Staunton, September 3 – US President Barack Obama’s visit to Tallinn today comes almost exactly 75 years after the United States and the three Baltic countries formed one of the most remarkable alliances of the 20th century. (An Estonian translation of this article appeared in Tallinn’s Eesti Paevaleht.)
That alliance, which for nearly 50 years took the form of America’s non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, provided not only the basis for the recovery by the peoples of those three countries of the independent statehood but ensured that having done so they would be integrated into the two key Western institutions of today, the European Union and NATO.
Few people talk about the relations between the US and the Baltic countries in that way, but it is a mistake not to do so. Prior to Stalin’s occupation of the three as a result of his alliance with Hitler enshrined in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols, the relationship between Washington, on the one hand, and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, on the other, was distinctly low key.
Estonia did not even open a legation in the US capital – it had consulates in what were for it the more important American ports of San Francisco and New York. And the United States legation in Riga was famed not for its role in building a relationship with Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians but rather as “a listening post” directed against the USSR and a training center for a brilliant pleiade of American Soviet specialists including most prominently George Kennan.
But in the wake of the August 23, 1939, accord between Hitler and Stalin, all of that changed, and the relationship between the United States and the Baltic countries became vastly most important to both sides. Thanks to the efforts of the Baltic American diasporas and the arguments of Loy Henderson at the State Department, the US articulated its non-recognition policy.
As a result of this policy, the representations of the pre-war governments continued to operate as representatives of the Baltic nations and thus to be an inspiration for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians that they would eventually be able to recover their rightful place in the sun.
At no point between 1940 and 1991 did the United States or its representatives ever disown its declaration that part of the territory Moscow viewed as its own was not a legitimate part of the USSR – despite enormous pressures from the Soviet government and the unfortunate desires of some in the West to curry favor with that regime. In fact, even at the Helsinki Conference in 1975, US President Gerald Ford in a signing statement explicitly said that nothing in the agreement affected Washington’s view on the status of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a declaration that infuriated the Brezhnev regime.
Since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania recovered their independence in 1991, the United States and the three of them have moved if anything even closer together. Not only because the Baltic states, like others who escaped from the Soviet bloc, are more committed to an Atlanticist vision of the future than are many in what some style as “the old Europe” but also because the United States views its contribution to the Baltic countries as one of the purest examples of principle rather than realpolitik in its history, something that even the most “pragmatic” of American diplomatists take pride in.
Given the increasingly authoritarian approach of Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Ukraine, the alliance between the United States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has once again been tested but it has not been found wanting. President Obama’s visit is a surety of that, and even if the American leader does not use the term during his visit to Estonia, the American-Baltic alliance is very much alive and well, something that is a source of hope and pride on both sides of the Atlantic and a warning to those in Moscow who want to return to the past that there are four countries which will continue to stand together against that danger.