Is Defending the Baltics Worth It?

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Written by Andris Banka

It is strikingly obvious why the Baltic countries need America. Washington anchors security for the region, serving as a much-needed deterrent to Russia. But what, if anything, does the United States get in return for defending this corner of the world? The question has come into focus as President Donald Trump keeps repeating that the U.S. is not being sufficiently reimbursed for its overseas security commitments.

The Trump presidency has brought intensive debates about the purpose, rationale, and cost of maintaining global partnerships. The idea that the United States has overcommitted itself to protecting others and needs to be more prudent with its spending has been discussed at length by Barry Posen, Professor of Political Science at MIT. He identifies two core issues with America’s allies: “free riding”, when partner governments are not paying their fair share, and “reckless driving”, when allies do things that run contrary to the U.S. national interests. President Trump has scolded Europeans on both, saying they “owe vast sums on money” and by describing them as unreliable.

On the financial side, Baltic countries, with the exception of Estonia, have indeed relied on a generous U.S. security blanket, chronically failing to meet NATO defense spending goals. During his recent visit to Brussels, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis captured the paradox of the situation by telling a European audience that it made no sense for Americans to care “more for your children’s future security than you do.”

However, Baltic leaders have never been too adventurous, carefully working not to oppose American strategic interests, making them unlikely to fit into the “reckless driving” category described above. All three countries, in the framework of the NATO collective defense treaty, instantly offered help to the United States after the 9/11 attacks, with Latvia opening its borders for transportation lines in order to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. While Baltic troop numbers for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan or the U.S.-led coalition operation Iraqi Freedom can be described as modest, they were there when Washington needed them the most.

As a matter of fact, the Baltics at one point of the Afghan-war had suffered one of the highest ratios of deaths-per-head among coalition forces. When political commentators like Charles Krauthammer ponder if the U.S. soldiers are ready “To die for Estonia?”, it is worth keeping in perspective that the Baltics have already sacrificed lives for American security projects.

While one can and should criticize Latvia and Lithuania for underinvesting in their own defense—recently both have made serious strides to meet the 2% of GDP target—in other aspects they have been model allies. Unlike NATO members, such as Hungary or Poland that have been backsliding on democratic ideals, the Baltics have resisted waves of populism, remaining trustworthy allies and enthusiastic supporters of the transatlantic partnership.

Long before the Russians meddled into U.S. elections, Baltic countries were the primary testing ground for Kremlin’s cyber operations and spread of dezinformatsiya. Estonia was the first country to experience a well-organized cyber-offense from its larger neighbor in 2007. Latvia and Lithuania have gone through cyclical smear campaigns led by the Russian Federation controlled media that seek to distort NATO’s role in these countries.

When Moscow’s hand became exposed in the U.S. election process, it came as no surprise to lawmakers in the Baltics. As Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics jokingly told his Western colleagues: “Welcome to the club.”

Located just a stone’s throw away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Baltic intelligence officers are the ones with the sharpest binoculars. The expertise on Russia is clearly there. “They [the Baltics] see things that we don’t see. They can go to places that we don’t go. They understand things that we don’t in cyber and intelligence—stuff that we neglected,” Edward Lucas, insightful Kremlin observer, recently testified before the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee.

With a combined population of just over 6 million, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania clearly don’t have as many hard power deliverables as the largest European countries. But that is not an obstacle for them to add value in critical areas such as cyber or intelligence that other NATO members have historically brushed aside.

Over the years, the Baltics have also contributed to the positive image of the United States, reinforcing legitimacy of the American-led order. If one looks at the geography, there is nothing natural or inevitable about the current Baltic-American partnership. Small nations along the Baltic Sea historically have fell into the Russian sphere of influence.

After independence, the energy and conviction with which the Baltic republics pursued membership in Western organizations, affirms that the liberal rules-based order offered by Washington, imperfect as it may be, is more just and beneficial than the one offered by Russian power politics.

It is hard to find a region on the map that has transformed so swiftly—from nations behind the Iron Curtain to full-fledged members of the world’s most prestigious clubs such as NATO, the EU, and the OSCE. Baltics have achieved this by forging a close alliance with the Unites States, which always supported their democratic aspirations.

In a highly-discussed interview, President Trump, when asked about his fondness for authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin, replied: “You think our country is so innocent?” America certainly isn’t without a fault. Still, despite its hypocrisy, occasional support of dictators, and lecturing of others, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have rather welcomed American global primacy than tolerated being in Kremlin’s grip. This serves as a proof that there really is no equivalency between the United States and Russia.

If one takes the balance sheet as the only measure of usefulness of allies, then the defense of Baltic countries may come across as not a particularly good bargain for America. However, a closer look reveals that these nations are trustworthy allies that have already honored their formal treaty commitments; can offer valuable expertise on U.S. geopolitical rival Russia, and altogether amplify Washington’s global influence and standing.

About the author: Dr. Andris Banka is Assistant Professor in international politics at Çağ University in Turkey. He earned his doctorate at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He holds advanced degrees in politics and international relations from the United States (Florida), the Netherlands and Latvia.