America’s Baltic time bomb

The ongoing diplomatic food fight between Russia and Estonia over the latter’s removal of a Soviet war memorial should be one of those things Americans can safely ignore. But because Washington successfully pressed its NATO allies into admitting Estonia and the other two Baltic republics into the alliance, the United States now has a treaty obligation to defend those tiny countries on Russia’s border if Moscow ever resorts to force. It is an unwise, extremely dangerous commitment. As American trade with Asia increases by leaps and bounds, and China and India grow to great power, the Baltics are the last place the United States needs to assert itself.

Most American proponents of NATO’s eastward enlargement act as though the alliance is now little more than a political honor society. Their logic is that, because the nations of Eastern Europe have become capitalist democracies, they deserve to be members of the West’s most prominent club. And because NATO is now primarily a political body, so the argument goes, Russia has no reason to fear or oppose its expansion—even to Russia’s own border.

But as the Estonia episode should remind us, NATO is still a military alliance with serious obligations for the United States. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty proclaims that an attack on one member is an attack on all. That means the United States is obligated to defend every member—no matter how small, how militarily and economically insignificant, or how strategically exposed that member might be.

And even worse, those obligations go on forever. Therein lies the danger. True, in the near term, there’s little risk of a clash with Russia. Its military is in no condition to challenge the United States—even in its own backyard. And although tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen in the past few years, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be more of a calculating opportunist than a reckless gambler.

But who knows what Putin’s successor might be like? And who would dare predict the political environment in Russia a generation from now? All it would take to trigger a crisis is a Russian president who tires of the Baltic republics’ continuing treatment of their Russian inhabitants as second class citizens and decides to rectify that situation by force if necessary.

For example, Moscow’s anger might reach the boiling point if Estonia continues to insist on proficiency in the Estonian language for citizenship—a requirement that disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers. Or the Kremlin could tire of the pervasive discrimination against Estonian citizens of Russian descent in employment—especially in government ministries. Although the Russian government would probably first use economic pressure to force a change in policy, nationalist emotions inside Russia could lead to an adoption of military measures.

Indeed, a crisis could result if a future Russian president concludes that NATO’s mere presence in the Baltic region is an intolerable intrusion into Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence. Russian concerns on that score have already been exacerbated by the efforts of the Baltic states to have NATO combat aircraft deployed in their territory. As Russia’s economic and military recovery progresses, its determination to stand up to the United States and western allies is also likely to grow.

That is why permanent U.S. security obligations are so unwise. The commitments may make sense—or at least seem innocuous—under one set of conditions, but they can become disastrous liabilities when conditions change.

When permanent commitments are made to strategically and economically irrelevant clients, the folly is compounded. The security pledges to Estonia and the other Baltic republics are a prime example. If the U.S. commitment were ever challenged, Washington would face a choice between a bad outcome and a worse one. It could renege on its obligations, devastating American credibility and casting doubts on U.S. security commitments and statements elsewhere in the world. Or even worse, the United States could endeavor to carry out its pledge, which could easily lead to a clash with a nuclear power. America should never incur that degree of risk except in the defense of its most vital security interests. The security of three tiny nations on Russia’s border doesn’t even come close to meeting that test.

Washington should seriously consider the elimination of Article 5. If NATO is now meant to be primarily a political organization, as its supporters contend, there should be little objection to that reform. Conversely, if NATO supporters demand that Article 5 be maintained, then their assurances that the alliance is not directed against Russia are disingenuous, and we can expect serious tensions with that country in the future.

In any case, the United States should never have undertaken military commitments to the Baltic republics. These obligations are a dangerous liability, and the United States must extricate itself from them.

(Editor’s note: This article, republished with the permission of the Cato Institute, originally appeared in the South China Morning Post on May 24, 2007.)

8 thoughts on “America’s Baltic time bomb

  1. Ted:
    According to the Cato Institute of which you’re VP for Defense and Foreign Policy, under How to Label Cato, it “reject(s)the bashing of gays,Japan,rich people and immigrants.” Just how recently (if ever)have you visited any of the Baltic countries you denigrate (bash)in your incendiary article, to gather firsthand knowledge of the history, character, and integrity of its people? To recognize the veracity of what you read about mistreatment of Russians in the Baltics? While calling President Putin a “calculating opportunist” you swallow his propaganda.

    Need one remind you of russification, a tactic used through centuries to overrun occupied countries and overcome resistance of conquered masses? Might not yelling “discrimination” and stirring up remaining Russians be a ploy to embarrass and maim the new Baltic republics in the world’s eyes? You don’t even need a college deegree to compare language requirements of, i.e. the US, where one also needs to speak English to acquire citizenship. In discussing Estonia, why does that, all of a sudden, not apply to Russians who refuse to learn this native tongue as they seek citizenship? That kind of thinking smacks of…opportunism.

