Pardew: I am appalled at US policy in the Balkans

James Pardew, a former advisor to President Clinton, strongly criticised the Trump administration’s recent policy on Kosovo in an interview with Jeta ne Kosove on Thursday, describing it as “wrong-headed” and “counterproductive.”

Appearing on BIRN Kosovo’s televised programme Jeta ne Kosove on Thursday, experienced US diplomat James Pardew heavily criticised the Trump administration’s recent policy on Kosovo. “I’m afraid that nothing that the US is doing right now in Kosovo is promoting American interests,” he said.

Pardew, who was President Bill Clinton’s deputy special advisor during the NATO intervention in Kosovo, recently wrote an opinion piece in which he questioned why the Trump administration’s diplomacy was destabilising Kosovo, reserving particular criticism for US Special Envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell.

“Quite frankly, Grenell doesn’t have the experience to deal with these kinds of sophisticated Balkan issues,” Pardew told BIRN. “I am appalled at the policy of the United States for the region right now.”

The former US Ambassador to Bulgaria, who also contributed to peace agreements in Macedonia and Bosnia, accused the current American administration of overconfidence. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, to be so overconfident to think you can just walk into a very complicated region and perform some kind of miracle, that is foolhardy and I think a gigantic mistake for the United States and our European allies,” Pardew told BIRN.

Pardew, who served as Washington’s coordinator for the Kosovo Verification Mission, also dismissed claims that opposing current US policy was ‘anti-Americanism.’ “Kosovo has no obligation to follow the United States when the United States is not moving in the right direction,” he said. “They’re a sovereign country.”

For the US diplomat, who was part of the Dayton Conference which brought about a peace agreement between Serbia and Bosnia, the current Serbian regime is not ready to make an agreement with Kosovo, regardless of American pressure. “Serbia is not going to sign a peace deal unless it gets everything it wants, and it wants a lot,” he told BIRN. 

Pardew believes that a deal is not possible until Serbia “comes to grips with its recent history” particularly its actions in Bosnia and Kosovo. “This is an extensive problem that is going to last a while,” he said. “It is complicated and it is difficult, and ultimately is going to require Serbia to come to their senses and face the fact that Kosovo is an independent country.” 

Throughout the interview, Pardew reiterated that with a global pandemic affecting countries across the world, now was not the current time to be focussing on Kosovo-Serbia relations. “This is the greatest threat to the world in our lifetime and we have to give that the priority it deserves,” he said. “The most important thing right now is the health of the people of Kosovo, it is not these political issues.”

Read the full transcript of the interview below.

Jeta Xharra: Mr. James Pardew, you served as a NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General between 2005-2008. We have recently heard voices from DC, senators and other officials, mentioning a potential withdrawal of US Forces from Kosovo. I want to know, as a former NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General, what is your take on this issue? Can the US leave Kosovo?

James Pardew: The US presence in Kosovo has been important to the stability of the entire region since 1999, and I think it would be a terrible mistake to withdraw US forces. 

It’s a very small contingent, it has no real effect on the overall capabilities of the United States military, and we draw an enormous benefit from having a presence in the region. I think it would be a terrible, thoughtless mistake to withdraw these US troops.

Xharra: You’ve written an article published on The Hill recently. Can I ask the question you pose yourself in this article? You ask: ‘What possible American interest is served by the Trump administration in this ongoing diplomacy that is destabilizing Kosovo – a small and vulnerable pro-American Balkan country – during a global health pandemic?’ 

Have you found an answer to that?

Pardew: I’m afraid that nothing that the US is doing right now in Kosovo is promoting American interests. 

Let’s look at what American interests really are in the region and in Kosovo particularly: The United States is interested in a Balkans at peace, in a stable Balkans, it is developing democracy in the new nations of the region – it is important that corruption be limited in Kosovo and other places. 

So, the development of democracy, peace and stability is the interest of the United States in the Balkans. Destabilising the situation serves no one’s interest.

And let me make a larger point. The overriding interest of the leadership in Kosovo and in the United States today is to fight this terrible COVID-19 virus. All other issues are secondary to that. 

Certainly, petty bickering between Serbia and Kosovo takes a much lower priority than anything to do with this terrible pandemic. This is the greatest threat to the world in our lifetime and we have to give that the priority it deserves. 

