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.)