Jeroen Bult: European Defence - difficult choices ahead for Estonia

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Mike Pence Tallinnas.


«President Donald Trump sent me here to say: we are with you. We stand with the people and nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and we always will.» Three relieved Baltic Presidents were standing behind U.S. Vice-President Pence, when he spoke these reassuring words on 31 July, on the second day of his visit to Tallinn.

The fact that 77 years earlier, on 23 July 1940, acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles issued his famous statement, in which he strongly condemned the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and mapped out America’s policy of non-recognition of their incorporation into the U.S.S.R., provided Pence’s words, no matter how predictable these were, with additional symbolism. Last April and May, Speaker Ryan (in Tallinn) and Defense Secretary Mattis (in Vilnius) had already delivered similar allaying messages.

So, have the predictions of former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, veteran diplomat Jüri Luik, now Mattis’ Estonian counterpart, and then Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves that the Trump Administration would stick to the guidelines and principles of U.S. foreign policy, including its role in the security of the Baltic Sea Region, come true? «Donald Trump being elected President of the United States does not mean the end of the world», Postimees wrote one week after The Donald’s unexpected electoral victory in November 2016.

The incessant pro-Atlanticist reflexes in Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania), its reluctance to «try out» alternative, EU-focused security scenarios, its inclination to adher to the status quo as much as possible are understandable from a historical-psychological point of view. In July 2010, the three Baltic Prime Ministers sent a letter to Trump’s predecessor Obama, in which they stated that the Welles Declaration «enabled the diplomatic representations of the Baltic States to continue working and gave their people strength and hope to go on campaigning for their freedom.»

This, in combination with the perceived «liberation from Communism» by President Reagan, has given the United States a heroic aura in Estonia that will also survive the Trump Era (whether the aforementioned notion is one hundred percent historically accurate, is a different matter: other Western countries, like France, vehemently rejected the Soviet occupation/annexation of the Baltic States as well, while in the turbulent Summer of 1991, the U.S. were remarkably late with their reconfirmation of Baltic independence).

Some of Estonia’s EU partners, most of them being «old» member states intertwined with the Carolingian heartland of the Union, still aren’t convinced, though, that the impending Trump-driven «end of the world» has been averted. Their reaction to Trump’s raw, surreal way of conducting foreign policy and his «America First» mantra has been that alternative, EU-focused security scenarios should be tried out indeed. As such, this tendency isn’t entirely new. Back in December 1969, the six leaders of the European Community, the EU’s predecessor, decided to embark on more political cooperation, which was interpreted as a response to the so-called Nixon Doctrine. President Nixon had indicated that U.S. allies should take on a greater share of collective defence (politically and financially) and that America would concentrate more on its relationship with other countries i.e. global players (China).

This time, Trans-Atlantic tensions appear to be more serious. Nixon was aware that he could not afford to jettison NATO, because of the ongoing ideological, geopolitical and military rivalry with the Soviet Union. Theoretically, Trump could abandon NATO/Europe. Political threads across the Atlantic have definitively become thinner, mainly because since after the end of the Cold War, Washington has gradually shifted its strategic attention to the Greater Middle East and the Pacific Region. This process has coincided with an increasing cultural-ideological alientation between America and Europe, especially postmodern, secularized Western Europe (although it should be added that this gap exists within the U.S. themselves as well, while in some Western European countries, opposition against «the ongoing cultural self-destruction» can be discerned). President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his allergy to free-trade are recent examples of how ideological bias can affect U.S.-European relations on a political level.

Even taking into account these movements under the surface, recent «old European» comments and proposals have been quite outspoken. «The era, in which we could fully rely on others is over, to some extent. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands», German Chancellor Merkel said in late May, just one day after the (failed) G7 Summit in the idyllic Sicilian town of Taormina. Although she probably also intended to deprive her political rival, social democratic leader Martin Schulz, of a tempting topic for Germany’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, the impact of her words were enormous. «It is just a single sentence, but it contains an oratorial explosive force that has rarely been seen in Germany after the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949», Danish daily Jyllands-Posten wrote. In another Danish newspaper, Information, renowned historian Uffe Østergaard predicted that Germany will soon build a strong alliance with France within the EU, in order to realize this aspiration. Part of which is a European Defence.

Should Østergaard’s prediction come true, after next month’s Bundestag elections, Estonia could face difficult choices. A statement made by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, two months after Russia’s «little green men» invaded the Crimea, is most typical of Estonian scepticism with regard to the military dimension of European integration:

«[…] NATO will protect every ally and defend all of the Allied territory, whereas when it comes to the EU, there is no organization, there are no contingency plans, there is no military command structure.»

He could have mentioned the soft security features of EU defence (so far) as well: smaller peace-keeping operations and naval missions. Above all, Estonia, like Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, is interested in hard security, i.e. defence in the fullest sense of the word. From that perspective, Mike Pence’s words undoubtedly inspired greater confidence than Angela Merkel’s.

On the other hand, however, Estonia cannot ignore the considerations of its western and southern EU partners – to them, European defence is (also) a potential useful instrument to counter mass immigration from Northern Africa and to fight terrorism (and trade-disturbing piracy). In «Old Europe», the feeling might gain ground that one is supposed to send soldiers, fighter aircraft and subsidies to Eastern Europe, without getting anything tangible in return. Quid pro quo. Furthermore, Estonia has lost its main ally in obstructing self-conscious EU defence adventures: Great Britain. If it will keep EU defence at an arm’s length, Germany, France and others might even form a «defence core group» within the EU – which means political fragmentation that Russia will try to exploit.

For the time being, another «obstruction» will remain: the financing of it all. Most European NATO members have neglected their defence budgets over the past two decades, so how to finance an (extended) EU defence then? As Lithuanian political scientist and publicist Kęstutis Girnius recently put it in an article on the newsportal: «Actions matter more than words and Germany is shamelessly failing to live up to its [NATO] commitment to spend two percent of its GDP on defence.» Still, contrary to what Estonia might surreptitiously be hoping, the topic won’t sink into oblivion again – as was the case with the European political cooperation that was agreed upon in 1969.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.