The Overlapping Interests of US and Turkey in the Post-Cold War Balkans

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
14 December 2011
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While the Turkey-America relationship can be characterized by a flurry of high points and a series of doldrums since genuine bilateral engagement started in the late 1920s, the ties between the two countries has been based on a foundation of strategy and security. While the two countries have had differences on issues regarding Middle East operations, the Balkans have instead represented a region where both countries’ interests converge and flourish into a mutually beneficial partnership.


Relations between the two improved in the 1980s under then-Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal, carrying over into the 1990s with the heavy hand the U.S. played in sponsoring the customs union agreement between Turkey and the European Union in 1995. U.S. support is also seen in its strong continuous push for Turkey’s EU membership. However, these strategic actions weren’t purely altruistic in nature, as having an increasingly democratic and economically liberal neighborhood in light of the new post-Cold War era has always held great importance for the U.S. administration.

After nearly 30 years in power, ex-Yugoslav leader Josip Tito died in 1980, leaving a gap in leadership to take over the multi-ethnic federalist nation. While Yugoslavia was fairly stable and economically prosperous, the late 1980’s marked a period of virulent nationalist rhetoric from all angles that quickly began to divide the nation. As non-aligned Yugoslavia was neither in the Western bloc nor the Eastern bloc, its deterioration was watched by many in the world, unsure of how to assist the struggling state. Coupled by growing debt and unemployment, the federation was rife for multiple secessionist movements after 1991, sparking the Yugoslav wars.

In view of the multiple Balkan conflicts after Yugoslavia’s breakup in 1991, Turkish and American goals in the region have largely overlapped, being generally aligned since the end of the Cold War. Both countries have worked to keep the Balkans stable in a largely security driven effort, stabilizing the region for the sake of its’ European partners and interests, in addition to creating a foundation for a prosperous Balkan environment ready for future European integration. Both of the countries, particularly the U.S., have also stressed the need for European states to shoulder the burden of stabilizing its’ southern flank. However, due to Europe’s inability to be proactive in the region, and through the use of NATO and other international organizations such as the United Nations, the U.S. has intervened in various regional conflicts, including follow-up peacekeeping and peace building activities in the region. With its historical ties to the Balkans during the Ottoman era, and thousands of Turkish-origin minorities still in the region, Turkey often seeks for continued stability, as any potential security risks to its largest trading partner Europe (of which Turkey is also an EU candidate country) will adversely affect Turkey as well. NATO’s success in the Balkans has solidified the organization’s value, and much to America’s (financial) consolation, a greater number of current peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia are carried out by NATO troops from European member states. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Turkey and the U.S. have shared the same agenda, including securing peace and stability in the region to avoid hurting regional interests (EU member states and their economies). The U.S. involvement in the Balkans, and other key regions like the Middle East (Kuwait in particular) showed the U.S.’ need to emphasize the role of human rights in various regions. Such goals brought the Clinton administration to Kosovo and Bosnia, where massacres of thousands of ethnic minorities (Muslims mainly) drove American involvement. In addition, bi-lateral cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. in the Balkans mirror each other’s efforts by achieving moral victories of attempting to eradicate widespread causes of ethnic based wars spurred from the downfall of Balkan communist sphere.

Europe’s Defense Woes

While the American public, and a fair share of American politicians, have seen little strategic value for U.S. involvement in the Balkans (as the region is often regarded as a ‘European problem’), the U.S. still took the reins to handle the neglected post-Yugoslavia situation. Vowing to never allow their collective inaction as was seen during the Yugoslav wars, Europe then created their 1999 CSDP agreement (Common Security and Defense Policy) as a result. But this European defense infrastructure is still mired with bureaucratic power struggles that have still forced U.S.-led NATO missions to handle security issues in the region. Due to the unanimity principle, which mandates that EU member states must be in accordance before jointly acting militarily, and struggles over balance between national and EU interests (and the attached financial obligations), Europe remains fairly handicapped in its’ international actions. Until the CSDP (later renamed as the ‘ESDP’ European Security and Defense policy through the 2007 EU Lisbon Treaty) proves effective in handling regional conflicts on the continent, other multi-national efforts (primarily the United Nations and NATO) must function as Europe builds its’ security capacity to the appropriate levels to handle a complex region like the Balkans. The EU has had some Balkan success through the treaty, in Macedonia and BiH in particular, and continues to house a mission in Kosovo (EULEX). The United States has largely supported the ESDP as a way for Europe to wean off the support of NATO, enabling the U.S. to pursue its’ national interests in world regions’ less capable (and stable) than Europe. However, a debated ESDP has left the U.S. concerned about future Balkan instability if NATO prematurely scales back operations. However, the United States risks preemptive pullout of engagement operations costing more if subsequent inter-Balkan fallout ensues without the proper infrastructure and continued dialogue in place. By accepting Balkan engagement after the post-Cold War, the United States has been largely effective in maintaining order throughout the Balkans under the guise of NATO. However, the financial and political toll on prolonged efforts is draining, and a balance must be met among NATO member states to ease the U.S. burden of security and peacekeeping.

