How Will the Presidential Election Affect U.S.-Lithuanian Relations?
Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was met with concern in many European countries. Lithuania was no exception as it feared that the United States would cozy up too closely with Russia. Close and strong relations with the United States are a strategic priority for Lithuania, and Trump seemed to threaten continuity. However, his presidency—much like the man himself—has been full of surprises, some more favorable to the Baltic state than others.
While the past four years have been marked by Trump’s America First policy and decreasing commitment to international organizations, the United States has not neglected the security of the Baltic region as many initially feared.
The year 2018 saw the onset of the U.S.-Baltic Strategic Dialogue, which aimed at creating a roadmap of cooperation. This engagement led to defense cooperation agreements between the United States and Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia being signed in 2019. The aim was to strengthen bilateral training, deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, intelligence sharing, and building cybersecurity capabilities, including the launch of a Regional Cyber Security Center in Lithuania, which is on track to begin work in 2021.
In 2019 the United States allocated $175 million in military aid to the three Baltic states. For the first time, it assigned a separate $50 million budget line to enhance their air-defense capabilities.
Diplomatic relations have remained strong and active with Lithuania remaining an important partner in Washington’s Eastern European ventures, including in Belarus. Recently, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the development of 5G communication networks and in the scrutinizing of suppliers of 5G hardware and software. In 2019, Congress sanctioned the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring Russian gas to Europe and which Lithuania opposes. Trade between the two countries remains stable with Lithuania enjoying a positive trade balance.
As Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis has noted, such developments tell a simple story: “The trans-Atlantic bond […] is still very much alive, while the U.S. commitment to European defense remains as strong as ever.”
However, public opinion has a different narrative. Poll results show that 59 percent of Lithuanians evaluate Trump’s term negatively. On the other hand, 70 percent of Lithuanians view the Unites States positively, distinguishing the country from its leader.
The increasingly negative perception of Trump comes as no surprise, however, given this year’s turbulence. The president recently decided to pull 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, a move that threatens the overall security of Europe and the Baltic region. Furthermore, the idea to hist an additional thousand U.S. troops and a new military base in Poland (referred to as Fort Trump) seems to have fallen through due to financial constraints.
Would Trump 2.0 Threaten Baltic Security?
The outlook for a Trump second term is not promising. The relative continuity and stability experienced during the first term was ensured by experienced members of his administration, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis. However, with such figures leaving the administration and with the president no longer concerned with reelection, Trump would be more likely to make unpredictable decisions, driven by impulse rather than foreign-policy logic.
Together with its Baltic peers, Lithuania is increasingly concerned about Trump’s mistrust in international organizations and multilateral cooperation, coupled with U.S. plans to decrease the budget of the European Deterrence Initiative by $1.5 billion in 2021.
Such trends project a daunting reality for Lithuania’s security, with the worst-case scenario being Trump withdrawing the U.S. military from Europe completely, leaving NATO, and perhaps even allowing Russia to meddle with the European security architecture.
While such a scenario seems far-fetched, the possibility of its materialization remains, and so do the plans of other European countries that are likely to start developing autonomous European defense frameworks. Hence, in a way, Lithuania should be more concerned with the response of EU leaders than the policies of a Trump second term per se.
Additionally, strategy toward China and issues like 5G would become even more salient. Perceiving relations with China as a zero-sum game, Trump would likely pressure European countries to choose a side in a Cold War-like manner. However, this opens the opportunity for Lithuania presented by the Three Seas Initiative. Since this is meant to develop regional infrastructure—thus countering China’s growing investment in the region—a second Trump administration might live up to its promise of committing $1 billion to the initiative.
Joe Biden, Staunch Baltic Supporter
However, such a narrow window of opportunity does not compare to the positive prospects of a Joe Biden presidency. According to Lithuanian analysts, his victory is the preferred outcome for the Baltics due to the former vice president’s respect for U.S. multilateral commitments and his support for the security of NATO’s eastern flank.
Historically, Biden has not only been a strong believer in international cooperation but also a firm supporter of the Baltic states’ membership of NATO. As vice president, he visited Lithuania in 2014 to obtain first-hand knowledge on the crisis in Ukraine. Since Lithuania sees itself as an expert on Russian policy in the region, Biden’s visit stood as a sign of recognition and personal commitment, which was appreciated in the country.
Even more encouraging is Biden’s tough strategic position vis-à-vis Russia. He has identified continued U.S. support for Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression as his strategic priority. His Russia policy might include political and economic sanctions on the Kremlin.
It could be expected that repositioning the United States as a leader of NATO and strengthening the alliance would be at the top of the agenda of a Biden administration. He is likely to invigorate collective defense planning with a more structured and detail-oriented outlook.
On the other hand, he would continue Trump’s advocacy for NATO members reaching the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. However, U.S. pressure would be applied through diplomacy rather than political bullying.
Hence, a Biden presidency is likely to accelerate diplomatic and military relations between Lithuania and the United States—bilaterally and through NATO. Lithuania could expect an increased U.S. military presence in the Baltic states, growing cooperation in asymmetric capability building, and outspoken diplomatic support. The story here is simple: from Vilnius’s perspective, Joe Biden, once a committed Baltic supporter, is always a Baltic supporter.
This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.