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The Baltics and Buyer’s Remorse
Donald Trump often growls about the utility of alliances. NATO has been a prominent target, with the President appearing most articulate in his silence – on several occasions failing to explicitly reaffirm commitment to alliance’s Article 5, which is the cornerstone of the transatlantic treaty. This mutual defence guarantee have always been of particular importance to the trio of Baltic countries - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. While recently rolled-out National Security Strategy declared that the United States intends to ‘strengthen NATO’s eastern flank’[i], President Trump’s personal instincts seem to gravitate towards the opposite - pulling up the drawbridges and scaling back America’s commitments abroad. Such apparent contradiction begs the following questions: To what extent his views about America’s security pact with Europe are in sync with the sentiments of the public and Congress? More concretely, are we witnessing a time when the US is regretting bringing the Baltics into the transatlantic community?
Ever since the Baltics regained independence and became their own masters in 1991, their geopolitical status and possible NATO membership have sparked passionate debates. The Bill Clinton administration spearheaded the idea of NATO ‘open door policy’ with an underlying objective redraw old security arrangements in Europe. Not everyone in the US political establishment saw merit in this argument. Celebrated Cold War strategist, George Kennan, had termed the possible NATO expansion eastwards a ‘tragic mistake’.[ii] Kennan knew the Baltics first hand as his distinguished diplomat career was launched in Riga, Latvia, then a key US ‘listening post’ for Soviet Union affairs. Kennan never questioned the desirability of Baltic independence, but equally never came around to the idea that NATO should absorb nations in such close proximity to Moscow.
Such assessment was shared by many others in the foreign policy expert community. Informally conducted Council on Foreign Relations poll[iii] in the 90s registered scholars opposing NATO expansion two to one. Furthermore, as we now know from recently declassified National Security Archive files[iv], the George H. W. Bush administration had previously assured the Soviet leadership that NATO will not be expanded (‘not an inch’) to the East.
But despite constant slings and arrows from the Russians and skepticism of many others, the Baltic republics carried out wide ranging reforms, transitioned to democratic mechanics of governance and capitalized on historic opportunity, carved out first by the Clinton and later George Bush administration, to join the world’s strongest military bloc in 2004. Moscow grudgingly accepted. Since then, keeping their end of the bargain, the Baltics have followed Americans into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, demonstrating firm commitment to alliances core values.
The unexpected election of Donald Trump, however, put the US-Baltic partnership in question, with many in the region pondering if this was simply a temporal setback that needs to be weathered for a while, or a manifestation of something more profound and structural in the American polity.
If one can block the daily noise and theatrics coming from the White House, then the policy portrait that emerges regarding the Baltic countries is one of continuity. First, this is due to the role of the Congress, which appears to be insulated from President’s own skepticism regarding the value of alliances. Support for the Baltics, and East Europe in general, have mostly continued on autopilot with lawmakers from both ideological spectrums being receptive regarding the security needs of these countries.
As one report[v] points out, since election of Trump, high level American representatives, such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Amy Klobuchar, Lamar Alexander and House Speaker Paul Ryan ‘have floated across the Atlantic, carrying messages of general reassurance’. McCain and his fellow Republican senator Graham in particular have been acting as guardians of America’s partnership with Eastern Europe. Where Trump campaign loyalists such as Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail scorned[vi] that the US should not be risking ‘a nuclear war over some place [Estonia] which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg’, prominent Republicans and Democrats sought to provide clarity and commitment. In summer, the Republican-controlled Senate passed Lindsey Graham’s introduced resolution[vii] by 100-0, which affirmed America’s commitment to NATO’s mutual defense pact.
Moreover, Congress has been generous in terms of financial assistance to bolster Europe’s Eastern flank. In the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee budget[viii] for 2018, $100 million were allocated to the Baltic countries ‘to improve their resilience against and build their capacity to deter Russian aggression’. John McCain, chair of the committee and one of the staunchest supporters of the Baltics, had personally shepherded the bill. In sum, despite changing of the guard at the White House, there are no apparent signs of decoupling of the US-Baltic relationship at the political elite’s level.
One can even make the case that as of late, the US president has been to a degree boxed in on NATO by lawmakers from both parties, forcing him to backtrack some of his harshest statements regarding the transatlantic alliance. At a joint news press conference with the President of Finland, Trump said of the Baltic countries ‘we are very, very protective [of that region]. We have great friends there.’[ix] Such statement clearly was an improvement from his previous remarks when, during an interview with the New York Times, he had suggested that military aid to the Baltics in case of Russian incursion was contingent on them meeting certain spending levels.
