Monday

8th Mar 2021

Opinion

Baltics pin hopes on Biden

  • In his recent op-ed for Foreign Affairs, Joe Biden laid out a spirited defence of US alliance networks and referred to Nato as 'the most effective political-military alliance in modern history' (Photo: state.gov)

On a trip to Latvia in 2016, then-vice president Joe Biden told gathered Baltic leaders not to take Donald Trump seriously.

"Don't listen to that other fellow. He knows not of what he speaks", Biden jokingly assured.

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A few months later, Trump was in the Oval Office, airing grievances against traditional partners and placing conditions on US security guarantees.

Four years under Trump, the US has been chipping away its reputation as a trustworthy security actor, yet the transatlantic alliance, by and large, has stayed intact.

With the 2020 US presidential election nearing, however, there is a feeling of a hinge point - that another term with the same White House incumbent playing the role of a chief Nato antagonist will bring the temple down upon allied governments heads.

The outcome of the upcoming US election is of particular concern to the Baltic states, who perceive American engagement in the region as an existential requisite.

At first glance, the Baltic states have few grounds for complaint vis-à-vis the Trump administration.

Taking financial aid allocation, large-scale military manoeuvres and rotation of US troops in the region as a referent point, the US-Baltic partnership is in as good shape as ever.

Notwithstanding the US President's combative public tone and often expressed the view that alliances yield scant benefits, the armed forces of the United States have remained heavily invested in Eastern Europe's security architecture.

Within this context, senior representatives of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have strenuously argued that the 'twitter world' in which the US commander-in-chief routinely belittles allies and the US government policy making are two distinct domains and that the former is not representative of the 'real' US foreign policy.

In the long run, however, this is a self-delusion.

The US-Baltic patterns of cooperation have remained steady not because of Trump but in spite of him. For one, he has simply lacked the patience or bureaucratic know-how to see his personal instincts being turned into actual policies.

Loyalists only

Moreover, for the first stretch of his term, advisors close to his ear consisted of individuals who valued the transatlantic bond. But those are now gone.

Others have started to bend their policies towards Trump's worldview.

Take, for example, Republican Lindsey Graham. Shortly after Trump's election, he, together with the late Senator John McCain, toured the Baltic region reassuring local populations that despite change of guard in the White House the US is fully committed to the defence of Nato's easternmost members.

Today, Graham has become a vessel for previously rejected Russian disinformation. With loyalists entrenched across the national security bureaucracy, the slogan 'America first' is catching up with the implemented US strategy.

It also has begun splashing on Baltic shores.

For instance, in April 2020 the White House pressured the Pentagon to redirect previously allocated money for deterring Russia in Eastern Europe towards the funding of President Trump's personal obsession – the border wall with Mexico.

His plans to shrink US military presence in Germany was equally met with disappointment in the Baltics. Almost four years into the Trump presidency, it is palpable that the US president believes that American power is best served unilaterally and that multinational institutions serve only as an unnecessary constrain on that power.

This includes Nato, an institutional affiliation that has defined the US-led international order for decades.

In contrast, a Joe Biden presidency would come as a sigh of relief - a stable steward of US foreign policy with a well-known cast of advisors. In his most-recently penned Foreign Affairs op-ed, Biden laid out a spirited defence of US alliance networks and referred to Nato as "the most effective political-military alliance in modern history".

Some have cautioned that even if the White House shifts hands from a Republican to Democrat come January, the 'America First' shadow will continue to hang over US-Europe agenda for quite a while.

According to William J. Burns, a longstanding US diplomat, repairing the damage will "not be as easy as flicking a switch".

Moreover, it bears recalling that several transatlantic disagreements predate Trump's arrival on the political stage and therefore will undoubtedly re-emerge even in the case of his passing from the political scene.

Still, to borrow former US secretary of state George Shultz terminology, president Biden would actually be willing to put in time and effort in "tending the alliance garden."

When it comes to the three Baltic republics, Biden is a known commodity.

Donald Trump, even after almost four years in office, possesses a vague touristic level of knowledge of the region.

When in 2018 Trump welcomed Baltic heads of state at the White House, he opened the meeting by pointing an accusing finger at them for starting a war in Europe.

Confused, Baltic officials only later came to the realisation that the White House host had confused them with the Balkans.

It is fair to say the Baltics look forward to the day that they do not have to take Donald Trump seriously.

Author bio

Dr Andris Banka is a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Baltic Sea Region Research (IFZO) at the University of Greifswald, Germany, and has written extensively on Baltic security matters in policy outlets such as War on The Rocks, The Modern War Institute at West Point, World Politics Review, and Euronews.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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