlantic integration themselves doing? Is the European Union going to get over “enlargement fatigue” and its concerns about “absorption capacity”? Is the door to NATO going to remain open for as long as it takes Serbia, for example, to overcome its past? Far to the east, as Russia maneuvers to assert influence, Georgia is also awaiting definite word that the West has a place for it.

Yes, the challenges of Western integration are getting harder. On the other hand, we are getting tantalizingly close to the goal of “Europe whole and free,” and it would be a tragedy to walk away from the task that remains.