Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts US-Baltic Defense Cooperation in the Transition from Trump to Biden
US-Baltic Defense Cooperation in the Transition from Trump to Biden

US-Baltic Defense Cooperation in the Transition from Trump to Biden

Joe Biden, defeating the incumbent Donald Trump, won the US presidential election and will be inaugurated as the 46th US president on Jan. 20, 2021. Biden has from the campaign trail expressed his intention to return to less fractious relations with NATO and to continue supporting the Baltic states. Yet presidential transitions inherently fraught with policy change raise the question of what impact the changes will have on US-Baltic defense cooperation. One must first consider the reality of defense planning, before moving on to recent successes in US-Baltic defense cooperation, and defense budgeting for fiscal year 2021 (FY2021).

 The broad reality of defense planning and attendant issues such as defense cooperation is that changes at the highest political and military appointments are contextualized, at times even mitigated, by the professional planners at the Department of Defense. Defense planning cycles, policy cycles, and presidential administrations are distinct and frequently do not coincide. It can take a couple of years for a new (or indeed a re-elected) administration to publish a new National Security Strategy, which is followed by the DoD’s National Defense Strategy and the Joint Staff’s National Military Strategy. By the time such political direction is finalized and handed down to planners to begin amending their plans anew, half of a presidential term has already elapsed.

Consequently implementation of defense policy on the ground in the first half of any president’s term is essentially a legacy of the previous presidential term. Implementation of defense policy during the first two or so years of Trump’s single term was Barack Obama’s legacy, while the first two years of Biden’s defense policy will be Trump’s legacy. Due to this inherent lag among planning, election, policy, and further planning, it is difficult for a single-term president such as Trump to alter defense policy and planning decisively because there is only one opportunity to codify grand policy — although policy details, such as how many troops are deployed to Germany, may be altered in a fit of pique, with longer-term repercussions.

While this is good news for those worried about the longer-term effects on Baltic defense of both Trump’s dubious personal relations with Russia — particularly with President Vladimir Putin — and Trump’s skepticism about NATO, in the short term, the foundation of US-Baltic defense cooperation in practice will derive from the various national strategies of the outgoing Trump administration, although the Biden administration will no doubt be able to alter key details. To predict how the early years of Biden’s administration will pan out with regards to US-Baltic defense cooperation, it is not entirely remiss to examine the final year of the Trump administration, which is — at best — the second year when implementation of defense policy has derived from Trump’s actual policy planning, rather than a legacy left by the Obama administration. A crucial element is naturally the budget, without which nothing can really be done.

In recent months the US has been cooperating with the Baltic states, especially Estonia, on cyber security in the lead up to the US presidential election on Nov. 3. This is one arena where the United States is learning from Estonia, which has not only one of the more sophisticated network defenses in Europe, but has traditionally been a favored early target of Russian cyber and informational tactics. This has allowed the US to witness potential future Russian tactics before they hit western Europe or the United States, and therefore mitigate potential damage.

Ongoing since 2014, the US European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) is continuing, although the FY2021 budget request is 25% less than the amount appropriated in FY2020 and will be the second consecutive year of reduced funding for EDI. Moreover, FY2019 and FY2020 saw deferred EDI spending to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico, a budgetary distraction that will certainly not continue under the Biden administration. These EDI budget deferrals have affected projects in the Baltic region, as well. Nonetheless, two major Baltic EDI projects were completed in recent months. First was an EDI-funded improvement of Ämari air base in Estonia worth $10.8 million, completed in August 2020. In Latvia, a $3.7 million EDI investment resulted in a new special operations base in Riga, including a vehicle servicing facility, ammunition storage, and two helipads for use by the 352nd Special Operations Wing, based in the United Kingdom.

Given the EDI’s budget request for FY2021 — and notwithstanding still unfinished business regarding the redeployment of US forces mandated to Germany, some potentially to NATO’s easternmost states — EDI-funded infrastructure improvements and overall local capacity-building are likely to be the main theme for US-Baltic defense cooperation for the next year or two. EDI funds are broken into numerous categories, all of which have general relevance to Baltic defense. But particularly relevant for the near-term future are “improved infrastructure” and

“building partnership capacity,” either of which may be relevant to developing Baltic military infrastructure and neither subject to terrible cuts (infrastructure falling from $539.6 million in FY2020 to $436.4 million in FY2021, and partnership capacity from $424 million to $384 million).

Even if this were to remain the primary focus of US-Baltic defense cooperation, it should not disappoint the Balts. To use the metaphor of a sponge, any military infrastructure can only absorb so much military capability, traffic, etc., before it becomes saturated and further military deployments, broadly-speaking, cannot realistically be made to that region, regardless of possible strategic demands for further reinforcement. Infrastructural development increases the capacity of Baltic military infrastructure to absorb and support allied military power. That the US is funding such military infrastructure projects denotes that it is seriously considering and presumably planning for the possibility that it may have to take advantage of that improved infrastructure in a hypothetical situation for Baltic defense.

A third key category in EDI is “exercises and training,” which has attracted gruesome cuts and will likely drop from $608.7 million in FY2020 to $293.8 million in FY2021. Much of this disparity may be linked to the ambitious Defender-Europe 20 exercise of 2020, minimized due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continuing effect of the pandemic on exercises next year, as a vaccine has yet to arrive in quantity.

For many — including most in Europe — Biden is a welcome change from Trump. However, short-term effects of this presidential transition are likely to be fewer rather than more for reasons of planning, policy, and election cycles. Another reason is the shrinking EDI budget, although it is not impossible that this two-year trend may change with FY2022, Biden’s first budget. Altogether, the focus of US-Baltic defense cooperation seems likely to be much needed local infrastructure development. This can be pushed further than airbases and special operations sites to larger questions of roads, railroads, bridges, port facilities, and so forth — although the European Union may also fund such dual-use infrastructure projects. Given global geopolitical conditions regarding the pandemic and the rise of an increasingly assertive, if not yet wholly adversarial China, such defense cooperation between the world’s sole superpower and three small countries on the frontier of the liberal Western world is probably sufficient — barring any increase in iniquitous behavior from Russia.