Contributed by Matt Kirshner. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
America faces a global reputation crisis. This unfortunate truth manifests itself every day in Serbia, where the most prominent take on America is a sign in front of the Parliament building memorializing the victims of the NATO (increasingly blamed solely on the US) bombings on Belgrade in the nineties. Troublingly, American foreign policy fails to use all available tools at its disposal to repair this damage. This has resulted in diminished openness to American values and policies, and has created an environment receptive to harsh criticism of American foreign policy. Regardless of one’s views on the efficacy or intentions of America’s foreign policy in recent times, anti-American sentiment globally could be combatted through a more diplomatic use of American foreign aid.
If you ask the Serbian people what country donates the most aid to Serbia, the vast majority say Russia. Then, they say Japan and China. In reality, the European Union and the United States give by far the most aid to the country. Where then does this disconnect occur? In 2014, Serbia experienced massive flooding forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Russia was the first on the scene with tents, food, and humanitarian supplies. After the wars of the nineties, China came with some of the first reconstruction projects, including a bridge across the Sava river in Belgrade that is now part of the city’s iconic skyline. Japan donated about 100 busses to Belgrade public transit, so now Serbians see a “donated by Japan” sticker every day on their trek to work. Public-facing projects such as these win big on public approval.
Instead, the US has opted to pursue more “behind the scenes” aid such as government training programs and physical infrastructure — think sewers and rural roads. Of America’s 35 million dollars of aid to Serbia, a majority (18 million) went to “governance” projects. While the social impact of these programs vastly outstrips China’s bridge or Japan’s busses, the diplomatic strategy is tangential and naive. In theory, the construction of these structures will lead to development and a democratic, rule of law-based society that endorses the values of the United States.
To expect a nation — democracy, free speech, human rights — that has a profound emotional distaste, if not downright hatred, for America to adopt American values is foolish. Right now, years after the US-lead sanctions and bombings that still ring strongly in the public memory, American messages will likely be met with suspicion of interventionist, or even imperialist, motives. Furthermore, even if the nation were to develop stronger democratic structures and an independent press, there is a strong possibility that Serbia would choose to align with America’s adversaries — including Russia and China. If America truly seeks to share its values with Serbia, then it must first create a relationship where its messages will be received with an open mind.
American aid has an essential role in this relationship building process, casting America as a creative, rather than destructive, force in the region. Just yesterday, we met with Ambassador Scott, the US Ambassador to Serbia at the US Embassy in Belgrade, who professed that one of his office’s main objectives remains to communicate American values and ideals to the Serbian people. While foreign aid must first and foremost aim to strengthen and improve the recipient country, a more strategic implementation of this aid could return huge dividends in improving America’s image abroad, and consequently easing the path towards an impactful dialogue around America’s values and ideals.