Turkey’s Incentive

Turkey, on the other hand, finds itself in a trickier situation. As nearly 1,150 Turkish peacekeeping troops are currently deployed in the Balkans under the helm of multiple institutions (primarily NATO, UN, and the EU’s ESDP), the majority of its troops serve in NATO-led efforts like KFOR in Kosovo, as NATO has been the foundation of Turkey’s security strategy since its’ membership in 1952. (1) (2) In addition to offering troops to various policing missions in the Balkans, Turkey is also a key actor in EUFOR-ALTHEA in BiH, which houses almost 260 Turkish personnel. Turkish military contribution to the region, particularly in regions like Muslim-dominated BiH, Kosovo, and Albania dispel stereotypes about Turkey in the region, in addition to building confidence within local populations. Turkey also helped train BiH’s new multi-ethnic [Bosniak and Croat] military force, as part of an ‘equip and train’ program funded by the U.S. Both Turkey and the United States also stand firm in their stance against terrorism. Given the rate of (organized) crime and corruption in the Balkans, aside from the adverse effects these legal infractions will have on investment and development, stemming Wahabbist movements in the region (and preventing potential PKK cells from developing as had previously occurred in Romania and Bulgaria) is of great concern.

Turkey’s continued commitment to the region, and its’ status as the second largest army within NATO, would stem any potential damage to NATO’s reputation and influence in the region. Pending of course, that Turkey should choose to (at least partially) take over the reins as a result of scaled down U.S. operations. Turkey also seeks to strengthen its role within NATO, actively contributing to discussions such as NATO’s role on deterrence, additionally seeking to improve Turkey’s overall security as well, given Turkey’s neighborhood. Turkey’s positioning is difficult, as it ideally seeks better relationships with its adjacent countries, like Iran and Syria. While Turkey served as the European periphery of capitalism and democracy during the Cold War, it makes continuous efforts to not play a similar role post-Cold War, by engaging its’ neighbors (namely Iran, Iraq, and Syria) with soft power tactics like increased trade and warmer relations. While Turkey’s continued role in NATO and strong relations with the U.S. may not point at such actions, Turkey’s goal to maintain ‘peace at home’ is being effectively exercised though the help of soft power, economic investment, and diplomacy.

Energy Security in the Balkans

Much like the U.S. involvement in securing Caspian energy sources (primarily aimed for allied European markets) became more prominent after the Cold War, the Balkans has been regarded in this view aside from the usual strategic focus. The Balkans will serve as a partial route for the much discussed South Stream (natural) gas project, which passes through Russian-friendly states like Serbia and Greece directly into Italy, who’s company ‘Eni’ [Paulo Scaroni] landed the deal with Moscow’s Gazprom. Consequently, a rival gas project, (EU-backed) Nabucco crosses through Turkey, but also completely bypasses the Balkans in its route to European gas hubs. The Nabucco project is expected to break ground in 2013, while South Stream expected to have its first branch commissioned by 2015. The effort to strategically steer pipelines by circumventing the Balkans while planning energy routes is glaring as countries fear the region’s instability. The Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute of 2009 left many European businesses and homes without gas, prompting carefully planning of future pipelines. Recent talks between South Stream officials and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska have shown the political interest in the strength derived from being a pipeline route in domestic and regional politics. Interestingly, had pipelines run through the Balkans, the drive for greater responsibility and need for security could have come to the forefront. (3) Estimates from Budapest’s Central European University state that up to 131,000 jobs could be created in the next 10 years from pipelines running through Hungarian territory, jobs that are also desperately needed in the Balkans.(4)

Shifting Weight for Survival: The Effective Use of Multiple Regional Organizations

