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Fri. June 18, 2021
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President-Elect Biden and the Troubled NATO Alliance
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In 2016, there was much uncertainty about how the newly christened Trump administration would shape its foreign policy agenda.  “America First” rhetoric was ubiquitous in his campaign, signaling to allies that trouble may be brewing for alliance commitments. Those fears were not unfounded because Trump repeatedly made claims about how other allies were not doing their part to fund the alliance, despite this claim being heavily contested.

With the new presidential administration on the horizon, it would be best for international stability for Biden to make a strong commitment to NATO as early as possible, specifically in areas like the Baltics. NATO has been a keystone of U.S. alliance commitments for decades, and Biden is no stranger to its strengths. A strong NATO means a more flexible America and a stronger deterrent for potential adversaries.

The Trump administration had many foreign policy goals that may have detracted from its interest in NATO and was no able to withdraw from the alliance.  There has been speculation that in a second term, it would have been a top priority. One of the most interesting things about this situation is that the president has much more leverage over the alliance than it may seem. While Congress has the authority to block any withdraw from the alliance, the true power lies in Article 5 of the NATO treaty. It states that all states that are party to the treaty must “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”, but has no mention of what actions are required by each member state. This means that Trump could have easily responded to a crisis with less than optimal resources, not only bypassing congressional leverage but also sinking international relations even farther.

The double-edged sword of NATOs reliance on the American presidency could turn out to be promising in the short-term future because Biden is a longtime friend of the alliance and specifically, the Baltic countries. Biden was head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s when Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian were added to NATO. Even with Biden coming in to steward a more harmonious alliance, there is a slight credibility crisis for NATO commitments in these countries. It’s difficult for Estonia to believe that America would trade New York for Tallinn if it came down to who attacks who. If Russia were to invade or attack any of these states, they would expect a U.S. large engagement, particularly because of the newfound safety of the Biden administration.

While it’s hard to speculate what might occur, it does seem unlikely that the U.S. would put all its eggs in the basket of foreign defense, especially considering intervention fatigue from the wars in the Iraq. No matter what is said it will be hard to overcome that perception in the mind of decision makers in the Baltic nations. Instead, the Biden administration should look to make clear policy decisions that will help signal their commitment and lower the possibility of ever being put in the situation of having to decide how to respond to Russian intervention in the countries.

One such action is to prevent Nord Stream 2, the natural gas pipeline that is set to be constructed from Russia to Germany. The construction of such a project would mean cutting out much of the natural gas infrastructure that is present in the Baltic countries. Trump put a sanction on the pipeline to prevent its construction, Biden should follow through and ensure that it is not constructed.

This will have a two major effects. The first is that it will deny economic benefit to Russia, strengthening the Americans hand. The second, and perhaps more important, is that it will signal commitment to Baltic allies without getting into the weeds of the credibility problem for NATO. Biden can continue to support and take action to prevent Russian invasion from ever even occurring. This won’t be a silver bullet but it can provide the bedrock for a even stronger relationship between America and its Baltic allies.

Noah Graham is a Junior at George Mason University, majoring in Public Administration.

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