By Matthew Mai
President Biden has pledged to put America “back at the head of the table” by restoring confidence in the NATO alliance. Yet, regardless of the current attitude in the White House, the United States’ defense commitments to countries on the European periphery need a serious re-examination.
Specifically, what does the United States gain by pledging to defend the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania?
The geopolitical integrity of NATO rests on the assumption that its members are, out of calculated self-interest, committed and able to help defend every country within the alliance.
However, if Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania are unable to provide the transactional value that the United States does for them through its robust military and economic power, this would undermine the rationale for guaranteed reciprocity in security and defense.
There are three criteria for assessing how other countries might improve the security of the United States. First, can the country in question aid the United States in a decisive manner if the US were attacked by another great power? Second, does it help preserve the balance of power in a region of critical interest to the United States? Third, does it provide economic value that, if lost, would dramatically weaken the foundations of American national power?
If the answer to all three of these questions is “no”, then a geopolitical relationship based on guaranteed reciprocity in security and defense is much more likely to be a liability than an asset.
At present, there are only three countries that undoubtedly qualify as great powers: China, Russia, and the United States. Not only are they the three largest countries in the world but, in relative terms, each maintains formidable military capabilities reinforced by large nuclear weapons arsenals. The United States and China enjoy the additional advantage of having the two largest economies in the world while retaining significant latent power capabilities with large national populations.
If the United States were attacked by either of these countries, neither Estonia nor Latvia nor Lithuania could provide decisive military or economic support. None have nuclear weapons and their national GDP’s are only $31 billion, $35 billion, and $54 billion, respectively.
Ironically, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were three of the nine countries that met NATO’s defense spending requirements in 2020 and each has punched above their weight in contributing troops to the NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, in total, they have less than 50,000 active-duty armed forces personnel and the combined size of their national populations is less than 7 million.
A great power war between the United States, China, or Russia is unlikely to take place without the use of strategic nuclear weapons. However, even in the event of a limited conflict outside of American, Chinese, or Russian territory, the Baltic states would not be able to effectively mobilize enough forces to tip the balance in the United States’ favor.
Given their geographical, economic, and military disadvantages, the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian militaries have a primarily defensive force structure. Notwithstanding their NATO support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, their forces would be unable to undertake sustained offensive operations in foreign territory as a defeat would likely leave their homeland defenseless.
Therefore, it follows that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are also not key to preserving the balance of power in Europe. The foundations of European geopolitical strength largely rest upon the militaries and economies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. Additionally, the United Kingdom and France are both nuclear weapons states with the former possessing sea delivery capabilities and the latter possessing both air and sea delivery capabilities.
In the Baltic region specifically, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are less important in determining the balance of power than the larger and much wealthier countries of Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Finland.
For Russia, taking control of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would not dramatically alter its strategic position. It already has access to the Baltic Sea from bases in the Kaliningrad (a small piece of territory which lies between Lithuania and Poland) and Leningrad oblasts. The costs of occupying any or all these countries would outweigh any marginal gains in increased access to the Baltic Sea or material resources. Annexation of the Baltic states would raise already-high threat perceptions in neighboring countries such as Poland and Sweden and could provide the pretext for an increased American footprint in the region in the name of supporting its NATO allies. Consequently, it would fuel a costly and risky self-perpetuating cycle of regional force buildups and maneuvers that would needlessly aggravate tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Finally, when compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars in trade the United States does bilaterally with countries such as China, Mexico, and Germany, America’s commercial relationship with the Baltic states is relatively insignificant.
In 2020, American trade with the Baltic states was less than $4 billion while trade with Germany alone was over $150 billion. Neither are the goods and services exchanged especially remarkable. Exports and imports between the United States and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania primarily consists of electronics and computer equipment, chemicals, liquor and alcohol, and miscellaneous industrial products. A significant reduction in any of these imports would not impact the foundations of American economic or military power in any meaningful way. Likewise, for the Baltic states, their largest trading relationships are with neighboring countries in the European Union and not the United States.
Given this analysis, it is worth considering if it would be prudent for the United States to withdraw from NATO altogether.
Regardless of NATO’s treaty obligations, there is no strategic value in fighting a war on Russia’s border to defend three countries that contribute virtually nothing to U.S. national security. If Article Five were invoked, American policymakers would be at a loss to justify an all costs-no benefits military intervention. By this measure, an American withdrawal from NATO could end up strengthening the integrity of the alliance by making countries who have a greater interest in the alignment of the Baltic states, such as Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Finland, primarily responsible for the region’s security.
Ironically, the Baltic states are more committed to NATO than their larger and wealthier allies to the west as evidenced by their higher levels of defense spending and troop deployments to the Middle East. However, their commitment to strengthening the integrity of the alliance does not match their ability to defend its most important member. In joining NATO, they correctly calculated that the United States would contribute more to their security than they would in return.
Matthew Mai is a junior at Rutgers University studying public policy. Matthew is also an independent writer covering international politics and American foreign policy. This essay took honorable mention in the 2021 John Quincy Adams Society/The National Interest Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.