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The Lasting Lesson of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

TheAtlantic 2019-08-23 15:30:00

President Bill Clinton took up the Baltic cause, persuading Russian President Boris Yeltsin to withdraw thousands of Russian troops still in Estonia and Latvia in August 1994, three years after independence had been won. He went the extra mile to get the troops removed by persuading Congress to appropriate funds to construct housing units in Russia for the returning Red Army officers.

President George W. Bush pushed NATO leaders to admit the three Baltic countries into NATO in 2004. As Bush’s ambassador to NATO at the time, I believed the Baltic countries would be truly free only when they were inside the alliance, protected by its Article 5 mutual-defense guarantee.

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President Barack Obama continued the bipartisan effort to help the Balts reestablish their freedom and sovereignty. In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of Crimea in March 2014, Obama went to Tallinn’s Freedom Square to warn Moscow about any attempt to invade or undermine the Baltic states. “The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” he said in a major speech. Obama then made that commitment even more specific: “So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.”

Before the end of his presidency, Obama and NATO leaders deployed a battalion of NATO troops to each of the Baltic countries and Poland as a visible symbol of that commitment—that the independence of the states Russia had dominated in the past would be secure.

The Cold War ended peacefully in large part because of the constancy and determination of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Each American president had a shared sense of what was at stake and a common strategy to deploy U.S. military and diplomatic strength to defend freedom.  

Together, they held the line for five decades to help Europe resist communism, even when the odds seemed slim that it would ever be vanquished. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s historic speeches at the Berlin Wall best symbolized that common will and commitment.  

When the wall finally fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself dissolved two years later, President George H. W. Bush proclaimed that a Europe “whole and free” had been reborn and a “democratic peace” had taken root across the continent. This decades-long U.S.-led campaign is surely one of the great foreign-policy achievements in our history. Every American should take pride in it.

Read: NATO, meet Donald Trump

President Trump, however, sees the world through a radically different lens than his predecessors did. He is dismantling, block by block, the foundations of our power that made America great from FDR’s time to Obama’s.