Given the Trump administration outspoken criticism of alliances, one could reasonably have expected some reflection of this in shifting public attitudes. A number of polls however suggest otherwise. Most Americans continue to view alliances as mutually beneficial and support US engagement abroad. When it comes to the three Baltic nations, major survey[x] by Chicago Council revealed that for the first time in history of this particular poll a slim majority (52%) of Americans favored sending US troops to defend Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia in case Russia intervened militarily. What is equally important - this was supported across party lines. Previously, only a minority (44% in 2014 and 45% in 2015)[xi] had approved of such mutual defense proposition.
Surely the level of support among the American people - just barely over 50%, cannot be looked upon as a ringing endorsement for NATO’s Article 5. But perhaps the key finding here is that despite President Trump’s public distaste of European partners, support for NATO and collective defense has not crumbled or collapsed by any measure. In fact, what shines through these surveys is that there is a considerable political base in the US, consisting of both Democrat and Republican voters, interested in sustaining historical transatlantic ties.
What is more, Donald Trump is about to lose a key point of criticism regarding the Baltics – that they, similarly as other Europeans, are not pulling up their own socks financially. A number of US presidents have previously objected that the United States is bankrolling disproportionate amount of NATO’s operations. Trump has just conveyed the same message in less diplomatically veiled terms.
Staring with 2018, the Baltics are set to contribute more to collective defense. For the first time in history, Latvia will reach the threshold of 2% of GDP in 2018. Just 4 years ago, it spent less than 1% of GDP on defense. Similarly, Lithuanian Parliament pushed its budget to meet the 2% mark.[xii] Estonia has met the NATO defense spending requirement mark since 2014. This, in the long run, should win some additional support from the Congress and the American public, and help to shake of the ‘free-rider’ label.
While the headlines produced by the White House are often suggestive of fundamental shifts in foreign policy, actual policy trend lines are in fact quite comforting for the Baltic states. These nations are still looked upon favorably on the Capitol Hill. Equally, the public, despite ‘America first’ banners, is not willing to walk away from decade’s nurtured transatlantic partnerships. Donald Trump’s proposition that upholding alliances are essentially acts of national self-harm has not appealed to broad segments of the society. On the contrary, majority of Americans are convinced that engagement abroad serves them well and functioning of NATO alliance needs not to be disrupted. For the time being, the United States has not displayed signs of regret over letting the Baltics into NATO.
[i] White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf (accessed January 3, 2017).
[ii] Thomas L. Friedman, “Foreign Affairs; Now a Word From X”, New York Times, May 2, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/02/opinion/foreign-affairs-now-a-word-from-x.html (accessed January 5, 2017).
[iii] Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary (New York: Harper Collins, 2013).
[iv] National Security Archive, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard”, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early (accessed December 12, 2016).
[v] Andrew Hanna, “How a tiny Baltic nation became a top destination for US officials”, POLITICO, July 29, 2017, https://www.politico.eu/article/estonia-america-how-a-tiny-baltic-nation-became-a-top-destination-for-us-officials/ (accessed August 1, 2017).
[vi] The Wall Street Journal, “Why Die for Tallinn?”, July 25, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-die-for-tallinn-1469459693 (accessed December 12, 2016).
[vii] Associated Press, “The Latest: Senate Jabs Trump in Unanimous Vote on NATO”, June 15, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-06-15/the-latest-senate-jabs-trump-in-unanimous-vote-on-nato (accessed July 18, 2017).
[viii] Senate Armed Forces Committee, 2017, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FY18%20NDAA%20Summary6.pdf (accessed July 18, 2017).
[ix] Steve Holland, “Trump says U.S. 'very protective' of Baltic region”, Reuters, August 28, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-russia-finland/trump-says-u-s-very-protective-of-baltic-region-idUSKCN1B825C (accessed August 30, 2017).
[x] Dina Smeltz, “American Opinion on US-Russia Relations: From Bad to Worse”, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, August 2, 2017, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/american-opinion-us-russia-relations-bad-worse (accessed August 30, 2017).
[xi] Ivo H. Daalder, “American Public Opinion on NATO”, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, September 2, 2014, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/blog/running-numbers/american-public-opinion-nato (accessed August 30, 2017).
[xii] Baltic News Network, “Lithuania’s 2018 budget focuses on spending cuts, NATO commitment and social security”, December 14, 2017, http://bnn-news.com/lithuania-s-2018-budget-focuses-on-spending-cuts-nato-commitment-and-social-security-176505 (accessed December 18, 2017).