Making further use of regional organizations other than more effective NATO and the U.N. missions will be necessary to alleviate the U.S. burden of European security. Under the wing of NATO, the ‘Partnership for Peace’ program was founded to enhance stability and cooperation in post-Soviet and Cold War states. To enable less financially capable states, the United States also established the Warsaw Initiative Funds (WiF), helping BiH, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia to participate. The Southeastern European Defense Ministerial Process (SEDM), of which Turkey and the U.S. are both members, will need to be further funded and supported as another axis of regional peace implementation. The Multinational Peace Force for Southeastern Europe (MPFSEE, or also called the Southeastern Europe Brigade, SEEBRIG), of which Turkey is a member and the U.S. is an observer, will also deserve the same support. This organization almost serves as an on-call peace and stability force, for the convenience of NATO, the U.N., or other organizations that need support in their missions. In the field of economics and environment, Turkey remains active through the Southeastern Europe Cooperation Initiative (SECI), as established in 1996 to enhance regional cooperation and more links between each countries’ respective stock exchange. Additionally, action through regional organizations has not only confirmed both Turkey and the U.S.’s commitment to the region, but has additionally allayed fears of any Turkish ‘neo-Ottomanism’ surging in the region.

Seemingly, two non-EU countries (the U.S. and Turkey) have fostered a crucial transatlantic link to handle a non-EU region like the Western Balkans. With Croatia, a NATO member set to join the EU in 2013, its’ role in ensuring and supporting the Turkish-American alliance for peacekeeping will prove vital. While a stronger Croatian role as a NATO member with EU status post-2013 will prove uneasy in Balkan politics, confidence building measures in local authorities to handle ‘local problems’ will be necessary. Croatia has been active in cross-border cooperation initiatives and dealing with regional problems of terrorism and corruption, making its future role in peacekeeping in the region important for Balkan politics.

U.S. peacekeeping operations in troubled states like Kosovo and Bosnia/Herzegovina (BiH) average in the billions every year. In 2011-2012, the United States was the top contributor the United Nations’ peacekeeping budget, providing up to 27.17%. The U.K., Germany, and France came in 3rd, 4th, 5th, contributing 8.16%, 8.02%, 7.56%, respectively. (5) The combined peacekeeping (monetary) U.N. contributions of the three strongest EU member states still does not reach the level given solely by America. The U.N. also states that its peacekeeping initiatives are significantly less expensive than the costs of maintaining troops of individual nation-states or keeping NATO troops. Interestingly enough, while the U.S. is the primary contributor to the U.N.’s peacekeeping fund, it ranks 65th in the number of military and police personnel contributed to missions worldwide. (6) In regard to NATO’s budget, while NATO has significantly less members than the United Nations, the United States still contributes between 1/5th and 1/4th of the budget, which in 2010 numbered nearly $712 million. To NATO’s military budget, America’s contribution is up to 23% of that figure (rounding $430 million in 2010). Some argue that the U.S. is better equipped to handle such crises, as European governments have largely slashed overall military spending. But the EU’s heavy reliance on NATO to solve conflicts drains NATO’s budget and the EU’s credibility, handicapping the continent from taking greater ownership over its regional responsibilities.

Stable Peace, but Further Down the Road?

“We could double or triple our engagement, but we can’t do it without the people of the country [Bosnia]…our commitment is both longstanding, and will remain in place. We’ll be there. But ultimately, we’re not going to do it for the people of this country. We can’t put together a government. We can’t pursue economic reforms. We can only do it with the cooperation of the people.” -Philip H. Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (7)

The United States has reiterated that it affirms that it will stay in the region, and that there is not timetable on their level of commitment. However, the viability of the U.S.-supported Dayton Agreement for Bosnia (which currently holds the state of Bosnia together as a federation) has been called into question with the country’s stagnant (and even deteriorating) condition. The inability to find a solution for Bosnia, which struggles with it’s rotating triple presidency arrangement (between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs), and its increasingly hostile entity Republika Srpska, has been apparent. If Bosnia ultimately decides that a Dayton-operated federation isn’t in its’ best interest, whether BiH is stable enough to peacefully negotiate a separation is also of greater security concerns. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu regularly visits Sarajevo as part of his goal of encouraging greater interregional dialogue, and has been largely successful in his efforts in the Balkans. However, dialogue at the political level is not enough for deeply complex Balkan issues, as multi-level dialogue and involvement, in addition to tangible incentives, will be needed to break political stalemates.

