By Paul Goble – – –

            One hundred years ago, the United States extended diplomatic relations to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, beginning an unbroken tradition that involved both non-recognition policy and America’s involvement with including the three Baltic republics into the most important Western alliance, NATO. Each of these three events deserves to be celebrated on this anniversary, but more importantly, each can provide lessons that the Baltic governments and Baltic Americans need to continue to live by so that the second hundred years of Baltic-American diplomatic relations will be even more successful than the first.

            When the U.S. proved to be slower than many other countries in recognizing after the August 1991 coup that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had recovered their de facto independence and that Washington should have moved more expeditiously because it had never stopped recognizing their de jure status as members of the international community, some pointed out that Washington had not moved quickly nearly a century earlier and that as the last surviving superpower its action would mean more and thus had to be taken more carefully than those of other countries. Many in the Baltic American community and in the Baltic capitals of course knew about America’s non-recognition, but far fewer knew then or know now about the history of American recognition of the Baltic countries in 1922, more than four years after they had claimed independence and more than two after even Moscow had recognized them as beyond Soviet borders.

            The world, the Baltic countries and the United States were all very different places in 1922 than they were to be almost 70 years later. Europe was recovering from the ravages of war and revolution. The Baltic states as they were invariably called then were small countries far away about which few knew and the policies of larger countries toward them were in almost every case derivative of their policies toward Soviet Russia. And the United States was not the world power it was to become but rather a country separated from Europe by an enormous ocean and inclined to follow the policies of then-more important countries like Britain and France, each of which had its own reasons for supporting the Balts or not.

            In this situation, a group not previously known for its role in foreign policy came to the fore. That was the Lithuanian diaspora in the United States and specifically in Massachusetts, where Henry Cabot Lodge was running for re-election to the Senate and needed all the votes he could get. The Lithuanian community in his state told him that if he didn’t arrange for the U.S. to recognize Lithuania diplomatically, his opponents would be getting their votes. Lodge took that threat seriously and went to President Warren Harding to ask that he extend diplomatic relations to Lithuania. Harding didn’t in fact know that the U.S. didn’t recognize Lithuania, called his secretary of state who confirmed that while admitting he could not name a good reason for not doing so or for not recognizing Estonia and Latvia too, and then ordered the State Department to extend recognition to the three because his good friend Lodge needed Lithuanian votes.

            Thus, American recognition of the Baltic countries was the result of the concerted political efforts of Baltic Americans rather than some other more cosmic reason, and that is the first and most important lesson of this centenary: Baltic Americans cannot afford to assume that others will come to their aid. If they want to see their homelands prospect, they need to act both individually and collectively.

            The second of the events of the last 100 years of Baltic-American diplomatic relations also was the result of the powerful role of the emigrations. When the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic countries, many in Washington assumed it had no choice but to accept that. Fortunately, some at the State Department argued otherwise. Citing the Stimson Doctrine that the U.S. will never recognize border changes achieved by force alone, State’s Loy Henderson argued that the U.S. could not refuse to recognize what Japan had done in Manchuria and then turn around and recognize what the Soviet Union had done in the Baltic states. That was a powerful argument, but it might not have been accepted had it not been for a remarkable coincidence: Stalin had acted in an American election year, Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, and Lithuanian Americans had made it clear that their votes for him were contingent on his standing up for Baltic independence and against Soviet aggression. As a result, FDR accepted State’s position and proclaimed non-recognition policy.

            That policy was both less and more than is commonly assumed. It is less in that those who proclaimed it made it clear that they expected the status of the Baltic countries to be resolved at a peace conference at the end of World War II, an event that they assumed would not be far distant; and it is also less than many think because it did not commit the United States to the liberation of the Baltic countries, although the U.S. along with Britain did assist the Baltic resistance after 1945, but only in not recognizing what Stalin had done. But at the same time, it is far more than many now believe. It was not just about having the U.S. continue to maintain relations with Baltic diplomats appointed by the pre-1940 governments and avoiding recognition of Baltic governments in exile but also about a principle that has had consequences for the Baltic countries far beyond 1991 and for the world more generally.

            Non-recognition policy meant that the U.S. could and did speak regularly about the rights of the Baltic peoples to independence at a time when it did not do so for others and thus put Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their peoples from promoting that idea to others. But it meant far more than that: non-recognition policy served in many respects as a kind of birth certificate for the post-1991 Baltic governments, allowing them to restore many pre-1940 arrangements and most importantly insist on citizenship rules that were radically different than those of the former Soviet republics and that infuriate Moscow to this day. The policy meant and means to this day that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have the right to exclude from an automatic grant of citizenship to those who were moved into their countries during the occupation and that this right is recognized by the international community.

            In addition, and perhaps even more important, America’s Baltic non-recognition policy has become a model for discussion of how best to respond to illegal acts of annexation by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Thus, although they may not “recognize” this, Baltic Americans and their history play an outsized role in international affairs to this day; and the course of world history in the last decade means that this role is far larger than many of them have ever suspected. And that means this: Baltic governments and Baltic Americans must not only celebrate this history but act to apply its lessons internationally, something that will elevate the status of the former in the world and the status of the latter in American foreign policy-making.

            The third of the great events of the last 100 years of Baltic-American relations was the successful integration of the three countries into the key Western institutions of the European Union and NATO. Some analysts suggest that these moves were geopolitical calculations, and certainly those things played a key role. But – and this is the important lesson to take forward – the integration of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would not have happened had it not been for the commitment to simple justice that was raised again and again not just by Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius but by the diaspora. Moscow’s objections that the West was crossing a red line were rejected precisely because the diasporas made it clear that they and their homelands expected the West to live up to its commitment undertaken in 1922 and reaffirmed in 1940 to the principle that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are part of the West and must be returned to it regardless of Moscow’s objections.

            That too is a lesson for this anniversary and for all future anniversaries. It is up to us to make sure it not only guides our actions but guides those who will come after us, those who will be celebrating the 150th and 200th anniversaries of U.S.-Baltic diplomatic relations, and who in turn will be responsible for passing on these lessons to their successors. Only if we commit to doing that can we take real pride in this centenary.

Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious issues in Eurasia, currently prepares daily reports on developments in that region for his blog, Window on Eurasia. He worked earlier at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, as Special Assistant for Soviet Nationalities and Special Advisor for Soviet Nationality and Baltic Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, director of research and director of communications and technology at Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2019, he received JBANC’s Exceptional Dedication to Baltic Affairs award for his long career in promoting U.S.-Baltic relations and for outstanding insight and analysis.

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