Una Bergmane is a Baltic Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Teaching Fellow at the London School of Economics. She holds a Ph.D. from Sciences Po Paris. She was a 2016-2017 postdoctoral fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the Soviet disintegration and the end of the Cold War, Russian-Baltic relations, and contemporary politics of Latvia.
In the context of the new transatlantic rapprochement initiated by the new US administration, this policy paper offers an overview of possibilities to reinforce and deepen the long-term strategic partnership between the US and the Baltic states.
After four years of troubled transatlantic relations during the Trump presidency, the US and the Baltic states should strengthen the US-European ties, both inside and outside the NATO framework. While former US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the conditionality of US support was worrying for the Baltic countries, there were no substantial changes in the US-Baltic relations during the Trump administration. However, overall US-European relations degraded dramatically and were put under a serious strain, as the 45th US president referred to the Europeans as foes on trade and allegedly considered US withdrawal from NATO. During the first months of his presidency, Joe Biden has reaffirmed his strong commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance and his wish to reinforce the US-European ties. In the coming days he will attend a G7 summit in London, a NATO summit and the highest level EU-US summit with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. In the wake of these meetings, Baltic prime ministers Kaija Kallas (Estonia), Krišjānis Kariņš (Latvia) and Ingrida Šimonytė (Lithuania) have issued a statement emphasizing the importance of the transatlantic bond and the NATO EU strategic partnership. For the Baltic states, overall European relations with Washington, not just their own ties with the US, are of utmost importance.
First and foremost, US commitment to the Baltic security is a part of the US commitment to European security, and the former would not and cannot exist without the latter. Second, as Linas Kojala has correctly pointed out, divergences or even clashes of interests between their European partners and their American partners is a nightmare scenario for Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. The Baltic states still have vivid memories of the 2002/2003 crisis in transatlantic relations caused by the US clash with France and Germany over the invasion of Iraq. EU and NATO candidates at that time, the Baltic states tried to navigate between the alliance with the US, and their commitment to European unity. Today, the Baltic states are using forums available to them in the European and NATO frameworks to reinforce their transatlantic ties. At the same time, the apparent power asymmetry between Washington and Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius or between Baltic countries and their more influential European partners such as Germany or France limits Baltic agency in shaping these dynamics. With scholars and policymakers repeatedly arguing that Europe has declining importance in US foreign policy, one might ask if the Baltic aspiration for transatlantic cooperation is empty hopes of a bygone era. The simple answer is no. Since the foundation of NATO in 1949, transatlantic relations have been shattered by numerous crises, for example, the row over the European Defence Community in the early ’50s (at the time the US supported the idea), de Gaulle’s withdrawal from the integrated military command in 1966, Nixon’s move to end dollar convertibility into gold in 1971, or the clash over sanctions against the USSR after the imposition of the martial law in Poland in 1981, among others.
In most cases, these tensions have been caused by concerns over burden sharing, relations with Moscow or trade-related issues. At the time of the détente in the ’70s, Europeans were concerned (just like today) that the US focus has shifted toward Asia in general and China in particular. Historian Jussi M. Hanhimäki argues in his recent book Pax Transatlantica: America and Europe in the Post–Cold War Era that while disputes and clashes are inevitable even among the closest of allies, structural ties that link Europe and the US continue to generate wealth and provide security for the involved parties, and thus, all the upheavals in transatlantic relations are followed “by a return to normal.” From this perspective, the Baltic countries’ successful quest to join NATO can be seen as a tangible proof of the alliances relevance and its capacity to reinvent itself in the post-Cold War world.
With regard to the current state of US-European relations, a distinction has to be made between Europe being the number one priority on the US foreign policy agenda and Europe being the US number one ally. While the former has not been true since the end of the Cold War, the latter still holds, despite setbacks in recent years. The argument that the US focus on China will inevitably lead to the weakening of the euro-Atlantic alliance can, of course, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, in practice, US competition with China requires more robust engagement — not disengagement — with its European partners. The Biden administration’s efforts to build a global alliance to counter China-US relations with the EU as the world’s second-largest economy is as important as ever. As Biden himself claimed in his June 6 Washington Post op-ed, the aim of his trip to Europe is to rally “the world’s democracies.” While the Europeans appear to be careful in taking sides in the US-China competition, Brussels has become more interested in defining a common transatlantic vision of China as a “partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival.” One of the three Baltics countries, Lithuania, has been proactive in forging a common transatlantic approach to China. In May 2021, Vilnius left the Chinese-Eastern European cooperation 17+1 framework (which the US has long seen as a device for weakening transatlantic unity) and called for a joint policy of EU 27 member states toward China.
The main Baltic concern has always been, and in the foreseeable future will be, European and American relations with Russia. In their June 7 statement, the three prime ministers urged the North Atlantic Alliance to give a solid and clear assessment of the Russian threat and highlight the “critical importance of continued Allied military presence in the Baltic states.” The unprecedented acceleration of US Baltic military cooperation during the second term of the Obama presidency and the deployment of the NATO multinational Enhanced Forward Presence battalions led by the UK, Canada and Germany was a direct response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The situation in the region remains tense, both because of the ongoing Russian presence in Eastern Ukraine and more recent large-scale political repressions in Belarus. Thus, continuous US support for Baltic defense through the European Deterrence Initiative, Baltic Security Initiative and other programs remain crucial.