Kosovo needs to focus its attention on the health and safety of its people. We can set aside this petty bickering between Serbia and Kosovo for a while until this terrible pandemic is brought under control. I think it’s counterproductive to everyone to be messing around on these kinds of issues.


Xharra: You said that Kosovo shouldn’t be messed around with, Mr Pardew, but that’s exactly what happened. The United States encouraged the falling down of a government during the COVID-19 crisis – a government which it now claims, and has claimed before, is doing a very good job fighting COVID-19. How do you explain this?

Pardew: Well I can’t explain it. That’s why I wrote the op-ed criticizing the Trump Administration for its policies in Kosovo particularly. 

I think it’s a wrong-headed policy to do what they have done – to remove aid that the United States provides to Kosovo and to threaten to withdraw US troops. I just think it’s counterproductive, and it’s certainly counterproductive at this particular time in the history of the world. 

Quite frankly, Grenell doesn’t have the experience to deal with these kinds of sophisticated Balkan issues. I am appalled at the policy of the United States for the region right now.

Xharra: You wrote in your article that something about this does not smell right’… 

Pardew: First of all, Ambassador Grenell has two very large appointments. He is simultaneously the US Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, one of our most important allies, where he has not exactly covered himself with glory. He’s been promoting right wing politics in Germany for heaven’s sake… 

Xharra: You mean American-German relations haven’t been advancing since he has been Ambassador there?

Pardew: Not from what I have seen. In fact, it’s done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Germany. If you don’t believe that, just read the German press. 

But Grenell is also the acting Director of National Intelligence for the United States, a very critical position for which he is totally unqualified. So why would someone with these two important positions become some kind of envoy in the Balkans over an issue that is, quite frankly, not that great in the greater scheme of American foreign policy issues? It just doesn’t make any sense. 

You can speculate that Grenell wants some kind of victory and that he thinks this is an easy diplomatic victory to add to his resume. But I just think there is something else going on here that has to do with the relationship between the Trump administration and Russia. 

I have no evidence of that, it’s just pure speculation on my part, but destabilising Kosovo is something that is in the interest of Moscow, not in the interest of the United States. I think Vladimir Putin will be very happy with what Grenell and company are doing in the region.  

Xharra: How could he be very happy? Mr Grenell is saying we are advancing, three agreements – rail, road, and air – have been signed between Kosovo and Serbia and we are trying for a peace deal. How could you say they are working in the Russian interest?

Pardew: Well because Russian interest is causing mischief in the Balkans. They’re all over the place doing that, certainly in Bosnia and in Kosovo as well. 

I can’t speak to every element of Grenell’s issues, but this business of promoting Serbian interest to drop these tariffs, which are in my judgment a legitimate response to Serbian policy blocking Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations and NATO and other institutions…. 

I just don’t understand what’s going on here and I certainly don’t see it as productive.

Xharra: While we are talking about Mr Grenell, I just want to point out that since  February 26, I have sent repeated requests for Mr Grenell to be interviewed for this programme. I sent additional questions only a week ago asking him why, since October 2019, he has posted seven tweets demanding that Kosovo drops tariffs and no tweets demanding that Serbia stops this derecognition campaign. 

Is there any way you can explain this math? Why is so much pressure being put on Kosovo and so little pressure being put on Serbia? Can we believe that the US is an honest broker if this is what his tweets show? Especially as tweets seem to be the diplomatic tool of this administration…

Pardew: No, you can’t explain that. Quite frankly you need to go back to 1999 and look at what happened there. The United States led an international coalition, including NATO, to expel Serbia from Kosovo because it was on the verge of another genocide like it conducted in Bosnia. 

Serbia has never come to grips with its recent history – what it did in the 1990s in Bosnia and what it was doing in Kosovo. Serbia needs to do that, but instead politicians in Belgrade have used this ethnic nationalism and extremism to promote their own political careers at the expense of the development of their country. That is a tragic mistake on the part of Serbia, but the United States should not be a party to promoting this kind of nationalism.

The United States was an important player in the independence of Kosovo. It is now a sovereign country and we should treat it like one. It is perfectly legitimate for Kosovo to use tariffs or take other retaliatory action for the blockage of their membership to the United Nations and other institutions. I see nothing wrong with that.

Xharra: Now, there are critics who say this is anti-American. Do you think this is anti-American?

Pardew: What’s anti-American? What do you mean?

