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The United States and Croatia: the bilateral relationship since 1991

Date: May 14, 2008

The period of 1991-2008 witnessed significant development in the bilateral relations between Croatia and the United States. Is this situation due to one person or several? Did events energize this change or was it the result of a series of well conceived strategies? Before proceeding with the diagnosis, it would be appropriate to examine briefly the history of Croatia.

Croatia: An Ancient Nation but a New State

As a nation united in language and values, Croatia has existed in Europe for over 1,500 years and has had a significant impact on the region today. In order to understand the changes in the US-Croatia bilateral relationship, the evolution of US policy in the western Balkans should be examined. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the break up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He championed the principles of national self-determination and democracy; he disliked empires based on absolutism. He also made little effort to disguise his dislike for the Central European kingdom that for over four centuries held the different nations together.

Events birthed the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes at the end of 1918. The idea was for national unity of the Southern Slavs. While the new nation recognized the Croats and the Slovenes along with the Serbs, the new state ignored and marginalized the other national groups, such as Montenegrins and Macedonians, inside the future Yugoslavia.

The constitution of the Kingdom of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes represented the implementation of President Wilson's principle of self determination. The Wilson plan for the Southern Slavs was a matter of great discussion at the Versailles Conference. Despite its idealism, the plan ignored a very important political fact of Serb domination. By 1929, when the kingdom took the name of Yugoslavia, many discerned that Serbian institutions, particularly the military, the political establishment and the civil service, dominated the new state.

An Equally Complicating Factor Results From Past US-Yugoslav History

Yugoslavia's volatile political situation endangered the special relationship that the United States had with the country since World War II. One of America's best geo-strategic accomplishments during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union resulted when Yugoslavia pulled out of the Soviet communist sphere.

The United States invested billions in assisting Yugoslavia to develop its own institutions separate from the Soviet dominated Eastern European structure. While the US goal of turning Yugoslavia into a western model of democracy did not materialize, Yugoslavia under Josip Broz "Tito" did successfully exit the Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact community. Yugoslavia thus pricked the Soviet's psyche.

Many diplomats, including some from United States, served in Belgrade during the decades of the 1950s-1980s. Through their work, they became supporters of the US policy of keeping Yugoslavia united. When I reported for duty as the US Ambassador to the Holy See in 1989, the administration instructed me to promote the US policy of helping the Yugoslav leadership to maintain the unity and independence of this multi-nation state.

From 1989-1991, the pro unified Yugoslav position of the Department of State establishment factored into the calculations that caused the United States to hesitate in facilitating the collapse of Yugoslavia and to recognize Croatia and neighboring Slovenia. In those early days of the Croatian state, its leaders easily recognized a pro-Serbian bias on the part of some US diplomats.

When the Holy See and the European Community (now known as the European Union), led by Germany and Austria, recognized Croatia's independence in January 1992, I urged the US government to do the same within a few days. But it did not occur until April 1992.