Should the peoples of the Balkans be allowed to fix their problems in the way they want?

That’s the question the Trump Administration faces in Kosovo, a breakaway state whose status was supposed to have been resolved back in 2008 when the West engineered its independence, but which Serbia has subsequently refused to recognise.

Ever since then, Kosovo has existed in a debilitating legal limbo, a permanent flashpoint for conflict between Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian population. The West has offered Serbia various enticements to shift its position and recognise Kosovo, most notably, eventual membership of the EU – but so far to no avail.

Now, however, Serbia has floated a deal to end the imbroglio by formalising the reality on the ground.

In return for recognising the independence of Kosovo, which is all but lost to Serbia, Belgrade wants Prishtina to relinquish a small Serbian-populated enclave in Kosovo’s north which physically abuts Serbia and has functionally remained a part of the Serbian state, despite Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

It is a logical outcome to an otherwise intractable problem, you might think.

But the idea of partitioning Kosovo comes up hard against an international veto on any border changes in the Balkans, a position the United States has long enforced.

Realists fear that any mandate to revise Kosovo’s borders would encourage the region’s numerous malcontent minorities – such as the Bosnian Serbs and Croats or the Albanians of Macedonia – to reignite their separatist struggles and trigger a return to the violence of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, liberals see the multiethnic composition of states such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia as a goal in itself – a chance to prove that concepts such as territory, nationhood and sovereignty are redundant in the modern world.

Together, they have found common cause in a policy of freezing the map of the Balkans, maintaining its most fragile states in a quasi-colonial relationship while working towards their eventual integration into the EU, the supposed panacea to the mismatch of political and ethnic boundaries in the region.

That position held firm until last month when the attention of the Trump Administration was finally directed towards the Balkans by the new Serbian proposal.

And, to widespread amazement, instead of wielding its usual veto, the White House said it could accept whatever Serbs and Albanians can agree themselves, including Kosovo’s partition along ethnic lines.

Why the change?

Most obviously, the existing policy approach is simply not working: ten years on from Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Serbia has not shifted its position.

Worse, as the crisis in the EU persists, the long-standing policy of “stabilisation through integration” has been put on permanent hold, meaning Serbia has less reason than ever to recognise Kosovo, without some alternative form of compensation.

Then there is Trump’s preoccupation with the big foreign-policy problems left unresolved by President Obama, such as Russia, North Korea and Syria. Around these, there is little interest or capacity for maintaining a stalled foreign-policy project from the Clinton era in a strategically peripheral corner of Europe.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Trump Administration is simply not hung up by the need to maintain the ‘multiethnic’ character of the Balkans. If a resolution of Kosovo’s status involves separating nations which apparently want to live apart anyway, then so be it.

Naturally, this being Trump, most media have denounced the White House’s new policy approach.

In the last couple of weeks, commentators have warned in generalised terms of ethnic tensions, separatism and renewed conflict in the Balkans. And the UK and Germany have publicly rejected any changes to Kosovo’s borders.

If Serbs in Kosovo can break away and join Serbia, why not Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, and Albanians in Macedonia? And how can Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Macedonians, who oppose secessionism, be persuaded not to resist these attempts with violence?

These fears are not illegitimate but that doesn’t mean they are inevitable. On the contrary, Kosovo’s partition could be the catalyst for making progress in some of the region’s various other disputes.

The most obvious of these is in Bosnia, where Serbs and Croats have made clear they do not want to be ruled from Sarajevo but whose demands for more autonomy have been comprehensively rejected by the majority Bosniaks – confident until now that behind them stands the US with its veto on anything to do with borders and territory.

This has generated worrying levels of heat of late: Serbs are threatening to secede if Bosniaks do not give them what they want and Bosniaks are threatening to attack the Serbs if they try. On its current trajectory, Bosnia is heading for some kind of bust up.

However, if the US is now saying that regional borders are not inviolable, that Washington is not interested in promoting multiethnicity as an ideological goal and that it accepts whatever locals can agree among themselves, then the onus is suddenly on the Bosniaks to preserve the state which they cherish.

That means starting a discussion with Serbs and Croats about autonomy and, if the Bosniaks are smart, naming a high price for agreeing to this. The prize is not only something of importance to Bosniaks but a way out of a long-standing deadlock and a chance for Bosnia to develop as a highly-decentralised state.

A deal in Kosovo could also offer lessons to Macedonia where Albanians have similarly made clear they will not accept second-class status in a state run for Macedonians. Again, a solution in Kosovo based on the idea of territorial division can offer Macedonia a way out of its malaise.

There’s no doubt that partition is an ugly solution to the dispute over Kosovo’s unresolved status, but the Trump Administration has concluded that some kind of agreement is needed and that it should come from the locals themselves – even if that means breaking a long-held taboo on new borders in the Balkans.

Others may be reluctant to accept the new American policy, especially in Europe. But the Trump Administration’s latest move suggests the days in which outsiders wield vetoes over the locals are belatedly coming to an end.

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy and the leader of The New Intermarium research project at the University of Cambridge.