Don't Forget Europe II

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dimitry Rogozin, recently used the good old quote from NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Ismay about the essence of NATO being to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”. Time has not eradicated the poignancy and quotability of these words.

Now that Washington’s focus is very much on the reduction of US Armed Forces within the context of the current Strategic Defence Review, we have to remind our US partners once again that “keeping the Americans in” Europe is still extremely important. 

The alarm bells of concern about the current US Administration turning its back on Europe were sounded during the first year of Obama’s presidency. Numerous Central and East European former leaders, including Latvia’s former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and, recently deceased President Vaclav Havel, addressed an open letter to Barack Obama in July 2009. Headlined “Don’t Forget Europe”, they expressed their concerns about future US engagement in Europe. Although these were well founded concerns, events in the meantime have been contradictory.

On the one hand, the last NATO Summit and Strategic Concept confirmed that collective security remains as this military Alliance’s core function. A decision was taken that NATO would develop its Missile Defence System in Europe incorporating the US system, and as we have seen also during the last few weeks, Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons are justifiably viewed as a threat to the security of NATO countries. In spite of the unsuccessful attempts to engage Russia’s cooperation in developing NATO’s Missile Defence, we can expect that NATO will make decisions about further developing the system at the Chicago Summit in May. And on the basis that the Chicago Summit  takes a decision about nuclear deterrence, it would also be necessary to retain the current US nuclear posture in Europe for as long as a large stock of tactical nuclear weapons is held by our neighbours at NATO’s eastern border.

On the other hand, the USA is focusing its strategic security attention away from Europe. There will be a reduction of US troops in Europe because of budget cuts. Outgoing Defence Secretary Gates in his famous Brussels speech last May warned that it will not  be politically viable to justify the large US support for Europe so long as European countries themselves are not prepared to devote sufficient funding for defence. In addition, current Defence Secretary Panetta has announced that from now on Asia will be the central focus of US security strategy, because of the need, amongst others, to lessen China’s influence in the region. During his visit to Australia last November, President Obama said that “reductions in US defence spending will not - I repeat, will not - come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific” – a point he re-iterated during his Pentagon press briefing on January 5th.

So at whose expense will defence reductions take place? In order to reduce the possibility that the Nordic- Baltic - Polish region is negatively affected by these reductions, it is crucial to send our Allies a positive, strong and united regional message in preparing for the Chicago Summit. 

We are able to offer a positive message about defence cooperation because of the excellent example of “smart defence” which exists in relation to the air policing of NATO air space over the Baltics. This is just one of numerous examples of regional defence and security cooperation which promotes the concept of “pooling and sharing” sought by the Alliance in these times of austerity. Close Baltic defence and security cooperation is being expanded to embrace our Nordic and Polish partners. 

Indeed our message gets stronger the more we promote successful regional cooperation. Consultation and cooperation with our Nordic and Polish partners on planning issues as well as defence procurements are the tools available to achieve more efficient use of scarce resources. I have no doubt that Latvia’s Ministry of Defence is fully aware of this.

A clear and united joint stand will, hopefully, promote the interest and engagement of our crucial US partners. We cannot afford to allow the world’s strongest military power to take it’s gaze off Europe in general, and our region in particular. Our region’s place in the global security environment has to be firmly established in the eyes of Washington.

Twenty one years ago, when the events of “bloody January” 1991 helped pave the way for the restoration of independence, we successfully captured the attention of the world at a time when there was a risk that this attention would be solely focused on the military conflict in the Persian Gulf. Today, as members of NATO, Latvia is more secure than it has ever been. But this is no time for complacency. Whilst our main strategic partner is preoccupied with budget cuts and developments in the Straits of Hormuz, let’s remind the USA that our security is also in the interests of their security.

Published 11 January 2012

Author Imants Lieģis