NATO invitation presents new obligations

“We cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 Journals. “But the benefits we receive must be rendered again line for line, deed for deed, to somebody.” Morally overdue and historically important—they offer the Baltic nations solid guarantees of independence for the first time—the membership invitations extended to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during November’s NATO summit in Prague conclude the “preliminaries.” These three small countries worked hard to clear the first hurdle (to present credible “technical” candidacies), but they still have obstacles to overcome before they can be accepted as full members of the defense alliance in 2004. There will be no shortage of opportunities to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during a tricky two-year test of endurance.

First, even if invitees meet all entry requirements, membership is not a done deal. Why? Because some NATO countries (notably, the United States) have entrenched procedures that call for a vote (for example, in the U.S. Senate) to approve (or in egocentric U.S. terms, “ratify”) new treaty partners. This leaves other nations and multilateral organizations dependent on the vagaries of domestic U.S. politics—already a sore point with Europeans on several touchy issues. Nevertheless, such votes must be won at some point. Now is not the time to curtail public relations, lobbying and diplomatic efforts. They should, rather, concentrate on supporting a final push.

Second, the U.S. military is not entirely “comfortable.” Just before the Prague summit, Pentagon sources leaked concerns about poor records some candidate countries have in handling security, corruption, border control and other problems. Even though Indulis Bērziņš, the Latvian minister of foreign affairs at the time, countered that such concerns had not been presented to him directly, they are easy to raise (so long as readiness is incomplete according to NATO standards) and difficult to put down. They can still sway public opinion and distract undecided U.S. politicians—especially if the “war on terror” drags on and expands into Iraq. Therefore the Latvian political and military leadership has a multifaceted task ahead: to correct obvious deficiencies, to be open in asking for help in this work, and to make sure that no serious “What about that?” questions lie in ambush when the final reckoning comes around in 2004.

Third, great care should be exercised to avoid involvement in U.S.-European disputes, such as the U.S.-German spat over attacking Iraq. The Baltics need all the help they can get, but the price for it should not have be choosing sides between positions major NATO partners take on other issues. Given the aggressive posture of the Bush regime, one never knows how delicate a balancing act this may be.

Fourth, we can expect our “friends to the east” to manufacture problems, if not incidents, designed to cast last-minute doubts on the validity of our intentions and, ultimately, to extract concessions such as no new forward NATO bases or troops on Baltic soil, pre-approval of “threatening” security measures nearby, and so on. (Whenever it claims that its so-called “historical interests” are affected, Russia is entitled to Partnership for Peace consultations with NATO. Despite perpetual internal chaos, Russia’s imperial ambitions have not evaporated.) Therefore, in the face of tactics aimed at constrainment, our position should remain steadfast: what the Baltics decide to do, and what NATO asks them to do, is none of Russia’s business. We did not accept invitations to join NATO on a second-class basis. There is no such membership category. The Baltics reject any hint that they should (again) be a “special case” with conditions to be defined through sleazy big-power bargaining. One cynical sell-out (the Communist-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) was enough. Another (if the Malta Bush-Gorbachev “stability ententes” had not been overtaken by events beyond control) could have been fatal.

But one already hears talk of “reasonable last-minute adjustments” permeating discussion of NATO developments among “useful idiots” in western academic, policy and “chattering class” circles who feed on a steady diet of debating points served up by the same vicious agency Mr. Vladimir Putin used as a springboard to statesmanship. It is not coincidence that Canada recently expelled “diplomats” ordered to step up espionage by this partner in peace. It is also not coincidence that Mr. Putin has restored the red star symbol to his army, the Soviet hymn to official occasions, and the statue of Feliks Dzershinsky, founder of the Cheka (later the KGB), in Lubyanka Square. Together with muzzling of the media, these steps signal regression into strong man rule. Then, as though the rest of us have no memory, Mr. Putin talks about “respecting Soviet achievements.” Those include the horrors of the Gulag, for which no one has been held accountable. Can he not at least find the moral backbone to set the historical record straight for his own people? No. He will protect his KGB comrades, above all. This “partner” has not renounced a dangerous agenda. One media moment, in which President George Bush “looked into his soul” and “found a good man,” does not reassure us. Mr. Putin must have been smirking all the way back to the Kremlin.

Should we stand by and wring our hands? No. We must defend our interests. It would not hurt our cause to prepare and hold ready—to be launched at the slightest provocation—a widespread PR campaign that illustrates the terrible damage Soviet occupation inflicted on the Baltic region and explains in blunt terms our own “never again” bottom line for joining NATO. (Is anybody working on this?) Tailored to jolt resident non-citizens still seeking special privileges, this campaign would be useful (it is long past due) inside the Baltics as well. “Undesirable elements” there need a wake-up call. Within two years they will have to stop whining and make life choices without guidance from Moscow: they will be inside NATO, and NATO is not fond of disinformation and disloyalty. As the U.S. motto puts it: Love it or leave it.

These initiatives—to counter propaganda, to eliminate doubt, to keep on stating our case effectively—form outer defenses for what we have to do internally. In every measure the obligation is clear: to fulfill commitments our president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, gave in Prague—“to do everything possible” (in fact and perception) that assures accession to NATO membership. The Baltics passed the entrance exam. Now, if their long-held hopes are to be realized, they must prepare for the finals.

