Widening Nordic-Baltic cooperation to the South

At a time when US strategic security concerns shift away from Europe, some ongoing interest in the Nordic-Baltic region is encouraging. Two recent publications from Washington think tanks help to set the agenda . The Atlantic Council published a collection of policy papers “Nordic – Baltic Security in the 21st Century” in September 2011. This was followed by John Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations book “Nordic - Baltic – American Cooperation” in May this year. As Estonian President Ilvess said during his visit to Latvia in early June, “We can and must speak about the Nordic – Baltic region” (reported in LETA 6th June 2012).

Given the need to hold on to the increasingly tenuous Transatlantic link, it is important to think outside the Nordic –Baltic box. In this context I want to focus on two crucial southern neighbours – Poland and Germany. The engagement of both countries to our regional cooperation is challenging, but it could help with achieving the reward of more focused US attention.

Our Baltic regional security has over the past few years become more closely tied to Poland in any event. The involvement of Poland is critical to our defence. Indeed, to quote a Baltic Defence Minister speaking at the Lennard Meri Conference in Tallinn on  12th May, “We won’t be able to defend ourselves without Polish involvement”. NATO planners weld us together. In parallel, in recent years, joint Russian and Belarussian military exercises have involved aggressive scenarios aimed at detaching us from our European Allies. An increasingly militarised Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave bordering Lithuania and Poland, also reportedly host some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.

Poland has already shown its commitment to the region. At the time of writing, Polish aircraft are patrolling NATO skies over the Baltics. Our three countries rely on the solidarity of several of our NATO partners where we have a capabilities’ shortfall to carry out air policing. This is a fine example of “smart defence”, where joint resources within the Alliance as a whole are put to better use. Poland’s role has been indispensable.

Our common history during the Cold War period ensures an understanding of the regional security priorities. One such priority within the Alliance is the holding of the exercise, “Steadfast Jazz”, planned to take place in Poland next year. The fact that this exercise may involve collective defence scenarios makes it all the more crucial that full Alliance support is on board.

Poland is the link to cooperation amongst the four Visegrad countries which encompass the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Just as important from the Nordic-Baltic perspective, is the link to Weimar cooperation between Poland, France and Germany. It seems that France’s rationale for engagement is to avoid decisions being taken by the other two partners which may exclude France, although at the same time, by cutting a bilateral defence agreement with the UK, France has not helped to enhance Weimar cooperation. Poland’s size and recent success in developing relations based on trust with Germany, gives it the ability to deal with its Weimar partners on an equal footing.

Indeed by tying Poland closer to the Nordic - Baltic region, the chances of also getting Germany more engaged are enhanced precisely because of the Weimar link. In this respect, the road to Berlin of course runs through Warsaw. In practical terms, this means that we need to try to persuade our Polish partners to place Nordic – Baltic, (or at least Polish-Baltic) regional security onto their agenda.

Germany’s role in defence and security policy issues has at times been controversial. The historical legacy of World War Two has resulted in an unwillingness to fully engage. It opted out of last year’s NATO operation in Libya and has been criticised for the caveats attached to the engagement of its soldiers in NATO’s operation in Afghanistan. There was an initial reluctance to embrace Baltic aspirations to join the Alliance because of concerns about Russia. The question of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has also raised problems within the current coalition Government. 

Nevertheless, it seems that the time is now ripe to bury the description about NATO’s role of “keeping the Germans down”, to quote the first Secretary General, Lord Ismay. Indeed, concerns are being expressed about German influence not being taken on board, according to an article in Spiegel Online (17th May 2012), where a German diplomat in Washington is quoted as saying that “The United States doesn’t even perceive us as a player anymore when it comes to security policy”. On the other hand, this is probably because Germany is failing to pull its weight. Writing in the Chicago Tribune on 21st May, former US Ambassador to NATO, Nick Burns and Atlantic Council executive vice president Damon Wilson even go so far as to say that “Germany’s military weakness is NATO’s biggest problem”.

It could be conceivable that precisely by engaging more in the Nordic - Baltic or Baltic-Polish region, Germany would be able to attract more attention in Washington and thereby increase its influence within the Alliance. Germany has actively participated in NATO’s air policing in the Baltics with their aircraft patrolling on five occasions to date. On the working level, Baltic – German security consultations between Ministries of Defence take place annually. On 21st June the annual Baltic – German political consultations were hosted by Latvia’s Foreign Ministry.

More steps need to be considered about how to encourage further cooperation in the defence and security field. Certainly the recent visit of Germany’s Foreign Ministry Minister of State Michael Link to Latvia and his participation in the Lennard Meri Conference 2012 in Tallinn are positive signs. Over recent years, German officials have been noticeable by their absence at the annual Rīga Conference held in the Autumn. It was helpful to hear Minister Link say the following when addressing the Lennard Meri Conference on 13th May “ The last thing Germany should do is speak behind the backs of Poland and the Baltic States in speaking to Russia”. Admittedly this was said in reference to the German – Russian agreement on the Nord Stream gas pipeline. But it was a positive signal on issues that are clearly sensitive to our countries.

Consideration could be given to inviting, even on an ad – hoc basis, their German counterpart to the meetings of Nordic-Baltic Defence Ministers. It may be the case that Germany would even appreciate the opportunity to be regarded as an important security policy actor in the Nordic-Baltic region, especially if this gives the added value of catching the attention of Washington.

The success of the Nordic-Baltic economic model should be built upon in the defence and security policy areas. Extending cooperation to include Poland and Germany  would provide the mutual benefit of catching the attention of the USA and showing that this part of Europe offers positive solutions to upholding the Transatlantic link.

Published 21 June 2012

Author Imants Lieģis