Walking around the old town of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, you cannot miss a plaque on a historic building. It reads, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”
These are the words of President George W. Bush, who visited Vilnius in 2002. At that time Lithuania had not yet formally joined NATO, nor the EU. In front of a huge crowd, Bush’s statement drew chants of “thank you!” For Lithuanians, this was the moment the country fully regained its independence and became a part of the Western family.
With the Welles declaration of 1940, the US refused to recognize the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States — an act of defiance that is still commemorated in Washington Square in Vilnius each July. It also offered a glimpse of hope for the freedom fighters who ultimately won Lithuania’s independence. The young country, together with Latvia and Estonia, became the success stories of post-communist transformation.
With just over 6 million inhabitants, the three Baltics managed to create democratic institutions, market economies and vibrant civil societies. And the role of the US was indispensable.
Not surprisingly, America is still seen very positively in Lithuania. Opinion polls currently show 85% favorability towards the US, and it has never been significantly lower. To this day, for most Lithuanians, the US is the only thing that stands between current peace in the Baltics and bloody Kremlin-led crusades such as those that happened in Ukraine.
As a result, US politics is of utmost importance to the Baltics. At the moment, the local media’s attention to the presidential elections is significantly higher than the upcoming Lithuanian parliament elections.
Historically, Lithuanians, as well as the roughly 600,000 Americans of Lithuanian-descent, tend to favor Republicans. From Ronald Reagan, who is still an iconic figure for labeling Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” to George W. Bush, whose administration concluded NATO’s historic enlargement to the East in 2004, Republicans were seen as being “more rigorous” in terms of foreign policy towards the Kremlin.
That’s changed with Donald Trump.
Even without an elected position, the Republican presidential nominee is causing anxiety in the region and making Vice President Joe Biden work to reassure America’s allies.
By calling NATO “obsolete,” Trump draws arguments from the playbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who constantly refers to the alliance as “a relic of Cold War.”
It is Trump, rather than a military escalation in the Donbass region of Ukraine, that brings memories of the “Iron Curtain.” That not only puts American friends in danger, but it forms a lasting negative attitude towards the trans-Atlantic alliance in parts of American society.
After all, it was not only military strength but the political and rhetorical unity around the principle of NATO’s deterrence that helped shape the post-WWII landscape which saw the US become the leader of global politics.
And we should not forget that the first and the only time that Article Five of NATO — the principle of collective defense — was used in practice was not to defend some Eastern European country. It was after 9/11, which brought American friends all over the globe to stand in unity. Lithuania, however small and seemingly irrelevant, contributed and played a role in Afghanistan, with our nation’s Aitvaras special forces, nicknamed Hell’s Angels, drawing attention for their professionalism and skills in Ghor province.
While Lithuania is regretfully still not contributing 2% of its GDP to its defense, the budget has increased in recent years and is intended to reach the mark as soon as 2018.
But contrary to what Trump says, it is not only the numbers that matter. When recently deployed US troops met with the public in Lithuanian cities, a journalist asked one senior citizen, “Aren’t you afraid seeing all that military technique in your town? Isn’t that bringing memories of the war?”
He replied, “Why should I? I have been waiting for American troops for seventy years of my life.”
The hope for American leadership and principles is still very much alive. And realization of American leadership very much needed.
Democracy promotion may have had its failures, but it certainly succeeded here.
Lithuanians might have lost some of their traditional leaning towards Republicans. Current polls show little support for Trump.
But the Baltic States still believe in the idea of Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill,” which also enlightens countries across the Atlantic. The hope is that the recent gathering of clouds will not shield it.