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A nation must think before it acts.
Bigger on the Outside
Baltic leaders speaking to international audiences tend to have two main messages. First, the Russians are coming. Second, give us more—more tanks, more training exercises, more troops stationed on the Baltic soil. Most people analyzing this region are familiar with persistent requests from Estonian, Latvian, and particularly Lithuanian leaders for external security assistance. Although NATO and even Scandinavian partners have stepped up efforts to provide security to Eastern Europe over the past two years there is a continued emphasis on the need for NATO, and specifically the U.S., to do more in the face of a looming threat.
However, when it comes to discussions about security and defense on the home front, the picture is different. In Lithuania, national security is not a popular topic for public discussions, though things have picked up in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine that began in 2014. Over a decade ago, the three Baltic states built up popular support and made a heavy political investment toward joining NATO. However, since that goal was achieved in 2004, they took a sit-back-and-relax attitude, happy to outsource major defense policy to NATO partners. Lithuania and Latvia’s consistent failure to meet NATO’s 2% GDP requirement is only the most visible reflection of a deeper problem of national security culture, or rather the lack of thereof.
Understanding of national defense matters is confined to military officials and a small circle of civil servants, academics, and experts. Although public rhetoric about the Russian threat has intensified, it has not been matched by a rise in discussions about the appropriate defense posture or desirable outcomes of bilateral and NATO partnerships. Overall, attention in Lithuanian media, expert discussions, and public engagement has focused on fighting what is described as “information warfare” or propaganda – with daily op-eds, initiatives, and discussions on this matter. Drawing on the experience of countering Soviet propaganda, the country is doing better than most in this respect. However, this ultimately seems insufficient – broad social engagement is necessary in response to security challenges that stem from the new geopolitical realities, from Russian provocations to illicit trafficking, minority engagement, migration management, and other issues.
No Questions Asked
Public attitudes on matters of national security and defense seem to fall between two extremes. One approach is to keep calm and carry on, a product of either ignoring worrisome facts or of resignation about Russia’s military dominance. The other approach is determination to personally participate in the defense of the country, in the form of signing up for the army, joining the national riflemen union, or reporting for the draft. A variation of this theme is voicing a determination, in case of an emergency, to stand up and fight to death– a refrain mentioned with some regularity in public events, even on topics unrelated to defense.
However, there is a notable lack of middle ground in discussion of national defense decisions, especially on issues that involve neither doomsday scenarios nor self-sacrifice. Few people carefully weigh different national defense strategy options. Should we be buying more tanks or more combat helicopters? Should we build more bomb shelters or have more regular civil defense practice drills?
This contrasts, for example, with the U.S., where continuing open debates about the composition of the nuclear triad (missiles, aircraft, and submarines) offer an example of active public engagement in sensitive defense and security matters. In Estonia most people have family or friends who have served in the military, and questions of national defense are not deemed unusual or shied away from. In Poland, regular debates over the pros and cons of hosting NATO assets (radars, missile defense systems, etc.) have also meant considerable public involvement in ultimately shaping Polish defense strategy.
All Quiet on the Policy Front
Lithuanians, by contrast, are inclined to leave defense decisions to the professionals. But on the policy front, the picture is hardly different. Of the five major political parties, only one (Christian Democrats – Conservatives) has articulated a national security strategy. With a parliamentary election coming in September 2016, neither national security nor defense policy is a campaign issue for any of the candidates, whether in urban or rural districts. It is hard to argue with the notion that military commanders are best equipped to draw up battle plans. But the lack of public interest in defense matters ultimately translates to insufficient engagement from elected representatives, and an inability to hold them accountable for policy decisions.
There is, however, new effort to bring public attention to security issues by inviting Western policy experts to speak at universities and parliamentary forums. Such speakers often chastise the Baltic states for not pulling their weight, in terms of defense policy planning, budget contributions, and armed forces training. In addition to raising awareness, these experts also deflect heat from local policy makers on the unpopular issue of increasing defense spending. The matter of such budget adjustments appears to be more palatable to the electorate when brought up in the context of Lithuania’s ability to receive international assistance and meet Western partners’ expectations.
These observations are not meant as a criticism of Lithuania’s defense policies or capabilities. Instead, they seek to highlight the isolated nature of national security discourse, and the limited public interest and involvement on this issue. It is important to understand this aspect of domestic political context in assessing Lithuania’s positions internationally. Calls for international security assurances have been heard, and, in turn, Western allies are calling for a comparable step up in the Baltic states’ own defense capabilities. To improve emergency preparedness and maximize the efficacy of collective security, it is important to ensure Baltic civil society is actively involved in matters of national security and defense.
The views and assessments expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent either the official position or bear the endorsement of the University of Maryland.