Opening Remarks – Center for Foreign Policy Conference: “Western Security Architecture and Serbia – Challenges and Dilemmas”

Thank you, Aleksandra, for the introduction and for the opportunity to be here today. I’m looking forward to hearing the discussions.

As American Ambassador, I might seem to be a surprising choice to introduce discussions revolving around the question of neutrality, as my country is clearly not a neutral country. We are fully committed to a series of alliances around the world that help to ensure our security, but also the safety and security of our allies. All told, we have special military and security commitments to over 60 countries around the globe. And we are convinced that this web of commitments has helped build global stability, including here in Europe.

It wasn’t always that way, however. Our first President, George Washington, in his farewell address, warned the nation against “entangling alliances” — advice that was heeded by American leaders for nearly a century and a half. Washington made his plea at a time when he sought to protect the fragile young American republic by steering a neutral course between England and France, the two superpowers at the time. So in a historic sense, there is a parallel between the course Washington navigated over 230 years earlier and the policy proclaimed by Serbia today.

The dictionary tells us that neutrality means not taking sides or remaining unaligned. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. Neutrality does not mean you don’t stand for anything, that values are meaningless, and that you don’t take a position on important questions.

As the young United States sought to develop its revolutionary new form of government, it was based on a set of values laid out by our “founding fathers” in the Declaration of Independence and later in our Constitution. Switzerland is another example of a country that is neutral but also stands as a beacon illuminating values that matter to the world– from protecting human rights to grass-roots democracy.

When it comes to values, the Serbian people and Serbia’s elected leaders have made it clear that they consider this country’s strategic direction to be membership in the EU. And that Union, one of the most successful forces for peace, stability, and economic progress in the history of Europe, is at its core a community of values.

Nobody is coercing Serbia to join the EU or adhere to its values. The Serbian people yearn for what others in Europe have – a robust economy rooted in rule of law and democracy. Serbian citizens crave a better life from themselves and their children, and have decided that EU membership is the best way for them to reach those goals. Because the Serbian people decided that EU membership was the best option for their future, they have repeatedly voted for the parties which are committed to that goal.

Serbia has many friends here today who are actively working to help it reach its stated goal of EU membership. My own country is firmly committed to seeing Serbia move towards the EU. We have tailored our policies and our assistance precisely to help Serbia achieve that goal.

As Serbia progresses in its path towards EU membership, it sends clear and important messages to its partners and neighbors in Europe. Every time an EU acquis Chapter is opened, Serbia affirms its commitment to the ideals that underpin the European Union. Every working group that meets and every parliamentary debate that moves Serbia closer to the EU is a statement that Serbia believes in the promise of those shared values.

As Serbia undertakes the hard work to consolidate its commitment to European values, it must consider the question of how best to engage with those who would seek to undermine that cooperation, and who question those core values. Does neutrality mean that a country must remain silent in the face of actions which violate shared values, ideals, and concepts of international law?

Does neutrality mean you are free to seek economic advantage while your partners are making economic sacrifices to underscore their commitment to international principles which we have all undertaken together? Are the principles that underpin the European Union an a la carte menu that a neutral Serbia, or any other candidate country, can choose to take or leave depending on its own reading of its interests of the moment?

Now, at this point I imagine someone might say: This guy has it all wrong. Serbia isn’t saying it is value-neutral, or politically neutral. Serbia has only declared itself militarily neutral. Serbia has said it is committed to never joining a military alliance – neither NATO nor the Russian-dominated CSTO. That’s what Serbia’s neutrality is really all about.

And I accept that. All of NATO accepts that. The biggest false narrative heard almost every day in this country – screaming at us from the front pages of the tabloids, is that Serbia and other countries in this region are being pressured to join NATO. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Serbia is not resisting any pressure from NATO, either to cooperate or to join, because there is no pressure to join NATO or take part in any NATO activities.

NATO enlargement is demand-driven. Countries must pursue NATO membership. The “Open Door” policy is for those who want to enter the NATO home — no one is pushed through it.

The fact is that NATO as an organization and NATO member states respect Serbia’s neutrality. In fact, when it comes to NATO, Serbia always has, and always will, decide what it does with the alliance, and when.

As Serbia charts its own course, it has other examples to look to. Ambassador Ikonen from Finland and Ambassador Lundin from Sweden represent two countries that are militarily neutral, but also cooperate closely with NATO. Both have neighbors in the alliance. Both are also successful EU members, and support and contribute to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy – despite being militarily neutral. Many people, myself included, believe that these countries provide strong models for Serbia’s path towards the EU as it seeks to maintain military neutrality.

There is also no pressure on Serbia to make some sort of binary decision, where better relations with the West means Serbia must jeopardize its historic and traditional friendships with other countries. Many NATO and EU countries also seek to develop their relations with Moscow.

At the same time, however, they stand up for their principles when their partners, including Russia, violate international law.

Here, in the Western Balkans, Serbia’s primary goal is maintaining peace and stability. One of the questions Serbia will have to address as it moves forward is how it will best balance that goal given Russian activities in the region, where, as Vice President Pence recently said, Russia is working to destabilize the Western Balkans, undermine democracies here, and divide the Balkan countries from each other and from the rest of Europe.

Nobody said neutrality was easy. In fact, I believe our presenters here today will tell us that at times it can be quite difficult. But working to answer difficult questions is something which every neutral country must do.

I’d like to leave you here today with one final thought: Neutrality, per se, is not a goal. Serbia’s goal, as I understand it, is security. Security for Serbia’s borders, the people of Serbia, and Serbia’s future. Neutrality, if that is the path that Serbia chooses, should be a means to reach that goal. Nor is it necessarily a permanent choice.

So let’s have a constructive conversation about what Serbia’s neutrality really means for Serbia and the region and what challenges it brings. To do so, we need to focus on the future – what Serbia wants, what Serbia needs, what responsibilities Serbia has as a militarily neutral country, and what choices it will make to best reach its goal of security for its people.