Xharra: Not listening to the United States when every week it is repeatedly asking Kosovo to remove either the tariff or the reciprocity measures.

Pardew: Why listen to something that is wrong? I don’t understand that.

Xharra: Because it is America! What most people think is that America saved us from Serbia, it bombed our enemy. Therefore, America must be right.

Pardew: Listen, the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration were promoting the democracy and independence of Kosovo, as it developed in the 1990s up to 2008. 

The Trump Administration is completely different from those two previous American administrations and frankly doesn’t have the diplomatic experience. They tend to shoot from the hip, rather than carefully, thoughtfully consider what actions are taken. The Trump Administration has done tremendous damage to the influence of the United States abroad and it will take us years to overcome the damage that’s been done. The Balkans is just one example, I can go on and on. 

Listen, Kosovo has no obligation to follow the United States when the United States is not moving in the right direction. They’re a sovereign country.

Xharra: It is interesting you mention President Bush, I have a quote from him. In 2001, referring to NATO’s military presence in Kosovo he famously said: ‘We came in together. We will leave together.’ Now he was a Republican. How come Trump, as a fellow Republican, has chosen a completely different way to his predecessor?

Pardew: Well Trump is certainly not a conventional Republican. He happens to have control over the Republican party right now, and some can argue about whether that’s good or bad, but he is not a Republican in the traditional sense. 

I think a traditional Republican sees the stability of the Balkans region as in the interest of the United States, the development of the democracy in the region as in the interest of the United States and they would be largely appalled by what’s going on. 

Xharra: Can you foresee a peace deal happening before next US elections? If the hurry to remove the tariff, or remove reciprocity is needed in order to sign the peace deal as quickly as possible. Can you foresee that in the time of COVID-19?

Pardew: I believe that the next several months will be dominated by COVID-19, and all of this nonsense about tariffs, and arguments between Belgrade and Prishtina should be set aside until we take control of the health situation in our respective countries. Then it should be dealt with by diplomatic professionals who understand the issue and know what they’re doing. 

Right now the critical decision for governments to make is how they protect the people from this terrible virus that is dominating every country on the globe.

Xharra: You were a diplomat before, a US ambassador. Have you ever been in a position when your boss in DC asks you to help topple an elected government?

Pardew: No. I’m not a big fan of regime change. Look at how Richard Hoolbroke dealt with Milosevic. All throughout 1995, 1996, and all the way through 1999, at no point did we demand for regime change in Serbia. The Serbs did it on their own. 

So, I have not been asked to do that, and I am not a big fan of it. 

Xharra: This week, the Russian foreign ministry has come out with a statement and request for Kosovo to remove reciprocity. How do you explain the fact that the US is not coordinating its efforts with the EU but with Russia?

Pardew: I can’t explain it, and I’m not surprised that Russia issued some kind of statement like that. 

It’s in Russia’s interest to keep this pot boiling and to keep these kinds of conflicts alive. They just are interested in causing instability in the region, and in Europe in general. Anything that separates US allies from each other is relevant and in their interest. 

There’s a mechanism for coordination of policy on the region with Russia. I worked with the Russians very closely, from 1995 until I left the government in 2008. It is entirely possible for the US and Europe to be allies and work with Moscow, but the Putin administration takes a confrontational approach rather than a cooperative one at this particular time. I think that’s unfortunate. Hopefully at some time, Moscow will come back to working cooperatively with the US and the West. 

But there is a mechanism, called the Contact Group initially, and now it’s referred to as the Quint, where these kinds of things are coordinated. I don’t know how effective that is today. My sense is that it’s not very effective

Xharra: The other side is saying well people like yourself, Shaun Byrnes, Daniel Server, Ed Joseph are just old veterans of the Balkans, while the new administration are businessmen, they have a different background that’s why you don’t understand them. They just want to do business as usual, that they are transparent about that. Mr Grenell says it’s all about the economy – we don’t care about politics, we care about the economy. Why can’t you see that side of the argument?

Pardew: You can criticize people with experience all you want, but a little experience can go a long way. 

For those of us that have been in the region for years, who have met with the leaders, current and past, who have a deep understanding of what is going on in the regio and understand the culture and politics – to ignore us, you do that at your own risk. They can of course do it, but I feel like I have an obligation to speak out based on my experience. 

This is not about business. It’s about democracy and the development of nations and the coordination and cooperation between nations. I think if you look at this purely from a business stance, you can make a big mistake. 

