Is the United States Ready for Another War in Europe?

By Kalyan Mukherjee ’27

Kalyan Mukherjee ’27

American foreign policy is at a critical moment. Between the Russian Invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict, there is no question that the State Department is more than busy. Renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo in the Balkans threaten to burden the United States’ role in the region even more. Due to the history of US involvement in the Balkans, we would almost certainly be obliged to get involved if a conflict were to break out. This would overstretch the already limited aid the US can give allies, especially because of increasing polarization within the US government.   

The conflict between Serbia and Kosovo originates in the Yugoslav Wars and the subsequent dissolution of the country into six independent ones. Officially, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia existed to unify the Slavic people of Southeastern Europe under one flag, which it successfully did so from the end of World War II until 1992. The territory of Kosovo, whose population is mostly Kosovar Albanian, is claimed by its much larger neighbor to the north, Serbia. Ethnic and religious conflict between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians continues to divide the region today. But first, it’s necessary to provide some context.  

The Yugoslav Wars were a series of violent conflicts in the 1990s that were fueled by ultranationalism, eventually resulting in the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo from the Serbian-led government. In 1989, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic revoked a special autonomous status in Kosovo held under Yugoslavian rule, leading to the beginnings of a violent anti-government insurgency by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). A few years later, only Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro remained a part of Yugoslavia, and conflicts broke out all over. The UN and NATO hesitated to intervene directly in the Yugoslav Wars early on. For example, the 1992-1995 Bosnian War involved the routine targeting of urban population centers and civilians and atrocities like the Srebrenica Massacre. Eventually, after two years of conflict, NATO nations decided to intervene directly with Operation Deliberate Force, where Western airpower put an end to the atrocities.  

In contrast to the slow response to the Bosnian War, when the 1999 Kosovo War broke out and Serbian troops were committing war crimes, NATO forces were much quicker to respond. This rapid response prevented the situation from deteriorating to the levels that the Bosnian conflict went to. As the years progress, we must not forget the effectiveness of rapid action in the Balkans. 

After the Kosovo War, the Serbia-Kosovo conflict simmered. However, in the 2020s, tensions have begun to rise again.  Both of the two nations’ leaders are relics of the prior wars— Albin Kurti of Kosovo has links to the KLA, and Aleksandr Vucic of Serbia worked for Milosevic, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in the Hague in 2006. The fact that the heads of state of both nations have nationalist backgrounds is grounds for concern for any outside observer, like the US, trying to maintain peace. Tensions are so thin in this region that an issue as petty as license plates inflamed ethnic tensions, with Serb drivers who technically live in Kosovo refusing to register for Kosovar license plates and using Serbian plates instead. In September 2023, the killing of a Kosovar policeman by Serbian gunmen was almost the catalyst of a renewed conflict. Tensions remain very high, and another incident could spark wider conflict. This even prompted the Serbian military to mass on the border of Kosovo. These tensions prompted an immediate response from NATO, which sent more peacekeeping troops to Kosovo. The EU also jumped into action and initiated negotiations between the two states, which is a good start. 

Thankfully, this conflict has not escalated yet. However, negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia have not been going smoothly. There is always the possibility that something could break out, which only adds to the urgency of the question: Why should the US care about this conflict? It would not be in the best interest of the US for another war to break out in Europe, especially in an area with a heavy NATO presence. The world does not need another ethnic conflict between two groups who possess extreme animosity towards each other. With the wars in Ukraine and Israel, the US is already stretched thin, and a new war breaking out would just provide another crisis for the US. War breaking out would also make the US look weaker since the peace brokered between Kosovo and Serbia is NATO ensured, and the US was the main driving force for peace in the Balkans under President Bill Clinton’s government. Increasing polarization within the US also makes foreign policy decisions much more difficult. The general American public lack of interest in foreign policy could also mean a delayed response to a potential conflict.  

The US should proactively try to prevent a potential conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. There are a few ways we can do this. While issues like Ukraine and Israel dominate NATO policymakers’ plates, they must still address the Kosovo-Serbia crisis in at least some capacity at the upcoming NATO summit in July. The US should also proactively position more troops in the region, which have historically proven the best deterrent against Serbia. The US must deter a new war from breaking out, and if we fail to do that, then we must defend Kosovo. Our credibility and readiness are at stake.