The Wall Street Journal
Maris Riekstins and Ronald Asmus
January 16, 2008
January 16, 2008
RIGA, Latvia — It is difficult to recall today the West’s hostility in the early 1990s toward Baltic membership in NATO and the European Union. At a time when even embracing Poland was controversial, the aspirations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were considered nutty if not outright dangerous. Moscow’s reaction was even worse.
Luckily, though, the West’s sense of moral commitment and strategic needs prevailed. Just imagine what the region would look like today if Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn had not been allowed to join NATO and the EU in 2004? No doubt, there would be far less stability, security and prosperity.
One key steppingstone in that process was the U.S.-Baltic Charter signed 10 years ago today. As two of the negotiators of this document, we know how critical it was in securing NATO membership, which in turn was instrumental for EU accession.
The Charter was an act of creative diplomacy when the Baltic states needed reassurance but the consensus to integrate them had not yet jelled in the West. While it didn’t guarantee membership, it committed the U.S. to helping the Baltics integrate with the West. Washington’s message was: You need to run this marathon, but we will coach and support you along the way. Above all, we will make sure that no one will be allowed to trip you up or prevent you from crossing the finish line.
In plain English (or Latvian), this meant that performance mattered and that neither Moscow nor Western skeptics could veto the process.
In return, the Baltic states made their own commitments — to Western values, to political and economic reform, to minority rights and regional cooperation. Liberated from the fear that some new kind of Yalta might be secretly negotiated behind their backs, all three countries got down to the hard work of meeting NATO and EU criteria. The Charter helped unleash creative energy in these former Soviet republics. Seeing the Americans engaged on the ground made it also easier for many Europeans to beef up their presence and assistance. Another result of the Charter was that the Balts’ historical distrust toward global security organizations, such as the U.N. or OSCE, started to melt.
The negotiation process for the Charter itself brought a new level of mutual trust and confidence. We witnessed this personally in the final negotiating session in an ornate room at the State Department. We had to finalize a sentence describing U.S. interest in and commitment to Baltic security. The Americans were nervous that this could be misinterpreted as a security guarantee. The Baltic side, in turn, was afraid the U.S. would go back on its promise. A group of delegates went down the hall and got a thesaurus to look up the right words. In the end we agreed that the United States had “a real, profound and enduring interest” in the Baltic states. It wasn’t going to win us any literary prizes but it did the trick. The signing of the U.S.-Baltic Charter in the White House was a special moment. It led to NATO enlargement and thus undid the historical injustice of Yalta as the U.S. advanced the cause of freedom.
We tell this story because it contains an important lesson. The West again faces major questions about how to reach out to young democracies striving to join our institutions — in the Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The challenge is to tie these countries to the West and its values at a time when enlargement fatigue is setting in and Moscow’s opposition is growing. Once again we are in need of creative diplomacy that could bridge the gap between what some of these countries seek and what the West can offer right now. We need trans-Atlantic unity to provide a framework that can unleash the forces of reform in these transitional countries. It happened 10 years ago in the Baltics; it can happen again.
Mr. Riekstins is foreign minister of Latvia. Mr. Asmus is executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center.