The Trump Administration’s Impact on Baltic Security
by Dustin Dehez
A Changing Landscape
Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump struggled with international affairs. He did not really seem to understand the complexity of international trade, demonstrated all too clearly that he had no idea about the make-up of America’s nuclear deterrence and was keen to question traditional U.S. commitments. The foreign policy establishment gasped when Trump declared that NATO was obsolete. Here was a presidential candidate questioning the transatlantic security commitment that underpinned European security for decades, precisely at a moment when Europe’s security architecture faced a frontal assault by Russia. Yet, strangely, Trump’s declaration sounded eerily European. In fact, European politicians could easily have made similar statements. Former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused NATO of sabre-rattling, left- and right-wing politicians from across Europe’s political landscape often toy with the idea of replacing NATO with a different security set-up, one that would include Russia and ignore the independence of Central and Eastern European nations. In essence, Trump said something that one could here across Europe. The real problem, though, was this: Whenever Baltic policymakers heard such doubts coming from European colleagues they would rest assured that ultimately the United States would have their back. Imagine for a moment a re-run of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in a Baltic nation. Were little green men to show up and occupy, say, an airfield, would NATO declare it an Article 5 case and move to mobilise and defend that country? This, of course, is a political question and would depend on all NATO states agreeing. But it is easy to imagine that some allies would feel queasy or a German initiative to create a contact group in order to avoid declaring it an assault on all. In such a scenario, Baltic and Eastern European NATO members always relied on the United States to live up to its commitments and impress upon wavering European allies that the situation warrants a military response. But what if a US administration is just as queasy as some Western European nations? Trump’s public doubts on NATO and his recurrent declarations of wanting Russia as an ally sow doubt that the United States will defend the Baltics in the face of Russian aggression and that has severely undercut NATO’s deterrence, jeopardising, in the process, Baltic security. It is in the Baltics, after all, that NATO is most vulnerable.
To fully appreciate the extent of the changing landscape it is necessary to understand that the war the Kremlin wages in Ukraine is not the root of the current crisis. It is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. The foundation of Europe’s security architecture rests on a number of pillars and every single one of them is under attack by the Kremlin. No matter, which pillar one looks at, whether it is the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the Charta of Paris, the UN Charta, the Budapest Memorandum, the INF-treaty or the CFE-treaty, the Kremlin is in violation of practically all of them or insists on interpretations that directly contradict the intent and wording of these treaties. As a result, Europe’s security architecture is under more serious strain than even in the closing years of the Cold War. Today, more than ever, European allies actually need a strong United States at their side.
The changing landscape is accompanied by a sea-shift in soft power. Ever since the Cold War ended, Europe operated under a number of general assumptions. The European Union looked attractive and gaining membership did not only promise economic prosperity, it was also a way to express a shared European destiny and a believe in the same set of values of freedom, liberty, progress. Expansion of NATO to the East was less about the expanding footprint of military alliance – in fact, NATO volunteered in the NATO-Russia founding act to avoid exactly that – but about completing a pan-European project. In that context achieving NATO membership was an incentive for countries to continue reforms to ultimately gain membership in the European Union. Nowhere was this project more successful than in the Baltics: Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and in 2004 Poland and the three smaller Baltic nations followed suit. Today, the picture could not be more different: Russia’s pushback has left many European policymakers weary. The Eastern Partnership is more lip service than ambitious project; NATO expansion has been shelved for all intents and purposes since the Bucharest summit in 2008. With Brexit, the most capable military of the EU is leaving the Union, while Hungary and Poland demonstrate how frail democratic systems still are and how difficult it is for the European Union to halt and reverse authoritarian populism in member countries. In short, while Russia is resurgent, the European Union looks exhausted.
