Trump’s Attempted Shadow Diplomacy in the Balkans ‘Could Get People Killed’

After Trump said he had dispatched an "envoy" to the Serbia-Kosovo border, one NATO intelligence officer told VICE World News: “Clowns can be very dangerous, as evidenced by how many small children are terrified of them."
Trump's Attempted Shadow Diplomacy in the Balkans ‘Could Get People Killed’
Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The diplomatic community did a collective spit-take on Thursday when Donald Trump declared he had dispatched a former diplomat to Kosovo and Serbia as his “envoy,” despite having lost the last election and no longer being president.

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Besides drawing widespread ridicule, the move appears to violate virtually every principle of international diplomacy, and will likely strengthen bad-faith political actors in an increasingly volatile region of the Balkans, according to three European diplomats and intelligence officers interviewed by VICE World News.

Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and devoted political ally of Trump, did actually travel to Kosovo and Serbia this week.

Standing at the border of the two countries, he demanded the Biden administration support efforts Grenell had pushed under Trump to integrate the economies of the two states, which broke apart in the civil wars of the late 1990s.  

Existing U.S. laws—the Logan Act—prohibit private U.S. citizens from pursuing foreign policy without very specific permission from the current U.S. president. 

Responding to both Grenell’s criticism of Biden administration policy and Trump’s description of Grenell as his “envoy ambassador,” a White House official was quoted as saying: “Outside of his very active imagination, Donald Trump is no longer president and doesn’t have any ‘envoy ambassadors’ representing the United States.”

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“Completely normal and helpful diplomatic mission, except [Grenell] is a private citizen pushing policies not endorsed by the Biden administration in a place that has seen major disruptions in the international peace process by bad faith actors like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” said a diplomat from a Northern European NATO member, who, like the other officials, asked not to be identified for diplomacy reasons.

“The problem of course is that Grenell is a mendacious idiot and this is in all likelihood illegal under U.S. law,” said the diplomat, citing Grenell’s poor relationship with much of Europe during his tenure under Trump as ambassador to Germany and as special envoy to the Balkans, not to mention U.S. laws barring such activities. 

“I know the law can be vague and hard to prosecute, but Trump actually called him an envoy,” said the diplomat. “It’s almost like he made sure to use all the words that could get him indicted in the statement.”

“It’s as though he thinks he’s a king in exile,” added the diplomat.

An intelligence officer working at NATO headquarters in Brussels said while Trump’s past efforts to pretend to still be in charge cause mostly eyerolls, the situation stops being funny in dangerously tense places where multiple actors could be looking to exploit diplomatic divisions between the US and Europe on how to handle the restive Balkan region.

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“The reason that diplomatic and intelligence communication use such specific and vetted language isn’t pedantic for its own reasons, it's to prevent actors from reading between the lines in official statements,” said the intelligence officer in Brussels. “So now Grenell is walking around telling small-time Balkan politicians not to listen to Biden because Trump will return to power, and the danger is some of them might believe him.”

Serbia and Kosovo have remained mostly at peace since the 1999 NATO-led intervention in the Albanian Muslim majority province eventually led to its independence from Serbia but recent tensions along a critical ethnic boundary this year have led to tensions as Serbia mobilised troops along the border and Kosovar police targeted Serbian smugglers in the region.

“Many of the Trump administration and many Americans are frustrated because we saw a historic agreement, an economic one, which we agreed on for the people of Kosovo and the people of Serbia is not respected,” said Grenell to a collection of Serbian and Kosovar media at the Merdare border crossing on Thursday.

“This is no time for Grenell’s bullshit,” said a NATO intelligence officer for a central European country with strong interests in the region. “He’s come to tell the Serbs and Kosovars things that Biden will not tell them? I’m not going to speak to US policy in the region beyond its not for Donald Trump to make any longer. Considering the history of violence and long simmering tensions, it’s a disaster for either side to be confused as to what the American positions might be.”

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Grenell’s statement was incredibly problematic, said the intelligence officer, because the politicians involved in both Serbia and Kosovo might actually listen to him.

“First I think what we are seeing is exactly why most countries put ex leaders who attempt coups to death or imprisonment,” said the officer, reflecting the widespread European belief that the storming of the US Capitol building on the 6th of January by Trump supporters intent on reversing the election result was an attempted coup by Trump himself.

“There’s a reason Grenell didn’t try this shit in Germany or even Hungary where professional diplomats would have recognised the danger is that they wouldn’t allow it but along that border with Kosovo, these are a lot of small-time politicians who consider attention from an ex-president as a political bump.”

“Local strong-man gets to tell the local population how close he is to someone as powerful as a former president,” said the intelligence agent. “That’s fucking great I am sure that local strongman will accurately portray American policies to the other local actors in a place like the Western Balkans and its long history of good faith actors.”

“I was being rather sarcastic,” they added. “But my point is that while Trump and Grenell are clowns, clowns can be very dangerous, as evidenced by how many small children are terrified of them.”

“Small children and intelligence officers are terrified of clowns,” they added.