Adam Boehler did not come to Serbia alone. The DFC’s CEO came with five U.S. agencies determined to move the historic Serbia-Kosovo Agreement forward, which has, in many ways, proved itself groundbreaking in the two weeks since its enactment at the White House.
It’s one of those things where history writes itself in real-time, and fast, inviting a journalist to do an interview with history.
Boehler’s visit to Belgrade was part of a larger trip the US Government (USG) undertook from Athens and Jerusalem to Belgrade and Pristina, demonstrating US commitment over a broad region.
At US Ambassador Anthony Godfrey’s residence in Belgrade, Boehler and Grenell met with the leaders of both Serbia and Kosovo’s Chambers of Commerce. From there, they proceeded to a meeting at the Serbian Palace with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Brnabic, which was followed by a joint press conference.
In an exclusive interview, Boehler shares with The Pavlovic Today’s Ksenija Pavlovic Mcateer the details of his meetings in Belgrade, shedding light on the private market practices moving public interests forward. This new era of American-Serbian relations, ushered in by President Trump, is a welcome shift after a two-decades-long deadlock on the Kosovo issue.
“What are your impressions from the high-level meetings in Belgrade?” I asked Boehler at the beginning of our interview.
“I thought it was really positive. The number one thing I took away, and what this represents, is, we’ve talked a lot about moving forward Kosovo-Serbia, etc., but I think the biggest thing that this represents is, I sort of said it at the podium when I walked up, is a New Era for Serbia-US relations, and that’s a big leap. What President Trump set up is a totally different approach to warming our relationship, and to invest in the region. That’s the biggest thing to come out of it. And it has to do with change. Everybody said, ‘Hey, it couldn’t be done. It couldn’t.’ But it was the President’s ability, Grenell’s ability, Vucic’s and Kosovo’s to say, ‘Let’s not just get caught in the past. Let’s get going forward.’ And we like that. So at the end of the day, what we like is investing in private markets, the private market loves open, competitive markets, and they love a regional approach. So let’s invest more, which is going to benefit everybody,” said Boehler.
The DFC has opened its first, permanent overseas office in Belgrade, and Boehler was very excited to announce his new appointee, John Jovanovic, a Serbian-American who not only speaks the language but also has an impeccable Ivy-League-meets-private-market resume.
What Boehler observed during the high-level meetings was a lot of excitement on both sides. “People were very excited”, said Boehler, referring to Serbian-American John Jovanovic’s welcome on board as the leader of the DFC’s permanent office in Belgrade.
The DFC’s commitment to the region, as well as this fresh approach, is exemplified by Jovanovic’s background. Plucked from the private sector, this Serbian-American is also intimately familiar with the language and culture of the region in which he will be working.
“We did not just go and find somebody in the government, who’s been working there for 20 years… that’s gonna be bureaucratic, right? We’re moving quickly. I think they really appreciated it,” Boehler remarked.
Boehler revealed that he found Jovanovic through David Penna, Senior Vice President of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for DFC, which has a sharp focus on foreign policy development. The two met due to their mutual backgrounds in the private market, and to that effect, Boehler remarked, “Actually, all of us are the private market. We’re not long-time government people. None of us worked in the government that long, so I think we all share an interest in doing things — thinking about things —a little bit differently. That’s how we found each other.”
The Real Game
Adam Boehler is known in the business world as an innovative, creative mind. I was curious to know, from his vantage point, what is his vision for Serbia that he hopes to bring to life.
“I think that the Serbia-Kosovo issue is one that holds back Serbia in a way, much more than it holds back Kosovo. And the reason I say that given the entrepreneurial background and given how many benefits Serbia would see from economic foreign investments. That’s the real game. So I think this is an opportunity, number one, to bring in a different era of American-Serbian relations. Number two, I think it’s an ability for Serbia to really take a much greater place on the world economics stage and to reach its full potential. That’s what’s really exciting about this,” said Boehler.
“When Vucic holds meetings with foreign leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he continued, “Does he talk about Kosovo and the issues? As that sometimes dominates”, Boehler shared his insight. “What he should talk about is a big deal for Serbia. That’s what’s important. I think, to me, the opportunity for this region is reframing what’s important for Serbia, and not letting old stuff hold it back,” he said.
Previous US administrations failed to move the needle towards the improvement of the relations between and the livelihoods of Serbs and Kosovo’s Albanians. Business negotiations encompass a new, fresh approach, as compared to those in the world of diplomacy, where prior tactics seemingly never tire. Boehler addresses the larger question of whether or not the world of diplomacy is in need of reform while sharing his views on post-conflict peacebuilding solutions that may be implemented globally.
“There are people that are very successful in the private sector that come into the government that are successful, and then there are people from the private sector that come into the government that are not successful at all. And I’ll tell you what I think the difference is. Approach one is to say: ‘We know everything better in the private market; We’re more efficient; I’m going to do things exactly how I did in private markets.’ That approach fails. It fails.
The second approach, which is the one that I like, is to say, ‘there are different rules’. In the government, there are different ways to do things. And so don’t forget the fundamentals of why you were successful in private marketing pitches: thinking about solutions, listening to things for the first time, and being persistent. But also don’t forget that the government does work in a different way and learn how that works and learn to work together.”
Boehler describes his job as one which relies heavily on balanced teamwork. Noting the difference in procedural decorum between the private and public spheres, he emphasizes working within the system, rather than in spite of it.