If you don’t know what you’re doing, to be so overconfident to think you can just walk into a very complicated region and perform some kind of miracle, that is foolhardy, and I think a gigantic mistake for the United States and our European allies. 

Xharra: But then there can always be someone to blame like Europe. If something goes wrong and this deal doesn’t get implemented then it will be Europe’s fault!

Pardew: Of course. The Trump administration has never taken responsibility for anything that’s failed. They are always looking for someone else to be the scapegoat. If you look at what the President is doing now regarding COVID-19, he is blaming state governors and so forth. They are not inclined to take responsibility for anything. 

Xharra: What is going on that Kosovo deserves so much attention, even more than COVID-19? Why is the medal of the peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia so relevant to the United States? What did we do to deserve this attention?

Pardew: I don’t know. It is certainly a mystery and I think this kind of attention at that high level is unwarranted. 

This is an extensive problem that is going to last a while. It is complicated and it is difficult, and ultimately is going to require Serbia to come to their senses and face the fact that Kosovo is an independent country. 

This is a long term problem that does not deserve the high level attention that it is getting. The US should be promoting health, stability in this region, including Kosovo, and stop trying to get some miracle solution that destabilizes Kosovo and the region.

Xharra: You were part of the Dayton conference, you go that far back. Knowing the people who were involved in Dayton, including Milosevic – it’s not Milosevic anymore, it is Vucic who used to work as his minister of information – what is your prediction? Knowing these characters – Thaci was also involved in Rambouillet at that time. Do you think Vucic is ready to sign a peace deal with Kosovo, knowing the background he has? 

Pardew: No. I know all of these guys. Serbia is not going to sign a peace deal unless it gets everything it wants, and it wants a lot. 

These are difficult problems to solve and they are going to take a lot of time. Maybe it is going to take political developments further than Belgrade and Prishtina, I am not sure. There is no perfect solution to this. 

But in some cases it is in the domestic political interest of someone like Vucic in Belgrade to keep promoting this ethnic conflict for their own domestic political gain. Milosevic did it, others have done it and Vucic is part of that tradition. 

Xharra: Hang on, isn’t it in the interest of Vucic to bring Serbia into the EU?

Pardew: Of course it is. But he is not willing to resolve the issue of Kosovo to make that happen. So he will just keep going the way he’s going.

Xharra: You were the US ambassador to Bulgaria. Do you think, in this climate, Serbia will be accepted in the EU without recognising Kosovo this decade?

Pardew: I certainly hope not. Serbia has to make a decision. Is it going to go the way of the Putin regime and Russia, or is it going to join the western allies? Is it going to become an EU member? Is it going to become more democratic and less corrupt and is it ultimately going to join NATO and the western alliance?

Xharra: Why does it have to do that when it can sit with one leg in Russia, and one leg in the EU?

Pardew: Well, that is what they are trying to do, but I don’t think the EU is accepting that policy. I mean, they can’t have it both ways. 

Ultimately we hope that Russia comes round but for right now Russia is in confrontational mode trying to destabilise democracy in the west, and they are having some success with issues like this one. 

I don’t see a long term solution to this and I certainly think Serbia is trying to play it both ways. They have to make a decision: Russia or the West. And so far, they have not chosen to make that decision.

Xharra: Your articles, as well as those by Tim Judah, Ed Josephs, Shaun Byrnes and Daniel Serwer, have been massively shared in Kosovo. The other side says you are just a bunch of pensioners and you have no influence. Is that so?

Pardew: The fact that I am speaking on your programme tonight means that I have a certain amount of influence, and I would like to think that people who know what they are talking about have some influence. 

Amateurs, the naive, and the self-serving can criticise us all they want, but the people you mentioned know something about this region and were involved in this region for some years, and to ignore us and to belittle us, is what they do. But so far their policies are a failure and they have to face that. They are responsible for the outcome here.

Let me say one more thing, I wish the very best to the people of Kosovo at this very difficult time. I hope that you have a government that is strong, that you take the measures that are necessary to protect you and your family as this terrible COVID-19 virus spreads around the world. 

Again the most important thing right now is the health of the people of Kosovo, it is not these political issues. I wish for the people of Kosovo – all of them, of all ethnicities – the very best. Please stay safe at this difficult time. Thank you. 

Xharra: Thank you for that message.

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