Keynote remarks given by Ambassador Dan Fried at the May 2017 JBANC conference in Washington DC.
I first met with JBANC in 1993, introduced by Nick Burns, my colleague at the Clinton NSC. Nick promised that he would hand over the portfolio of the Baltic States from the post-Soviet directorate to the Central European Directorate where I worked when the Russian troops were out of the Baltics. And Nick helped get them out.
Our tasks still lie ahead. They include securing what we achieved from Russian aggression; facing up to the problems in the West that have raised such doubts, and never giving up on the notion of freedom in the conviction that our time will come again.
Back in those days, NATO enlargement even to Poland was considered a dangerous and radical idea, and the NATO enlargement to the Baltics was considered nothing better than a kind of elaborate rhetorical device not to be taken seriously. Considered thus by about 95% of the foreign policy establishments and yet here we are, with the EU and NATO having embraced a hundred million Europeans between the Baltic and the Black Sea, who liberated themselves from communism and Soviet domination. I wish I could tell you that with that great achievement that our work was done and that Europe was whole, free and at peace. But no need to tell you that our work is far from done. The Free World faces challenges from without, let’s be clear, from Russian aggression, and from within, by which I mean not just the Russian trolls and bots and useful idiots, and those consultants paid for by Moscow to do their work, but by the doubts within the West itself, as to our purposes and our achievements and our values.
I mentioned earlier the enlargement of NATO. The enlargement of NATO was not done for its own sake. NATO was an instrument of achieving a united Europe, democratic, prosperous, and free for the first time in its history. And this worked. That is, Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace and general prosperity since Roman times. Look it up. No general war in Europe since 1945. That’s a record and a great achievement, and it was enlargement of NATO that made that possible, though the enlargement of the European Union is arguably an even more profound civilizational step. Credit for that goes to President Clinton – Bill Clinton made the decision to enlarge NATO over the objections of many. The decision to invite the Baltic states to NATO is to the credit of George W. Bush, who might have decided otherwise. He had a choice, and I was mentioning over lunch a story which I will now share. The prevailing compromise option in 2002 as we were planning the decision of the Prague NATO summit in November of that year. The compromise option was to invite only Lithuania. Do a little bit, the argument went, and Russians won’t be so mad. [Laughter] But it was George W. Bush, who put the question to me and to the others: ‘Can we do the right thing; can we bring them all in, is this possible?’ And the answer was yes. And he said, ‘Then do it!’ he told us, ‘Make it happen.’
Now the NATO summit in November ’02 made a decision, but I was pretty relaxed going into that meeting, thinking, well, if anything goes wrong, if we don’t invite the Baltics to NATO this time, we’ll do it next time. But there would be no next time, because after that there was the Iraq war and after that the Russo-Georgian war. And then the Obama administration. Had we not done it then, we could never have done it, and we’d likely be discussing not the People’s Republic of Donetsk, but quite possibly the People’s Republic of Narva. So, I’m really glad the Bush administration made that decision, and that decision had the support of Democrats, just as during the Clinton administration we had the support of the Republicans for NATO’s earlier enlargement. And then let’s give full credit to Barack Obama. He started with the reset, a perfectly reasonable tactical adjustment if we didn’t take it too seriously. [laughter] But not a bad policy. Yet, it is Barack Obama who ended up supporting sanctions against Russia, sanctions the Bush administration didn’t put into effect after the Russo-Georgian war, and led NATO’s decision to put in its forces and America’s parallel decision to put in national forces into the Baltic states and Poland. The Obama Administration, reversing 25 years of American withdrawal from Europe. So, full credit to three American presidents in a row; very different people who carried out in their own way the same policy and did so successfully.
Back in those days, NATO enlargement even to Poland was considered a dangerous and radical idea, and the NATO enlargement to the Baltics was considered nothing better than a kind of elaborate rhetorical device not to be taken seriously.
