In the world of analysis, contrarian viewpoints are equally disliked and necessary. They help shape a more robust understanding of the situation at hand and can prepare countries for the otherwise unexpected. As much of Europe celebrates Joe Biden taking the helm in the United States after the much despised Trump administration, it is worthwhile to take a step back and question whether or not that enthusiasm is really merited. As such, this paper puts forth an unabashedly contrarian viewpoint for the sake of an enriched understanding of the world as it may be going forward, lest the Baltics be caught off guard in the broader optimism of their European counterparts. So what can the Baltics and NATO expect from the incoming Biden administration? It may not be as rosy as it sounds.
Groupthink is a common organizational problem that leads to poor decisions. It occurs when alternative viewpoints go unheard and mainline opinions go unchallenged. In the sea of voices in the foreign policy world as well as the media, there are few to be found who do not present Joe Biden as the savior of NATO from the destructive Trump administration. But is there truth to that idea? Is it grounded on sound analysis with any basis in historical fact, or is it a product of the post-election euphoria that has swept much of Europe and America? Will policy match rhetoric, and will it be effective? If the Baltics and NATO are to be prepared for what lies ahead in the next four years, these questions need to be asked, and answered.
Let us begin with the premise of Trump’s destructiveness. Does this assumption hold water? Trump’s rhetoric was often abrasive, and he was regularly critical of NATO allies’ failure to meet expectations, particularly in the category of defense expenditures. It may be noted that in the first half of his presidency, Trump made a number of statements regarding Montenegro that might have suggested a lack of understanding of the defensive nature of the alliance. In that same time frame, he had a disastrous summit with Putin in Helsinki. It was during this time that Trump made many of the statements praising Putin that would later haunt him. But what did we see in his presidency as a whole?
Tensions with Germany over Berlin’s pursual of Nord Stream 2 and its recalcitrance on defense expenditures continued, and Emmanuel Macron of France called NATO “brain dead,” but, as Heritage points out, overall conditions were improving. NATO members have been consistently adding to their investments in defense, and non-U.S. allies have increased their investments by approximately $130 billion since 2016. Likewise, the U.S. invested $5.9 billion in the European Deterrence Initiative in 2020 alone over a timeframe that saw continued U.S. investment in Europe’s defense. Further, the United States currently has more forward presence forces than before, and recently signed a bilateral agreement with Poland on mutual defense. V Corps has been reactivated, with a forward headquarters in Poland. While the United States arranged to pull troops home from Germany, it continually added troops to more forward positions nearer the Russian threat. Finally, the United States committed to investing in the Three Seas Initiative, which would bolster Central and Eastern Europe’s economic and energy security, while also making critical improvements to military mobility through infrastructural improvements.
While the Western Europeans loathed the Trump administration, many in Central and Eastern Europe who looked beyond the abrasive rhetoric and transactional nature of the administration and saw the manifold improvements to their own security across several domains held a more nuanced view. Thus, the idea that Trump was nothing but a destructive force to the alliance does not hold water. Rather, the problem for NATO was a combination of complacency from within, and intentional division from without by adversaries such as Russia and China. Indeed, by the second half of his administration, Trump was convinced that there was to be no repairing relations with Russia, and that Moscow had no potential to be anything but an adversary in the emerging great power competition that characterizes the world today. Nor will Russia simply go away because Biden is in power in Washington. Russia is not intimidated, nor will Putin cease to be exactly who he has always been. NATO and the Baltics must realize that real problems still exist and have not been solved by a single election thousands of miles away.
Biden has begun his term taking a conciliatory approach to NATO, claiming that he is going to repair the alliance. This fits squarely on the premise that Trump has broken the alliance. But as we have seen, this premise falls when the many improvements to the security situation in Europe are seen. The problems with Western allies, such as Germany and France, largely came from differences of opinion on the nature of the Russian threat and those countries’ resistance to increasing their contributions according to the United States’ agenda. These problems were purely political, and were not created by Trump. While blaming Trump for the tension within the alliance may be convenient, it does not provide a complete picture of what happened, nor does the tension present mean that the alliance was broken. Indeed, NATO has withstood far greater tests and far more divisive leaders, such as Charles de Gaulle, in the past. None of this was anything unprecedented or new, nor was it an obstacle to presenting a NATO more capable to face off an aggressive adversary.
This conciliatory approach may make many in Europe’s capitals happier, but it does nothing to solve the non-political, hard security problems that NATO faces. Indeed, the Biden administration may well be ushering in a new era of complacency in NATO, as it seeks to placate Germany and others. Certainly it will continue to push for increased contributions from the allies – even the Obama administration did that – but, will it be able to achieve any meaningful results if it completely eschews the carrot and stick tactics of its predecessor? What motivation does Germany have to make any improvements if it has nothing to lose for its complacency? Besides, Berlin continues to favor improved relations with Russia and continues to pursue Nord Stream 2. And how far does that conciliatory approach go? Some U.S. political figures and even the New York Times at one point found fault with the Trump administration for causing problems with Germany by way of the sanctions on Nord Stream 2, rather than finding fault with Germany for pursuing the project. If all the Biden administration can do is say that the project is a “bad deal” for Europe, then there is nothing to stop its completion. After all, the Navalny poisoning has not deterred Berlin. If playing nice and being conciliatory is repairing our alliances, how far does that go when an ally is clearly out of line?
