November 14, 2019

Impossible Security Policy Choices for the Baltics

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid (L) prior to a dinner with the participants of the Paris Peace Forum at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on November 11, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron greets Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid (L) prior to a dinner with the participants of the Paris Peace Forum at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on November 11, 2019.

The security of the Baltic Sea region is increasingly overshadowed by two interrelated developments: growing uncertainty about the US role and the increasing fragility of international institutions. The three Baltic states are the most vulnerable. Our security policy faces a difficult task: how to prepare for a possible weakening of the US presence in the future without our actions adding to the likelihood of this development.

From the Baltic states’ point of view, this should be a task that brings the whole of Europe together. However, a recent interview by French president Emmanuel Macron with The Economist highlighted sharp disagreements over strategic goals in Europe.

In many ways, the security of the Baltic states is better protected than ever before. We are closely integrated with the Western community, particularly through membership of the EU and NATO. Our regional security situation deteriorated significantly in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in eastern Ukraine, but these events led to a strengthening of the NATO presence in the Baltic states and Poland, and common EU condemnation and sanctions against Russia.

The US contribution to security in the Baltic Sea region has grown, but the future is dark. The main concern is, obviously, that president Donald Trump neither cares about his allies or partners nor values alliances as such. Trump does not like NATO or the EU. He cares even less about multilateral international cooperation and the rules-based world order that is eroding as the US has given up its leading role in maintaining it. Another, even more compelling, reason for doubting the future role of the US as a guarantor of European security does not stem from Trump, but from the rapid change in the global balance of power. The importance of Europe will inevitably decline as the US increasingly focuses on managing China’s rise.

Macron is right to worry that Europe may increasingly be left alone in the new geopolitical environment and come under intense pressure from both sides in the intensifying competition between the two major powers, the US and China. In this situation, it is necessary that the EU and European countries have begun to step up their capacity to take care of their own security. Yet this has added to the tensions in transatlantic relations, putting the Baltic states—which are heavily dependent on the security guarantees offered by NATO and the US—at a particular disadvantage.

Statements by French, German and other European leaders last week revealed the lack of a common vision among EU countries on the future of transatlantic relations. On the other hand, the US seems unable to decide whether it really wants Europe to become a stronger security actor and thus inevitably a more independent partner of the Americans.

The EU cannot replace NATO, nor is it attempting to do so, although Macron seems keen to set just such a new goal for the EU. EU member states in the Baltic Sea region (including non-NATO members Finland and Sweden) share the view that the EU should complement, and not replace, NATO activities. The Baltic states have played a generally constructive role in the development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. However, they have also been the most sceptical about the concept of European strategic autonomy, which has recently emerged strongly in the EU debates and is analysed in a fresh report by the International Centre for Defence and Security.

Emphasised by France in particular, the concept provides a backdrop for the strategic objective of some member states to loosen ties with the US and thereby strengthen European autonomy. The eastern members of the EU and NATO, by contrast, aim to strengthen the US presence and transatlantic security cooperation, while at the same time making efforts to prepare for their possible weakening. The ambitious statements by the French president make it more difficult to strengthen European defence cooperation in practice, although increasing European defence capabilities is in the common interest of all European countries and, in principle, of the United States.

One way of adjusting to growing insecurity is to increase defence cooperation bilaterally and between small groups of nations. For example, Estonia cooperates closely with the US, France and many other allies and partners. After Brexit, France will be at the centre of European security policy. Estonia has sought to make its voice better heard in Paris by being among the first to join the French-led European Intervention Initiative and making a substantive contribution to the French-led military missions in Mali and elsewhere in Africa.

A drawback of bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation in small groups, or “minilateralism”, is that it can contribute to the weakening of multilateral institutions such as the EU and NATO. The situation is particularly difficult for small countries. On the one hand, it is vital for small countries to do everything in their power to keep institutions strong. The EU and NATO presence in the Baltic Sea region adds stability and predictability better than any bilateral relationship based on a transactional logic. Keeping the Russian threat under control primarily depends on the credibility of NATO and the EU.

On the other hand, the fragility of institutions in a changing world forces Estonia and other small European nations to invest in bilateral cooperation with key partners and, of course, to enhance their own ability to protect themselves against diverse threats.

This article is largely based on a column in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.