During his European trip, Biden is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting has been rightly described as a low expectations summit, as none of the sides genuinely expects the other to change the trajectory of their foreign policy. Washington is aware that Russia does not plan to change its policy toward Ukraine or alter its support for Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka or its objectives in Syria. And while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made public statements urging the US to take into account Russia’s interests, Moscow knows that the US will not compromise on these issues and will not seek a reset of US-Russian relations. Both the US and Europe should brace for long years of a tense relationship with Russia, as it is doubtful that the Russian foreign policy outlook will change during Putin’s extended tenure. While the Western capacity to alter Putin’s political course is limited, a meeting like this should be used to point to the critical issues in Russian-US relations, for example Russian support for the Lukashenka regime. While free and democratic Belarus is an essential goal in itself, the recent kidnapping of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich from a European plane shows that the Lukashenka regime is attempting to challenge international norms on a much larger scale. The European response to forced landing of the Athens-Vilnius flight has been swift and severe, and the US has pledged to work with its European partners toward targeted sanctions against Lukashenka’s entourage. The Baltic states have an essential role to play in the Euro-Atlantic attempts to deal with the Belarusian situation. While all three countries have voiced their strong support for the Belarusian opposition, Vilnius has become the safe haven for Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya and other Belarusian activists, and the most active supporter of the Belarusian cause in Europe. The US should use Lithuanian connections and expertise to provide humanitarian assistance to the Belarusian opposition and refugees. Meanwhile, the Baltic states should use their links in Washington, especially in Congress, to advocate support for Belarusian civil society.
The post-Crimea annexation chill in the East-West relations, to a certain extent, reassures the Baltic countries as their Russia related security risks are finally being taken seriously. Having had complicated relations with their Eastern neighbor since the restoration of independence in 1991, the Baltic states have often felt that their concerns have been met with indifference. While this has changed with the Russian aggression in Ukraine, these past dynamics still linger. One of the most blatant examples of Western European countries overriding Baltic concerns is the infamous German-Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline project. For years, the Baltic states as well as several Central and Eastern European countries have objected to the project in vain, arguing that it will enable Russia to use gas as a geopolitical weapon. The gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea can circumvent the existing pipelines running through Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, making it possible for Russia to cut the gas supply to these countries without altering its supply to Western Europe. Now, with the project barely finished, Putin has publically envisaged the possibility of cutting gas supplies to Ukraine for political reasons. Biden’s recent decision to stop US efforts to block the pipeline is an attempt to remedy the damage caused to US-German relations by the Trump presidency. Still, it upsets not only Kyiv, but also the Baltic capitals.
At the same time, even if relations with Russia are — and for the foreseeable future remain — deeply problematic, during a recent FPRI brainstorming session with its Lithuanian partners the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Vilnius, it has justly been argued that the Baltic states should avoid building their whole foreign policy discourse around the Russian threat narrative. While the image of being the West Berlin of our times might be catchy, it also projects a false impression of fragility and permanent danger. Since the beginning of Putin’s rule in Russia 20 years ago, Russia has lost much of the leverage that it previously enjoyed in the Baltics. Since 1991, the Baltic states have developed into solid and flourishing democracies and have become members of both the EU and NATO. Thus, while the military cooperation and the Russian factor remain crucial elements of Baltic-US relations, the Baltic-American association has other essential venues. As the COVID-19pandemic has highlighted, military security is just one aspect of national security. Climate is one of the major topics on the US European agenda — increased cooperation on human security issues such as climate change would be a very timely addition to the US involvement in the Baltic states. The Baltic countries, whose military budgets have now reached the 2% of their GDP, should actively invest in such human security assets as healthcare and environmental protection. With the US also facing an ongoing debate on healthcare and climate change, new possibilities for dialogue and cooperation emerge. For example, Lithuania’s experience linking energy security with the transition to clean energy is a valuable lesson for its neighbors and international community. While reducing its energy dependency from Russia and Belarus, Lithuania has set a target of producing 70% of its electricity domestically by 2030. As a recent report by the International Energy Agency emphasizes, the carbon intensity of electricity and heat generation in Lithuania has significantly diminished, moving towards increased use of biomass and onshore wind. Lithuania and the other Baltic countries — just like the US and the big European powers — still have a long way to go to reach the transatlantic goal of zero greenhouse carbon emissions by 2050. While the US return to the Paris Climate Agreement and the recent meetings between Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry and European officials in March 2021 give hope for a boost of transatlantic cooperation on these issues, divergences between Brussels and Washington still exist regarding taxonomy for sustainable investments and carbon border adjustment mechanism.
Last but not the least, American as well as Baltic leaders often refer to the shared values in which their cooperation is rooted. This is more than political rhetoric. The US has played a crucial role in the Baltic democratic transition, using its leverage as the main Baltic security provider to encourage political and economic reforms. The Baltic democratic transition is a unique success story in the post-Soviet space and an essential contribution to the collective security of the Baltic Sea region. The US should continue to support positive transformations in the Baltic states, such as strengthening Latvia’s justice system, which Biden specifically mentioned during his 2016 visit to Riga. The European branch of International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association has ranked Latvia as the second worst country in the EU in terms of LGBT inclusive legislation, while Lithuania and Estonia rank 22 and 17 out 27, respectively. The Baltic states — especially Latvia and Lithuania, which currently do not have a gender-neutral civil partnership law — should embrace the existing norms in the transatlantic space and provide a safe and inclusive environment for their LGBTQ communities, demonstrating their ability to fully walk their talk of Westernness and Europeanness. The US should continue to encourage these developments, using the full potential of its structural power in Europe in general and in the Baltic states in particular. US active support for the empowerment of Baltic democracy is vital, taking into account the illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland. All in all, it must be kept in mind that democracy and peace in Europe and in the Baltic states, cannot and should not be considered as fait accompli, but as an ongoing process that requires active transatlantic cooperation and dialogue.
This article is part of EESC’s collaboration with FPRI, USA and can be also be viewed at fpri.org