The rest of the world was as shocked and surprised by the election of soon-to-be-president Donald Trump as the United States (US) was. Thousands of articles have been written in the weeks since the election, trying to make sense of what the future may or may not look like. There’s hype, there’s misinformation, there’s propaganda, there are tweets aplenty and some feelings of panic spanning the globe. However, what Trump’s presidency means for our Baltic corner of the world is worth examining from a Baltic perspective, despite the frequent mention of the Baltics as the place of some sort of showdown between the US and Russia at some future date. We will touch on the issues and concerns as we know them, and explore the facts behind the hype.
The Issue of NATO
The topic of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its future form the basis of the fear and concern for the Baltics and surrounding nations. Outgoing Vice President Joe Biden, during an election season visit to Latvia, stated that the US would never renege on its pledge to defend other NATO members in time of attack, as stated by Article 5 of NATO’s charter on collective defence. Article 5 states:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
“The fact that you occasionally hear something from a presidential candidate… it’s nothing that should be taken seriously, because I don’t think he understands what Article 5 is,” said Biden.
Despite speculation, one of the major public statements Trump has made about NATO members was during the last presidential debate: “The 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren’t paying their fair share,” Trump said during the September debate. “That bothers me... I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us,” Trump continued in his statement. Now, in addition to NATO troops already being in the Middle East and running Mediterranean patrols, it’s clear that it’s not simply the US footing the bill for a coalition of 28 states’ collective defence. In terms of contribution, the facts are that, yes, the US does contribute more than the other member states. See the graph above.
However, taking a step back and looking more objectively at the situation, it isn’t, as Trump said, that the US is spending “billions and billions.” In fact, the US is directly contributing about 500 million USD annually. The US may pay the most monetarily, but it is proportionate to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Of course, the imbalance in other countries not fully meeting obligations is still to be addressed and has been an issue since the very beginning of NATO in 1949.
Some who argue that NATO is obsolete, and that Article 5 has never been invoked, are also incorrect. The first time it was invoked was on Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attack on the US. More on that can be read in the history of NATO, but suffice it to say that the NATO allies of the US are as much there for the US, as the US, per the legally binding constitution, is there for them. We also see more and more NATO troops being sent to the Baltic states in 2017, especially from Canada, which just promised more troops and an additional 350 million CAD in Baltic defense spending until 2020 as they continue sea and air patrols, along with providing armored vehicles. In short, while Trump’s criticism of NATO may be worrisome, the US is not the only defender of the Baltics and other NATO nations, and to assume such is not giving the 27 other members enough credit.
Out of all 45 nations polled for their preference of future US president, only Russia polled in favor of Trump. When asked in a Gallup poll “If you were to vote in the American election for president, who would you vote for?”, Latvians responded with 46% for Hillary Clinton and 22% for Donald Trump. Russians who were polled, on the other hand, gave Hillary Clinton 10% and Donald Trump 33%.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea, the world turned its gaze to the Baltics as a place where something similar could happen next. However, many were either forgetting that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are members of NATO, or assumed that the US wouldn’t dare react to Russian aggression for fear of larger-scale war. These days, while some people are quick to leap to statements that affirm what they think or what they may have suspected, most people who reside in the Baltics remain wary. They’ve dealt with propaganda before and are, by nature, quick to question things. With a self-proclaimed admirer of Russian President Putin in the White House, many fear that there will be little in the way should Putin decide to advance his troops. They are, after all, on the border. All 30,000 to 80,000 of them, conducting ”snap” exercises. “Deterrence by denial” is still the motto for Baltic troops.
Is there fear in the Baltics and among NATO members about the future of the alliance? Are there fears Russia may try something? Is there tension in the region? Sure. Absolutely. But fears do not equal facts. Words do not equal promises. But all we know for now is that things are peaceful, no one is fighting, the lands are safe, the borders are secure, and the Baltics are overseen by native troops and a multitude of other nations, most of whom fought side by side with the US in Afghanistan.
All we can hope for is knowledge, education, and understanding. Needless fear-mongering isn’t helpful. Fake news isn’t helpful. Lack of understanding is not appropriate or helpful. Look at evidence, statements, numbers, and real information before panicking or passing judgement. For now, we, like the rest of the world, wait.