Opinion: Molotov-Ribbentrop and the birth of the Lithuanian-American alliance

Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact / Scanpix

More to the point, while the first alliance was the more immediately fateful, it lasted less than two years, the second, all often passed over in silence, has lasted throughout this period and gives promise of lasting well into the future as well.

Alliances as it is sometimes forgotten are a response to threats and challenges rather than the result of stable conditions. Hitler and Stalin made their deal because of a short-term conjunction of interests, and not surprisingly when that passed so too did the alliance. The Lithuanian-American or more broadly Baltic-American alliance came into existence because of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, it survived because of the interest of both sides in ending that occupation and its threat to the freedom of all concerned, and it has flourished since the three Baltic countries recovered their independence in 1991. Indeed, if anything, this alliance is more important now than it has ever been before.

As we remember the tragic consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, we should consider these three stages of this more permanent partnership, and we should celebrate them because they were and are a response to threats, some in the past and some very much in the present that the peoples of the United States and the Baltic countries have and still face.

The most obvious sign of the emergence of this alliance in 1940 was the articulation by the United States of what came to be known as its non-recognition policy. Thanks to the work of principled officials like Loy Henderson at the State Department and the efforts of Lithuanian Americans at the time, Washington declared that it did not recognize the forcible incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. That was not just words: it had real consequences of three kinds.

First, it sent a signal to Moscow that the United States considered the USSR illegitimate because that state was based on force alone rather than popular sovereignty. Second, it sent an equally powerful message to the peoples of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that the people and government of the United States would stand with them in their efforts to recover what had been illegally taken from them, their right to independent statehood. And third, it represented something that may be even more important: it showed that the US was prepared to act on principle not just interest and to do so for a prolonged period when it sometimes appeared to be a Quixotic goal.

It is certainly the case that the United States did not always do everything it might have in support of its declared policy. But it is equally the case that it did more than anyone else for a longer time and that its actions not only helped encourage the Baltic nations that they would one day again be free but also sent a message to others about the nature of partnerships between democracies. The active phase of non-recognition policy came to an end in 1991 when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia restored their de facto independence, but the policy continues to play a critical role both by providing the legal foundation for these three countries as formerly occupied territories and by serving as a model of the kind of principled and disciplined policies that democracies can take to defeat dictatorships.

The second phase of the alliance between the United States and the Baltic countries extends from 1991 to the present day. The three countries have been included in the two key Western institutions, the European Union and NATO, and they have become partners in the web of relationships that is the Atlantic World. Those relationships are broader and deeper than any single arrangement, and they reflect yet another aspect of the Baltic-American alliance: its flexibility because of its bedrock commitments on all sides to democracy, human rights, and the rules of international law.

Many have properly spoken of the Baltic miracle of 1989-1991, but it is worth speaking about the Baltic miracle of the last two decades. No formerly occupied countries have ever done as well or as quickly as have Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Their peoples and governments deserve enormous credit for that. But they have been able to do so because they have been part of an alliance with the United States, a good friend far away on the map but close to the hearts of the Baltic nations. More than Europe of which the three Baltic countries are also a part, this alliance with the United States has given them the opportunity to achieve more than anyone had thought possible.

Now, with the growing threats from the east emerging on the horizon, the Lithuanian or more broadly Baltic alliance with the United States is even more important. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is challenging not just Ukraine but the three pillars of the international system: its commitment to the stability of borders, its insistence that citizenship must be given primacy over ethnicity, and its commitment to the nation state rather than the empire as the proper form of organization of the international order.

Because of their own bitter historical memories, Lithuanians like Estonians and Latvians know first-hand what the destruction of those pillars would mean. They also know that they can successfully prevent that from happening only by collective action involving the United States. That makes the alliance between Lithuania and her neighbours, on the one hand, and the US, on the other, more important than ever before. Only by taking a tough and principled stand can we together roll back what Putin has already done and block him from taking even more destructive steps.

And so on this anniversary of one of the bleakest days in the history of the Baltic nations, let us take more than a moment to recall that that horrific accord had the effect of bringing into existence another alliance, one that has proved far stronger and longer-lasting and equally one that must survive and grow because of the challenges and threats now at large in the world.

Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious issues in Eurasia. Paul Goble worked at the CIA, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, the US Department of State, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has taught at the University of Maryland, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Institute of World Politics, the University of Tartu, and Audentes University in Tallinn. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he is the editor of seven volumes on ethnic and religious issues.

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