Some of the subjects they must study for are obvious:

  • All NATO members are expected to spend something like 2 percent of GDP on defense (and security) preparations. Latvia currently spends about 1 percent. (That’s the same as Canada, where we can see problems caused by the shortfall.) Meeting guidelines means doubling the projected 2002 expenditures of LVL 80 million. As this is being written, the new Latvian government still has not put forth a 2003 budget, but we are told that all competitors in a fragile ruling coalition want something: deficit reduction, better health care, assistance for farmers, education, infrastructure improvements, environmental clean-up, and so on. Leadership will be needed to set priorities that cannot please every faction. Elimination of waste, bureaucracy and corruption will be essential. (This painful “poor performance” category in all East European countries will not be tolerated for long by their Western partners.)
  • NATO has running expenditures, covered by yearly dues and internal levies (in the form of duties members undertake and pay for themselves). The Baltics face more than the cost of maintaining national representation, or offices, in Brussels. It is not clear whether any “cost-plus” formula has been factored into future Latvian budgets, and when full-scale contributions to NATO will take effect. But there will be no free lunch. We cannot pretend to be in NATO, to enjoy the privileges of membership without shouldering our fair share of the load.
  • Baltic defense forces still have technical work to do in terms of bringing air, sea and ground units up to strength, in arming them properly, integrating militia formations, installing NATO-compatible command and control systems, improving communications networks, and so on. An emergency response capability (essential in border areas)—which can be plugged into overall NATO reaction mechanisms—is needed in all three countries. New and improved base facilities (protected by ground-to-air missile batteries) may be required in the event larger NATO forces need to use the Baltics as a staging point. All of these are big, no-nonsense budget items.
  • The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent events imposed a new layer of responsibilities on NATO members. Contributions to the “war on terror” are expected, above all by the United States, but implementation of stricter security measures does not run counter to Latvia’s own interests. Basics include mounting guard over strategic targets (airports, harbours, bridges, telecommunications, armed forces bases, government buildings, power generation, fuel depots and so on); establishing a closed, secure border with Russia (from Estonia through to Poland); given the invitation to join the European Union, tighter control of visitors, tourists, immigrants and migrants, which also means keeping watch on subversive and “unreliable” groups, their contacts, communications and fund-raising; re-vetting of key (not just military) personnel; improved security (at work, home, meetings, when traveling and communicating) for key decision-makers and their documents; a tough, new customs and goods-transit regime; police, anti-corruption and counter-intelligence agencies that can be trusted by their NATO and EU colleagues; and the list goes on. In all these areas we will have to perform up to serious standards. In some we will have to discard broken-down, discredited structures and start from scratch.
  • Appropriate technical training is a given. But refreshers and updates will be needed as new equipment, tactics and techniques come into play. More multilingual officers and noncoms will have to be pressed into service, not just for office work but also during field assignments with NATO forces, at home and abroad. As they are reorganized, the functioning of various command and response structures must be re-learned. Most important, however, will be the recasting of military personnel into responsible, western-style “soldier-citizens,” fully conversant with democratic values, committed to principled, ethical behaviour, and proud in that role. This approach stresses leadership by example, not rank or force. With the help of pro-active, open public relations, it demonstrates that the military is an integral part of society and gains the respect, support and confidence of citizens. It is not the Soviet model. Our NATO allies must feel that they are dealing with friends and neighbours, not semi-converted recent enemies.

It’s a formidable “to-do” menu. But, as the Baltics busily work the list, they should still keep an eye on special considerations.

Central here is the question, “What role does NATO expect each new member to play?” Clearly, the Baltics will not be contributing big divisions, airlift capability or high-tech armaments to the next NATO venture. What then?

The smart talk keeps mentioning specialization. In a world of special situations, what could that mean? BaltBat, for example, has gained peacekeeping experience in Bosnia. We could be peacekeepers. One observer was impressed by bomb disposal at the Ādaži base. (But do we want to become NATO’s bomb experts?) Another speculates that a key responsibility will be coastal radar (probably based in Pape) that looks down the throat of the Russian navy base at Kaliningrad. (That Cold War aberration will itself be an issue once it is firmly inside NATO borders, because Lithuania has no intention of maintaining a rail line across its territory for the benefit of Russians who have no historical connection with the region.) Then there are more exotic enterprises: Hungary has been asked (by the United States) to train exile Iraqis in secret “military matters,” presumably in anticipation of “regime change.” (How would we deal with similar requests, remembering Russian accusations that Latvia was training “Chechen terrorists”?) Certainly we will have to be reliable border guards once NATO swings its northeast flank 90 degrees clockwise.

So, it is not so simple. Which duties can we handle, which do we prefer? Do we have a full appreciation of consequences? Once the frontier with Russia is “hardened,” for example, do we understand that this in effect cancels our claim to the Abrene region, stolen by Stalin? Can (and how will) the three Baltic countries, together with Poland, establish smoother internal border protocols, now that all are destined to be NATO and EU members? Leftover Soviet-era commercial arrangements will have new security implications. How is Latvia going to handle transshipment of oil from Ventspils to Russia? (Should Latvians be guarding foreign-owned facilities?) What new policies will be applied to half a million unhappy non-citizens? A list of “What then?” circumstances and questions (with outlines for resolutions and answers) should be taking shape on strategic planning desks at various ministries so that there are no unpleasant surpises, and doomsayers are denied the pleasure of reminding us that we have bitten off more than we can chew.

Because, as President Vīķe-Freiberga said, “Everything has changed,” we have to change—for the better. And that will be our first repayment for the opportunity we have been given.

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