This leads to another problem. The Biden administration has made many such statements about repairing the alliance, supporting NATO, and countering the Russian threat, but there has been little elaboration as to how this will be done. Rather than building plans for how to face the challenges upcoming on the world stage, the Biden administration has been busy attempting to reverse as many Trump policies as it possibly can along partisan lines. This leaves allies with nothing to base their enthusiasm on but empty rhetoric. How will Biden support NATO? How will the United States stand up to Russia? Indeed, the extension of the New-START Treaty was something Russia wanted very badly. Likewise, the Kremlin would love to see the United States return to the Iran nuclear deal, and let us not forget that Moscow and Tehran are allies. Giving Russia what it wants, and doing so without gaining any concessions from the Kremlin in return, will do nothing to signal strength or resolve in combatting its malign activities. While many Europeans also wanted to see these policies advanced, it should give pause to recognize that Russia wanted them too. Why might that be? If the United States, NATO, and the EU wish to counter Russia (and the EU’s position is already rather weak given German and French influence there), they must consider that there is very little room for common ground or mutual interest with the Kremlin. There are usually ulterior motives in Moscow.
Biden has also put great emphasis on diplomacy in his speeches. But what good is diplomacy when you give the adversary what it wants without thinking through why it might want it? And what good is it when there is nothing to enforce changes of behavior? The Biden administration can talk to Berlin all it wants about Nord Stream 2 being a bad deal for Europe, but if there is no threat of consequences, nor reward for halting construction, then what good can come from that? If it unhesitatingly initiates a return to policies that Moscow likes, and only makes vague statements about standing up to Russia’s aggression with no force to back that up, what good comes from that? And if he makes good on the promise to return U.S. troops to Germany, what good is that if they are not able to be rapidly deployed to the East? This is not the Cold War; Russia will not be attacking from East Germany. What good is it to have troops present, when they are still far away from any likely theater of attack? A more forward presence would be a stronger deterrent. Sure, nobody likes these questions, but they must be asked if foreign policy is to resemble anything like a strategy instead of a series of reversals on partisan grounds. Besides, if there is to be nothing more than a reversal of each predecessor’s policies any time someone from the opposite party gets elected in the United States, this will do grievous harm to America’s allies’ ability to trust it to uphold any commitments it makes or to lead with any effectiveness.
Finally, Joe Biden does not have a good track record of foreign policy success. He was a proponent of the Iraq War, largely the outcome of groupthink, and now widely criticized on the left and right alike. He then spearheaded the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq, which created the power vacuum that ISIS filled in northern Iraq and Syria. Further, as the architect of much of Obama’s foreign policy, Biden was one of the chief advocates for the much ballyhooed policy of targeted drone strikes in lieu of broader counterterrorism strategy, which brought about great civilian casualties and damaged the United States’ reputation abroad. Likewise, the Obama administration, with Joe Biden as its primary foreign policy figure, bungled regime change in Libya, resulting in a civil war there, failed to respond strategically to the events of the Arab Spring, and dropped the ball on the infamous “red line” in Syria. All these led to the massive refugee crisis that has plagued Europe. But it does not end there. The Obama administration claimed to support Ukraine, but provided no lethal aid to Kyiv in its fight against Russia, and allegedly then vice-president Biden threatened to cut off $1 billion dollars in funding if the government did not fire the prosecutor investigating a natural gas company where his son sat on the board. Across the board, the Obama administration’s policies, with great influence from Joe Biden, did little to nothing to improve the situation for Eastern Europe. As Brookings, far from a right wing institution, points out, Obama was extremely timid with respect to deterring Russia, and opposed taking a more hardline approach to the Kremlin. The personal animosity between Obama and Putin did not translate into a tougher policy.
Nor did any mutual admiration with Putin result in weaker policy in the Trump administration. As Brookings puts it, “the [Trump] administration approved the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, shut down Russia’s consulate in San Francisco as well as two additional diplomatic annexes, and rather than rolling back sanctions, Trump signed into law additional sanctions on Russia, expanded LNG sales to a Europe dependent in Russian gas imports, and increased the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative budget by 40 percent… credit should be given where credit is due.” These administrations’ policies are in stark contrast to one another, despite the rhetoric of each. For his timidity, Obama did nothing to deter Russia – even the sanctions package was minimal in its effects on Russian policy. Likewise, despite his provocative personality, Donald Trump made Eastern Europe a more difficult target for Russian aggression with an experienced team of professionals managing Russia policy.
Since Joe Biden was the leader on foreign policy in the Obama administration, Eastern Europe should have cause for concern. While Biden does seem now to recognize the Russian threat (while continuing to downplay the threat of China), there are no statements of policy that indicate any difference in his administration’s approach to Russia than what he and Obama did before. Sure he may be more friendly with Europe, and may even put more troops in Germany, but if he is squeamish about using military force to deter Russia, then NATO’s Eastern Flank can expect neglect. What good is a friend if he tells you over and over that he supports you and will be there for you, but does not come to help when needed? Did his promises mean anything?
Joe Biden’s new administration is heralded by most as the return to an era of normal. He claims he will repair our alliances and combat Russia with a heavy emphasis on diplomacy. He rails against the alleged failures of the previous administration, many of which can be seen as categorically untrue, and claims that America is back. But what reason do we have to believe that this is so? I sincerely hope that I am wrong in this presentation, but amid the raucous applause and unquestioning approval of my peers and even those who are far superior in their expertise than me, I am deeply, gravely concerned that all this is but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If so, it is the Baltics and Eastern Europe that will suffer for it. Nonetheless, I present this contrarian view, in the hope that someone will stop and think, question, and speak. Let us not be caught off guard, disarmed by ourselves.
Cover Photo: Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015. Credit