It is no coincidence that this comes at the same time at which the ascent of populism has propelled Donald Trump to the White House. While he turns his back to the traditional alliances of the United States, his rise is a sign of a larger political realignment that engulfs both sides of the Atlantic. Europe has its own share of little Trumps and many of them have shown remarkable election results – from the PiS in Poland to the Alternative for Germany. Their rise and electoral success can be attributed to the same set of societal challenges. Aging workforces, overwhelmed by changes in social norms and the intricacies of globalisation and being exploited by an increasingly fragmented media landscape have mounted a powerful, reactionary backlash undermining the very political systems that enabled their rise and prosperity in the first place. As a result, Western elites often appear at a loss: How could the unmatched economic prosperity the West enjoys possibly coexist with a rising tide if populist, reactionary movement, intent on picking Western democracies and their underlying values apart?
Where to Go From Here
When confronted with an aggression such as Russia’s assault on Europe’s security architecture and the invasion of Ukraine, there are four broadly defined reactions available to Western policymakers. First, the West could decide to act proportionally. Acting proportionally would entail to respond to every single act of aggression with an equally escalating step. The West could have reacted to the invasion of Crimea with massive economic sanctions against Russia. This would have demonstrated to the aggressor that the extent of the challenge was not lost on the West and that it was ready to impose appropriate consequences. Second, Western policymakers could have chosen to overreact disproportionately. To do so is, in essence, the promise of deterrence. It only works, however, if the intention to act is clearly communicated from the outset and underpinned by sufficient instrumental power. The other two options are even easier to describe. Just as there is a way to disproportionately overreact, there is also a way to disproportionately underreact. In principle this would entail detailing and implementing consequences to the aggression but on a much smaller scale and not matching every single escalating step in the aggression with a direct match. This is, principally the route the European Union has chosen when Russia annexed Crimea. Brussels did implement some minor travel sanctions, but real economic sanction would come much later: only after the Kremlin had invaded Eastern Ukraine and separatists downed MH 17 did the EU impose broader economic sanctions. Until the downing of the passenger airline, the EU was reluctant to act proportionately, convinced that it had to offer off-ramps to the Kremlin to easily exit the course of aggression. Of course, this route only created assurances for the Kremlin that it would be able to pocket some military and political gains before reaching out to the EU, creating an incentive to stay aggressive for the time being. Lastly, Western policymakers could also opt to not act at all. Interestingly enough, the debate in Western policy circles has largely centred on the merits of the final two approaches: not acting at all, or disproportionately underreacting. The first two courses of action have been dismissed as to dangerous, even though acting proportionately would, in all probability, have dissuaded the Kremlin from expanding its aggression into Eastern Ukraine.
It is not without irony that while the conflict is constantly being described as hybrid; the fear is mostly that it might in fact lead to a military confrontation. This has led many to observers to call for calm and provide exits and off-ramps to the Kremlin. The underlying hope is that the Kremlin might return to a more conciliatory policy and that ensuing economic cooperation would ultimately pave the way to a more productive relationship. Such hopes are misguided. All the points I made here form a distinct picture: Russia uses international organisations as a fig leaf, pretending to cooperate, when in fact undermining international norms and treaties where it can. The Kremlin has also excelled in understanding, manipulating and fostering the social cleavages that have put so many Western policymakers at a loss. In doing so, the Kremlin has seized the initiative, leaving Western policymakers in a defensive mode, hoping that the storm will pass.
It will not. Instead Western policymakers should remind themselves why democracies have such a stellar record in comparison to authoritarian regimes. They simply find it easier to adapt to changing circumstances, he pressures exerted by a changing economic and international landscape. Authoritarian systems find it much harder to adapt. Democracies can claim more legitimacy and can, with that legitimacy enact deeper reforms. As a result, Europe’s point of departure is still many times stronger than that of Russia. But in order to prevail, European policymakers must understand that they are locked in a systemic confrontation. As they say, the first step is to admit that you have a problem. It is time to use that strength, reignite the promotion of its values and resist the authoritarian backlash. Only then will the European Union have a future.
Dustin Dehez in Managing Partner at Manatee Global Advisors, an international strategy consultancy.