But the real credit for all of this, for the Baltic states coming into NATO and the European Union belongs to the people and governments of the Baltic states. Don’t thank us, us Americans who were involved in the policy. Because if the Baltic states had failed in their democratic free market transition, I wouldn’t accept the blame. Just as the blame is on the Serbs for messing up their chance in the 90s. The Baltic states did what they had to do. And in doing so, they generated the political capital for themselves, which then their friends in the West would use. You all know Tom Ilves. I remember terrible fights, well, friendly disagreements, with Tom Ilves in the 90s about the recommendations of Max van der Stoel, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, on minority language rights and citizenship laws. And Tom, understanding the history of American administrations, was suspicious that we were laying a trap to keep Estonia and the Baltic states out of NATO. And I got where he was coming from, his scepticism was based on painful history, and I said, “Tom, no, this is not a trap, this is a way forward. You work with van der Stoel, you do your part, and I will do my part.’ And he said “You’d better, because if you don’t I’m coming after you.’” [laughter] And if you know Tom Ilves, that’s a threat you better take seriously.
My point is that the heavy lifting was that on the part of the Baltic states, the political parties, the societies, the people. They did it. They made a success of their transformation to democracy. And anybody who thinks that the post-communism transformation is easy, ask the Ukrainians, who in the 90s didn’t do what the Poles and the Balts did. There were reasons, one of them being that in 1989 and 1991, being normal and part of Europe is still living memory in the Baltic states. People remembered what a normal country was, and they wanted it back. That is what Bronislaw Geremek said, the Polish dissident and later foreign minister ‘I know what Warsaw looked like as a European city, and I want it back.’ And you all got it back. But now it’s under threat.
What does Putin want? This is not a hard one to figure out, and again, no need to tell you. He is a radical revisionist and a rejectionist. He wants the empire back, as much of it, as he can claw back and I suspect that his definition of empire is any piece of the Russian empire at any time and the Soviet empire at any time, and yeah, that includes Finland. It doesn’t mean he won’t settle for less, but it means he wants as much as he can get. Does it mean he wants to annex territory? Probably not. He doesn’t need to annex all of Ukraine, he just wants it under his thumb. Ukraine weak, chaotic, divided, headed by some Yanukovich-type stooge suits him just fine. Nominally, but not actual sovereignty. And he also wants to weaken the institutions of the West in general, because he wants to show that the West is not what it claims to be. He judges us by his own standards, and he thinks we are no more than our worst selves; that our worst politics is all there is. We need to prove him wrong. And we need to resist Russian aggression. Putin does all of this, because his own rule and Russian autocracy is safe only if democracy is weak. Why is it that Tsar Nikolas I crushed every rebel liberal revolution his armies could reach – Warsaw, Budapest? It’s because autocracy at home for Russia depends on democracy and the values of the enlightenment being on the defensive abroad.
The converse is also true; in Russian history, periods of reform occur when periods of Russian aggression fail. Now I am not one of these people who believes that Russia is civilizationally deficient and it can never become European. I don’t believe that. I think Russia in its own way in the last generation before the Russian Revolution was drawing near to Europe. It was a convergence country in culture, music, art, literature, science and increasingly the economy. Now I know, I know, Russia was still politically backward and socially backward in many ways, but I suspect that if it hadn’t been for the revolution, Russia would have drawn itself into Europe. I do not think Russia is civilizationally deficient, and therefore I hold Russian autocratic rulers all the more responsible for holding Russia back, because it could be otherwise. Now, Russia’s future, Russia’s fate, is not the responsibility of American policy. And I am not longer an American policy-maker, but we outside of government have a responsibility to mobilize ourselves to meet the threats, to do what we have to do, and to remember that our work, JBANC’s work, is not done. Our tasks still lie ahead. They include securing what we achieved from Russian aggression; facing up to the problems in the West that have raised such doubts, and never giving up on the notion of freedom in the conviction that our time will come again.
So thank you and thank you to JBANC for all the work and cooperation over so many years. (Applause)
Daniel Fried is a former senior US diplomat who carried the rank of Ambassador and last served as Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. He served as a Special Envoy to facilitate the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp located in Cuba until January 2013. He was the top U.S. diplomat in Europe, and prior to that he was the U.S. Ambassador to Poland.