The EU membership ‘carrot’ can be characterized as a strategic move for political peace and economic security in the region. Turkey’s own EU membership drive has driven multiple internal reforms in many arenas, and both the U.S. and Turkey hope such drives will inspire the same for the Western Balkans. Montenegro has shown significant progress in the region, and Serbia has also shown greater initiative in its EU goals. Albania made great lengths, but its 2009 political crisis (marred with violence and corruption) virtually halted EU candidacy talks until their parliamentary stalemate was resolved. In light of the region’s overall struggles, nearly all of the Western Balkans (except Kosovo) still managed to achieve inclusion in the much prized EU’s visa-free scheme by 2010. There have been multiple achievements in reform in the Balkans; but the EU’s reward scheme has come slowly, with the Balkans facing the toughest EU membership criterion since the last group membership intake in 2004.

However, the questionable intentions of various regional politicians, coupled with the role of the media in the Balkans, have stifled progress for outside actors like the EU, Turkey, and the United States. Political will drives reforms, and without fostering internal political motivation, outside efforts might prove futile. Therefore, the strategic (and primarily military) alliance of Turkey and the U.S. in the Balkans will need to include civil society efforts. NATO’s PfP program is primarily defense oriented, therefore shifting investment into civil society efforts are key, as inter-ethnic, unemployment, and other issues on the civil society level attempt to explain the lack of political will. The U.S. cannot afford to pull out of the region until both the EU and Balkan regional leaders step up commitment to solving persistent regional issues. Turkey, situated in a ‘problematic region’ (surrounded by the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Balkans) also cannot afford instability in its neighborhood. Steering funding from military operations into entrepreneurial initiatives will be critical into spurring economic development in the countries. With the EU currently suffering from internal strife and struggling common economies, the Balkans have taken a bigger hit as a result. Investment in the Balkans frightens most risk-averse businesses, as the region’s instability (and presence of corruption and organized crime) has nearly blacklisted the region. Both Serbia and Macedonia faced having their visa-free status revoked by the EU, as thousands of their citizens (many of Roma and Albanian heritage) filed for asylum. Serbia holds claim to the 3rd highest number of citizens seeking asylum abroad within Europe, with more than 17,715 applications. Macedonia came in second, with 7,550 claims. (8) Most of the applications, while viewed as an abuse of the asylum/refugee system, are filed by ‘economic refugees’ fleeing from worsening economic situations in their respective countries, not only increasing brain drain in the region but also the risk of ruffling ethnic issues in the region.

Turkey’s soft power approach towards the Balkans, with the America’s hard power approach, has helped maintain a tense peace in multiple Balkan countries. With fears of getting too involved in Kosovo (due to Turkey’s own territorial integrity issues), Turkey still allows the U.S. to dominate the Balkan landscape not out of pure benevolence, but instead from necessity. A new approach is needed to economically stimulate a struggling Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, while both political and economic reforms are needed to galvanize BiH and Albania. But the root of many of the Balkans ills still lies within the social frameworks of these countries. Working under the umbrella of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which works in many of these dimensions, OSCE members Turkey and the U.S. can work together on such arrangements. Helping the Balkans implement greater social frameworks will also have a kickback effect, helping Turkey with its own internal struggles of human rights, media freedom, and democracy. Reassessing failing arrangements (like Dayton), non-productive local politicians, and balancing investment and responsibility should help the U.S. and Turkey become more effective throughout the Balkans in coming years.


(1)Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s Security Perspectives and its Relations with NATO.”
(2)Namely, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
(3) “South Stream May Branch Off to Republika Srpska.” South Stream: Information Directorate, OAO Gazprom. November 22, 2011.
(4) “Employment Impacts of a Large-Scale Deep Building Energy Retrofit Programme in Hungary.” Executive Summary. Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy; Central European University/European Climate Foundation. June 8th, 2010.
(5)United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Public Information. DPI/2429/Rev. November 2011.
(6) “Gates criticizes NATO; How much does the U.S. pay?” CBS News. June 10th, 2011.
(7)“U.S. Policy in the Balkans.” Questions and Answers. CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. Embassy of Sarajevo, June 17, 2011.
(8)Knaus, Gerald and Alexandra Stiglmayer. “Balkan Asylum Seekers and the Spectre of European Hypocrisy.” EU October 4th, 2011.



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