Jeroen Bult: The Baltic split: America First and Europe First

Jeroen Bult
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It seems like ages ago. Last April, the three Baltic Presidents, Kaljulaid, Vējonis and Grybauskaitė, crossed the Atlantic for a rendez-vous with their illustrious American counterpart, Trump. The official reason was this year’s celebration of the centennials of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but probably more important was the craving for an explicit affirmation of Trump’s commitment to Baltic security. After all, The Donald’s devotion to the defence of the Baltic States had not been a very outspoken one so far. America First!

During the press conference after the meeting, Trump stressed that the principles of the Welles Declaration of July 1940 (the non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union) and the U.S.-Baltic Charter of 1998 still «lie at the heart of America’s approach to world affairs, honoring the right of peaceful citizens and nations to protect their interests and chart their own wonderful destinies». This almost Wilsonian contemplation was followed by words that must have come as a relief to the three guests: «As we begin the next hundred years of our partnership, the Baltic republics can trust the United States will remain a strong, proud, and loyal friend and ally». Article 5 of the NATO Treaty that stipulates that an armed attack against one or more allies will be considered an attack against all allies was mentioned in the common declaration that the four Heads of State issued.

Trump also praised the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians for complying with a NATO norm that has become a true obsession for him: the obligation of the allies to spend two percent of GDP on Defence that was agreed upon in Wales in 2014. The visitors from Northeastern Europe («Your commitment to burden sharing is an example») knew, of course, that this was a perfect means to please the President and to tie him down subtly to a lasting defence of Baltic States. Quid pro quo.

The problem is, though, that no matter how examplary the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian (and Polish) commitment to «Wales» is, soaring tensions between the U.S. and other NATO members, who do not comply with the sacred norm, most of them being Western European, and who do not intend to remain silent about Trump’s raw, anything but Wilsonian unilateralism, threaten to erode the stability of Trans-Atlantic relations as such. How much is April’s optimism still worth in such a tensed environment? Estonian Prime Minister Ratas (like his Dutch counterpart Rutte) tried to play down the tensions that almost derailed the recent NATO Summit in Brussels, due to Trump’s sermons on the «two percent issue», but the latter’s incomprehensible, undiplomatic style vis-à-vis America’s old allies and flirting with authoritarian rulers, an embarrassing Umwertung aller Werte, only accentuate that a return to business as usual will not be accomplished that easily. As former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves put it on Twitter: «The past week – at NATO, in the UK, in comments about «foes», etc., add up to the most disruptive, unilateral disruption of 70+ years of U.S. foreign policy. The continuity is important. Disrupt like this and it will take decades to re-establish trust.»

Of course, President Trump is not entirely wrong: many of the Western European countries, still longing for the postmodern 1990s, when the End of History seemed to be within reach, have neglected their national defence in an irresponsible way. While the Baltic republics had to build their armed forces from scratch after regaining independence in 1991 and were thankful for every second-hand rifle and army belt they were given, elsewhere in Europe Defence became the natural target for spending cuts. Trump’s «two percent» mantra has revealed an underlying, deeper tendency: «Western Europe’s defence problem is more of a psychological than of a financial kind. [It] lacks the will to defend itself», as Dutch analyst Derk Jan Eppink wrote (De Volkskrant, 18 July). Nor is Trump the first American politician, who is demanding more burden sharing and is making threats about troop withdrawals. In August 1963, Senator Mike Mansfield, a Democrat, introduced his first Resolution urging for a reduction of U.S. military forces in Europe, unless their allies would increase expenditures. Mansfield’s main scorn: prosperous (West-)Germany that enjoyed its Wirtschaftswunder at the time.

Eppink’s judgement – which corresponds with former Estonian Foreign Minister Ligi’s dry assessment that «for historical and political reasons, military activities of the European countries are having a somewhat different handwriting» (Välisilm, ETV, 19 September 2016) – indicates that developing an alternative, European-centred framework for their security policy will be hard for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Europe First? The three nations joined the Permanent Structured Cooperation (aka PESCO) that was activated in November 2017. But the purposes of this «military wing of the EU», an old dream of europhiles in France and Germany, are still surrounded by vagueness.

Will PESCO render the Western European inclination towards «soft security» or will it take on «hard security» tasks as well? Will it focus on combatting spooky islamist groups and ditto caliphates or will it also help filling the so-called «Suwałki gap»? How about the financial dimension? Would, in the end, complying with NATO’s «Welsh» norm not be cheaper than creating all kind new, duplicating military structures? And probably most essential: how to concoct 29 historically- and culturally-rooted perceptions of national security, i.e. geopolitical traditions, without a dominant, correcting headmaster like the U.S.? The controversial topic that Trump touched upon during his breakfast with Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels is illustrative for the latter challenge: the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

«Continuity is important», Ilves tweeted. No matter how odd and pernicious Trump’s behaviour is, U.S. foreign and defence policy still consists of several institutional layers, layers that will guarantee that very continuity and will provide a counterbalance to the reality show called Trump First! Most (specialized) members of Congres, both Democrats and Republicans, still consider NATO as the cornerstone of U.S. security, not to mention the Pentagon and the military establishment. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, together with other interested European partners, should intensify their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and make additional useful contacts that might contribute to subtly neutralizing Trump’s role in the NATO-related decision-making processes. The outrage caused by the President’s public humiliation of his own country, during the press conference in Helsinki after his meeting with Vladimir Putin, could even be helpful here. This might leave a more limited room for manoeuvre in his cooperation with Putin/Russia, also because Putin admitted that Trump was his preferred candidate during the U.S. elections in 2016, as Der Spiegel-online (17 July) encapsulated the surreal occurrence.

The Baltic split – America First and Europe First – will linger. The three vulnerable republics cannot afford to distance themselves from NATO, their life insurance, but Europe is their natural habitat. Therefore, they cannot ignore PESCO and similar EU defence initiatives that are encouraged by Paris and Berlin either, no matter how much refinement these need. Busy times ahead for Baltic diplomats.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in the Baltic States and Germany.