Don’t Dismiss NATO’s Faraway Members

Estonian soldiers march during centenary celebrations in Tallinn, Estonia, February 24, 2018. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
Any chink in the alliance undermines the strength of the whole organization.

Donald Trump thrives on an image of strength, so it’s never a good look when he inadvertently invokes the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose name has become a watchword for appeasement.

In September 1938, Chamberlain referred to the process of the Nazis’ dismembering Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

In an interview on Fox News after his summit with Vladimir Putin, Trump accepted an invitation to question the U.S. commitment to Montenegro, a small nation in the Balkans that joined NATO only last year. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” Trump mused. “They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

Put aside the likelihood that Montenegro — population: 600,000 — will pursue a war of aggression. This is clearly how Trump thinks of NATO’s lesser members. He talked this way during the campaign about three other small NATO countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. He referred to these Baltic states at a campaign rally as countries “nobody in this room’s ever heard of.”

The Baltics are immediately in the line of Russian fire, as targets of harassment by Vladimir Putin and officially part of the Soviet Union as recently as 20 years ago. Every chink in NATO’s credibility directly affects their security.

Much outrage has been directed at Trump’s frequent unwillingness to frankly say that the Russians meddled in our election. But his open questioning of the wisdom of defending small allies in faraway places is worse: A predatory Russian leader who has already annexed the territory of one neighboring sovereign country is listening.

The Baltic states know all too well the consequences of being abandoned to their fate. In the 20th century, they were vulnerable states in the worst time and place to be weak. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact — concluded on August 23, 1939, a day that lives in Baltic infamy — divided Eastern Europe between the totalitarian behemoths of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviets got the Baltics.

Tellingly, Putin speaks favorably of the monstrous deal.

Russia must have a westernmost boundary, enforced by a defensive alliance of like-minded Western democracies; otherwise Putin will be tempted to act yet again on his open musings about creating a greater Russia.

Stalin occupied and purged the Baltics, only to get swept aside when Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia. The Nazis occupied and purged the Baltics in turn, before retreating back West, clearing the way for the Soviets to bulldoze the Baltics yet again. Incorporated into the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries were significantly Russified. By the mid 1980s, only about 50 percent of people living in Latvia were Latvians.

With the end of the Cold War, the Baltics managed a miracle journey from captive nations to members of NATO, joining every international organization they could and putting their trust in Western norms and credibility. They have all become vibrant, multiparty democracies.

They are small, yes, and far away, yes. But the line has to be drawn somewhere. If not at Tallinn, how about Helsinki? If not in Vilnius, in Warsaw? If in none of those places, in Prague or Berlin? Russia must have a westernmost boundary, enforced by a defensive alliance of like-minded Western democracies; otherwise Putin will be tempted to act yet again on his open musings about creating a greater Russia.

And if the U.S. simply turns its back on its signed-and-sealed Article 5 commitment to mutual self-defense under the NATO treaty, what is to become of the credibility of its alliances and assurances for everyone else? If the Baltics ever fall, it will be very bad news for Taiwan and the effort to check Chinese expansionism.

The marvelous speech that Trump gave last year in Warsaw praised the persistence of the Polish nation. Exactly the same thing could be said of the peoples of the Baltics, who, despite calamity after calamity, stayed true to their national culture and independence, and have revived them under the auspices of the Western alliance.

Spare a thought for faraway places.

© 2018 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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