    The Institute professes: “Our greatest challenge is to extend the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity to those who are still denied it, in our own country and around the world.” Did that not extend to the Baltic countries? And if not, why not? Because in the past they have been sacrificial lambs to larger nations that have attacked them at will? I’m speaking,i.e. with reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of ’39. Why study history, if not to avoid past mistakes when the West, America included, did, totally,
    allow Europe to be carved up? Instead of peace, that brought on the Cold War, no?

    You write, “When permanent commitments are made to strategically and economically irrelevant clients (the Baltic states), the folly is compounded.” The past should have taught us that “everything is connected to the (next) bone,” and not much in this world is
    “strategically and economically irrelevant.” We, as world citizens are evolving: even Darfu’s policy is being challenged by private citizens. Even your writing in far off South China is disclosed–to be refuted by those who care and know more about this subject. Get your facts straight about the Baltic countries before spouting off.

  2. Ted – I am curious why you placed this particular article in the South China Morning Post. It is an odd place for an article about American policy towards East Central Europe. You know the political impossibility of any shift on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the present environment. So who did you write this article for? Why do you feel it is necessary to pander to neo-Soviet urges in the Baltics by the present oil-rich Russian leadership? And why did you use the incendiary words in the title – “Time Bomb” when there is no realistic possibility of this unless the US becomes terribly weakened. If the US were so weakened then its treaty obligations under Article 5 would be meaningless. It is not Russian strength but American weakness that could change the balance. Do you honestly feel that America could grow so weak in the foreseeable future? If the US continues to be the dominant global power then American support for independence and democracy in the Baltics contributes to the stability of the entire region from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

    You are so 19th century in your thinking – “Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence in the Baltics.” It is in American interests to rise beyond such narrow nationalist concerns to foster greater economic integration of the region. Ultimately, the answer to the Baltics question is in Gorbachev’s terminology an integrated economic space from the Atlantic to the Urals. While Russia would be a strong player in such a space such a positive future for American interests can never come about through a retreat by the US from the gains made in the region with the fall of the Soviet Union. No Russian empire can rule Europe but a democratic Russia can be a part of a greater Europe providing a counterweight to an ascendant China. If there were even a hint of retrenchment on Article 5 the rise in anti-Russian paranoia across all of East Central Europe would retard meaningful reforms that could lead to greater economic integration of the region. Ultimately, it is in American interests that there are open borders between Russia and her neighbors, not because the Russian bear growls but because conditions across the region have normalized with democracy amidst relative affluence for all peoples of the region.

    You are ignorant of conditions in the Baltics. If you do a comparative analysis you will see that Estonia has one of the most liberal citizenship laws in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have not been disenfranchised in Estonia. Citizenship through naturalization is wide open, most welcome and strongly encouraged by the governments of Estonia as well as of Latvia and Lithuania. While Estonian is not an easy language in which to have proficiency the minimums required for naturalization can be quickly learned with ease by anyone of normal intelligence who cares to apply himself.

    The United States has affirmed a commitment to the idea of independence for the Baltics from the late 1930s. It is not a passing fancy or a stance to run from if Vladimir Putin but frowns and government sanctioned mobs in Moscow threaten the embassy of a sovereign foreign country. The commitment to the Baltics is a major asset of American foreign policy. It affirms American commitment to principles of the Charter of the United Nations in an area where there is a past history of violations of these principles by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Molotov Ribentropp Pact and the subsequent occupations of the Baltic States by the Soviets and the Nazis inflicted extreme damage on the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Proportionate damage to the US would be nearly 25% of Americans killed or deported – perhaps 75 millions. It is a remarkable tribute to the peoples of these countries how they have welcomed the Russian people who reside within their borders to become citizens. The vast majority of Russian residents in the region arrived in the Brezhnev era. They are recent arrivals without deep roots in the places where they settled. They have not been disenfranchised by Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania because neither they nor their parents were citizens of these countries.

    I felt compelled to respond to you because the language that you use is so reminiscent of the realpolitik of the 1930s. It is possible to build a different kind of future. Such a future is strengthened if the US remains committed to the independence of the Baltics.

