The time is long past when the mere presence of American troops was a robust deterrent against incursions from bad actors. That deterrence ended on January 20th, 2021, when President Donald Trump left office. It is laughable and naive in the extreme to assume that any agreement made by the current administration (junta) would be honored if its domestic political expedience waned.
The experience of the last 20 years would suggest to America’s allies that when the going gets tough, America leaves. Ukraine has had that bitter experience, and there is no reason to assume that the next round of incursions by the Russians would be met with anything other than fierce condemnation in the United Nations and a rapid acceptance of the new status quo.
So why would the Baltic states be any different?
With the Defense Department weighing whether and how to change the U.S. military footprint overseas, it’s time to make the American military presence in the Baltic states durable. Maintaining merely periodic American boots on the ground, sometimes there and sometimes not — especially while a more permanent U.S. presence takes shape in nearby Poland — sends the wrong message at the wrong time to NATO’s most vulnerable allies and to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Particularly in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the concerns generated over American credibility, only a consistent U.S. military presence in each of the Baltic states can convincingly reassure allies that Washington has their back while also signaling to Putin the rock-solid American commitment to NATO. The seemingly rushed, chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused some American allies in Europe to question Washington’s commitment to NATO.
NATO? That is a cruel joke. Turkey is in NATO, and has worked assiduously since Erdoğan assumed power to undermine NATO members throughout the region. Germany is a weak military power with outsized economic muscles that pursues its own (often anti-American) ambitions while being protected by American might.
A much more realistic plan might be to follow the Israeli template. Supply them with weapons and share technological advances without dedicating any American troops to their defense. We might even provide air power (but not from bases in-country) in the event of an attack, but the idea that Americans will once again bleed in defense of a foreign country is one that needs far more justification than a return to Pax Americana just months after we failed spectacularly in Afghanistan.
There is one way that a physical presence in the Baltics (and Poland) would make sense, and that is a total shift away from NATO and toward the anti-Russian (and anti-Chinese) countries in the east. Spend the money where it will do some good, leave NATO to its own devices, force Germany to contribute to its own defense, and pull out of western Europe. The many billions we spend in the economies of countries that are often our economic and political adversaries would be much better spent in countries that have a growing sense of personal, religious and political freedom, rather than the current tone of resignation, stagnation, and worst of all — acceptance of the socialist nanny-state as the highest form of government that seems to infect most of western Europe.