People are excited for me. They can’t wait to hear about my experience in Siberia, Sweden, and “I know this isn’t right but…S-Syria?”
Thank you. But actually, it’s none of those.
When I say, “Serbia” (which is where I’m going), they get confused again.
No, it’s not in Russia; yes, it’s safe now; oh, it’s in the Balkans. The Balkans is a region between Italy and Turkey.
And actually, my decision to go there is not so random. Several years ago, I traveled to Bosnia (not Botswana, and it’s also in the Balkans) for a high school social justice and learning opportunity. I had no intention of returning to the region. However, a class in International Politics and many readings that mentioned Bosnia and Kosovo changed my mind.
In short, I realized that the Balkans is still relevant in American foreign policy. True, American news sources rarely report on developments in the region, but “the Balkans” continues to serve as a memory and a metaphor central to the concept of “humanitarian intervention.” Many students fail to realize that the foreign policy we debate in the classroom is influenced by the role that the U.S. government played in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In fact, I think it is fair to say that America’s approach to the Balkans became the blueprint for 21st century American intervention.
In current politics, diplomats who advocate intervention in countries such as Iraq and Syria enjoy pointing to the Balkans as an example of how successful American “leadership” can be. Well, “point” is an overstatement, given that so many people have trouble finding it on a map—let’s say they mention it. And nothing more. They drop the “B word” in passing as if mentioning it by name is enough to prove they are right.
On the other hand, there are journalists who criticize America’s approach to the Balkans by claiming that the region still simmers in “tribal hatreds,” barbaric nationalism, and the culture of an ancient era. (Even casual comments about the Croatian World Cup qualifier contribute to this stigma).
So, are we to regard the Balkans as an example of successful international intervention, a lost cause, or just another mess the U.S. got itself into?
Actually, it’s none of those. Because each of those statements is a way to dismiss the Balkans from further discussion. In many ways, countries in the Balkans are struggling; however, discarding them from political discussion in the West is both short-sighted and dangerous. Every country that I’m visiting deserves attention right now:
Serbia is caught between Western Europe and Russia, seeking membership in the EU yet refusing to impose sanctions on Russia as many countries have done as punishment for the situation in Ukraine.
Earlier this year in Bosnia people protested in the streets, finally expressing outrage at a government that is so dysfunctional it can’t even control the number of stray dogs inhabiting the capital city.
Among many troubles, Kosovo continues to struggle for international recognition (even for acknowledgement from websites such as Skype and Amazon.com).
Studying these countries will reveal a great deal about what it means to be a “new” country in this century, the significance of national identity and how it is fostered, and how nations caught between East and West strive for their own best interests while forging relationships with surrounding, competing superpowers.
The Balkans is also relevant to ongoing international crises, due to its geographical location if for no other reason. Refugees from nearby conflicts (such as Kurds and Palestinians) and mercenaries training to fight in some of those conflicts (such as recruits of the Islamic State and al-Qaida) pass through the Balkans.
At the same time, a generation of people my age—a number of them born from rape in war camps—is struggling to be defined by something other than their country’s war, many of them moving away and causing a “brain drain” in the region.
People living in the Balkans are not the only ones recovering from the conflict; Americans are also affected by the action our country took there. Anyone who has lost someone important to them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone who is harmed by, concerned about, or merely interested in the atrocities taking place in Syria, must realize that our brief encounter with the Balkans has an impact on the U.S. government’s decision to get involved in such conflicts.
After suffering through different variations and snippets of what I said above, people finally ask me what I expect to learn from my semester in the Balkans. I find myself giving a slightly different answer every time: overlooked details in recent history, current developments in peacekeeping and political violence, the potential role this region has in international conflict, or methods and mistakes my own country made there. Because it’s all of those.