“Before I came here, we were talking about something else. And we said, Hey, should we reach out? This is a leader of a different country than we haven’t spoken to in a long time. And we said, ‘Well, why don’t we just reach out and talk to them and see what their position is?’ Then, somebody said, ‘You guys have so much success through unconventional approaches. Go ahead.’ And I thought, one unconventional approach is just reaching out and listening? So, why was Ambassador Grenell successful here? All we did was not just assume the past was the present. That’s it. It’s just because things change, they change all the time. Otherwise, you’re just going through the dogma of what didn’t work. And that’s obviously the definition of insanity”, Boehler remarked.
Investing in development is an American value
On the topic of continuity, I asked Boehler if the DFC plans on opening more offices to strengthen the initiative, and, if so, whether or not we might expect Israel to be a top priority on that list.
“It’s definitely something we’ve considered. That would be really important for investing in a broader region. And, you know, prosperity, the Middle East is something, obviously, I focus, we focus on. It’s definitely something that is a possibility. It is something that I think we should discuss with Emirates, with Baharines, and with others, in terms of what we might be able to do there. Absolutely, I think it’s important to have a local presence wherever you can.”
“The key aspect of other local offices,” Boehler told me, “is driven by the question ‘Does it represent a sustained, focused investment?’ That’s what I think is so exciting about this office in Belgrade: We wouldn’t open it if we weren’t serious and it wasn’t sustained.”
A visit to Serbia by Richard Grenell and Adam Boehler, in the midst of America’s election season, shows that Trump means business with his foreign policy agenda and the exportation of his economy model abroad. At the same time, with the Election Day on the doorstep, the question of continuity of the Serbia-Kosovo agreement comes to the foreground.
“One thing to remember about DFC, and I look at my confirmation process, we’re a totally bipartisan organization. And so when I went through my current confirmation in Congress, I was probably one of the only Trump appointees to go by on a vote. Bonnie from USAID also did. But why is that? It’s not just because I’m a great guy, I’m sure. It’s not just that. The idea of investing in development is an American value. It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. From that perspective, I would expect full continuity. I think even when I look at the prior administration, what they did, and our predecessor, you see continuity,” said Boehler.
One of the geopolitical realities in the Western Balkans over recent years has been the growing influence of Russia. That the US government is securing a foothold in Serbia, in the region generally, makes some political connoisseurs wary of potential tension.
DFC CEO Adam Boehler and the rest of the US delegation congregated in Serbia as part of a tour which included Athens, Pristina, and Jerusalem, as well. As they traveled from September 20 to September 25, 2020, the Trump administration looked at ways to advance economic cooperation and development.
“We went to Greece because of commitment to the broader region, we’ve been doing a lot of work there. I mentioned in my remarks, as the Prime Minister brought up, Serbia’s investment potential in the region from an energy perspective. So that was great. We have a lot of projects in energy that were in Greece. We have that new ability. So it used to be that we couldn’t invest in a high-income country, so now with the bipartisan mandate from Congress, we can invest in energy independence in this region. So that’s why we were there in Greece. Then we head to Israel; that’s obviously on the heels of The Abraham Accords between Israel, the U.A.E., and Bahrain,” Boehler explained.
“One of the things that Prime Minister Netanyahu asked and was very clear about,” he continued, “is he really asked the DFC to come and evaluate projects to benefit the Palestinians in the West Bank. So those are things that we are looking at based on the request of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And again, things that the Emirates have expressed interest in as well, where we can look at, and a good example would be checkpoints right now. It takes Palestinians two hours to get through. That’s just obstruction of everything, it does not help Israel, it doesn’t help the workers. Israel has been so clear that they want us to look at it that the Prime Minister sent a letter about that. So we are following up on interest. And you could see one of the key things for us is, we sign an agreement to work on it. We want to get out there and get to work right away. So same thing on The Abraham Accords on this,” Boehler revealed.
Boehler: We Listen
Despite his background in business, Adam Boehler demonstrated exemplary knowledge of the political matters at hand, which no doubt facilitated, as was facilitated by, his smooth transition from the private sector into USG agency DFC. What is the secret to his success?
“Number one, you get a lot of background. We brought six agencies, we’re not alone in the USG. One of the biggest ways you can be successful in the private market is to learn how to work within the system. I don’t think of DFC as an island. I think about us together with our USG partners, whether that’s USAID, State department… We work pretty closely together. We have common goals. That’s really important. The second thing is, we listen, we sit down. When we speak to foreign leaders, we ask and we listen. We’re leveraging what we have, and it’s just listening and then problem-solving together, too. Our commitment is very real. And, again, it’s driven on fundamentals. That’s why I know that it will be long-standing,” said Boehler.
The Trump Administration’s efforts to strengthen economic stability throughout the region have been bolstered by Serbia’s enthusiastic embrace of these principles, demonstrated by cooperation at the highest levels of government.
“At the end of the day, I can’t force private capital to the market, but what I can do is support those areas in the world where they’re really moving in the right direction,” Boehler explained.
In the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement and these meetings that followed, Serbia has prioritized economic stability and prosperity for its citizens over the rehashing of exhausted political conflicts. The Serbia-Kosovo Agreement’s emphasis on economic normalization offers this refreshing opportunity to forward-thinking peacebuilders across the region. If politics is truly for the betterment of the people, there is no doubt this shift in perspective will rightly earn its place in history. That’s where DFC and Adam Boehler come in.