    Vid Beldavs, Latvian-American

  3. Ted, you wrote: “…Moscow’s anger might reach the boiling point if Estonia continues to insist on proficiency in the Estonian language for citizenship – a requirement that disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers.” Since most Latvians (and Estonians and Lithuanians) had to learn Russian, virtually overnight, to get a second-rate Soviet citizenship after Soviet-Russia occupied Latvia, just which “disenfranchised Russian-speakers” are you talking about? Do you really mean Russians? What language does Russia require for citizenship in Russia? Do Latvian-first speakers in Russia have to speak Russian or Latvian in order to find employment? I had to learn English – I had a couple of years, my sister had English-immersion – in order to attend school here in the United States; and I can’t speak Latvian at work. Why would someone who is either a long-term legal resident or wants to be a loyal citizen of a country, not want to learn the language of the country they are living in? I’m beginning to wonder whether this is a more insidious discrimination against Russians, to suggest that they can’t learn a second language. I am confident that Russians, just like Balts, can learn a second language. I know some Russians in Latvia who speak English to me. Let’s give them another half-century chance to learn Latvian (or Estonian or Lithuanian) before we jump to unfair conclusions. There must be another answer for their inabillity to learn the Baltic languages. Let me know if you can figure it out. I’ll try to not reach my boiling point meanwhile.

  4. Ted, I assume you are an American. As an American I suppose you think that America runs the world. I wonder if you believe that America ‘pressed’ the EU into admitting the Baltic countries into the ‘new Europe.’ Maybe you need to leave your cosy enclave in the eastern seaboard of the USA and see the world out there. The US is increasingly being ridiculed around the world because of people like you who only see the needs of the American, living in the USA, as having any relevance. Economic importance to the USA is not the criteria for decision making for most of the world. Thank goodness for that! Please remember that the USA is part of NATO- NATO is not part of the USA! I think the learning of a Baltic language has no relevance to your article. Most Russian citizens living in the Baltics are intelligent people and could probably learn the local language easily.

  5. Wow, this article hit me in the face as being a prime example of what happens when your mouth, or in this case your fingers, moves more quickly than the safety device in the brain that says “Stop! bad idea, you don’t know what you’re doing”. While there are certainly difficulties in the baltics, they won’t be solved by interested parties (yes, the U.S. is one as is Russia) distancing themselves from them. Is a language requirement dificult for some? yes but not immpossible or unreal. I was impressed by the soon to be late president of Latvia when she told the Russians, “yes, latvian is a requirement for citizenship but to show that we need to work together, I’m going to start learning Russian”. (not exact wording but close) Now that’s a real way to get people to work together. Could Estonia’s timing and the way of moving the monument have been better, absolutely. There was an example of how to devide people but’s done and we need to move on. I’ve spent a lot of time in Latvia and currently live in Russia. I often am able to explain to my Russian friends and collegues the position of the baltics and they’re able to understand. The article is a perfect example of how to divide people from real progress and is also lacking in a word dear to my, and many people’s heart. It’s a word that is crucial to the strong sense of well being, Honor. The author describes Putin as being opportunistic but he is advocating the same thing for the U.S. by wanting constant changing of commitmants. Bad Idea. I will make no assumptions about the author’s intellect, purpose etc. for this article as I don’t know him nor do I expect to meet, just that the article was not backed up by quality research to put his opinion in print. Pete

  6. Ted, Your article starts “The ongoing diplomatic food fight between Russia and Estonia over the latter’s removal of a Soviet war memorial should be one of those things Americans can safely ignore.” Everyone is entitled to an opinion of his own. But if you publish something that you use to build an argument to influence people, it is imperative that you must be correct on the facts. In this case, the fact is that the memorial was relocated to a cemetery, not removed. This, one might say, puts things in a totally different pespective, since the whole ethical aspect is gone. Is there any other basis for your argument?

  7. Please remember that the monument in question was a tribute to the Russian soldiers who “liberated” Estonia, paid for by taxing the Estonian people. Similar monuments are present in the other two Baltic nations. In actual fact, the Red Army liberated these Baltic countries from their liberty. The second Baltic Holocaust followed with mass deportations, Russification and 50 years of oppression.

  8. As an American who lives in Maryland, next to our nations capitol, I am often embarrassed by Americans who think they know about life overseas and only see the world as a larder for the US. The history of the Baltics is way too complicated for anyone to dismiss and then make broad sweeping comments like “Russians are dicrimnated against blah blah in the Baltics.” As a public servant in Washington DC I use English at work all day, but speak in Spanish when talking to my mother and her side of the family. Anyone who lives in the US and wants to work for the government and most public sector jobs must speak English. If I were to move to Estonia tomorrow, I would learn Estonian! So simply, so elegant a decision. So, the ethnic Russians who live in Estonia and Latvia need to learn the language of the country they are living in. I have been to the Netherlands many times, and met Russians there who are learning to speak Dutch, so, so simple, once again, the Russians in the Baltics need to learn the local language. And when Mr. Carptenter comments about discrimnation against Russians in civil employement, well, gosh, if you want to work for the government of Sweden you have to speak Swedish, if you work for the government in Russian, you have to speak Russian, and to top that off, you need people who are LOYAL to the government. Why should Estonia and Latvia be any diferent. And let’s not forget that citizenship is not a basic right of any human being….it is a privledge! Not being deported to Siberia, now that is a basic right!

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