US Congressman John Shimkus: “I obviously have a special place in my heart for Lithuania”

Congressman John Shimkus.  Photo Ludo Segers

But cornered up to say whether Lithuania stands out “in any way” among the other Baltic States as the one “just-a-bit-closer” to the United States, especially in the field of energy – Lithuania is thought to be among the first European countries to start receiving US liquefied natural gas deliveries in early 2016 – Mr. Shimkus sticks to a diplomatic reply.

“I obviously have a special place in my heart for Lithuania, but I’m thankful for the enduring friendship between the US and all the Baltic states,” he says.

A quick “look-up” on the internet conjures up an image of an exuberant, gregarious and life-loving man. Those who ever worked with the Republican politician insist that is exactly the kind of person he is.

But the life has hardly been a bowl of cherries for the man whose Lithuanian descent through the parental line has been widely discussed.

“I talk about my Lithuanian heritage and my work on Baltic issues often,” he says.

He admits that some ordinary Americans still sometimes need an extra lesson not only on the Lithuanian history, but also geography, which he is always eager to give.

“I think it’s important to educate my colleagues and my constituents back home about the countries, like Lithuania, where freedom has flourished in the post-Soviet era. It’s inspiring and I never get tired of sharing that story,” the US legislator noted.

Being a lifelong resident of Collinsville, a suburb of St. Louis, he started off his career, which would eventually lead him to the legislative chambers of the most powerful country on earth, from the very bottom – as a US Army infantry private.

He ran for a public office in 1989, when he was elected a Collinsville Township trustee. A year later, he was elected as Madison County treasurer – the first Republican elected to a countywide post in 10 years. It took him a mere five years to become, in 1994, the first Republican to be reelected as county treasurer in 60 years.

“This is another thing I’m very proud of,” he says.

As the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy and, moreover, a member of Subcommittees on Energy and Power, Health, Communications and Technology, Shimkus, understandably, puts his hands on what might be called “softer” issues of the US politics, but his counterparts in the House of Representatives can envy, without exaggeration, his profound, nitty-gritty comprehension of Eastern European and Baltic security issues.

The expertise helped him breathe the pathway to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, within which, as a US delegate, Shimkus visited Lithuania last month.

“It was great to spend some time with the US troops in Rukla when I visited Lithuania in March. I think our troop rotations in Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve demonstrate our commitment to NATO and our common defense,” the US legislator recalled the visit.

With the multiple debates in the air whether Lithuania needs to seek reinforcement of its security guarantees through the larger support from the US, Shimkus comes at them firm: “I do believe Lithuania’s NATO alliance suffices to have the guarantees.” He adds: “NATO is fundamentally committed to the collective defense of its members.”

Amid the standoff between the West and Russia, the debate on the issue of the Baltic security, let’s admit, sometimes goes to tantalizing extremes for the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Like, if the bellicose Russia breached their territorial sovereignty, what would the response from the US and NATO be? But upon hearing questions like that Shimkus does not wobble infinitesimally.

“I am absolutely convinced the US and NATO would step in immediately, should Russia invade Lithuania.

“Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is clear that an attack against one ally is an attack against all,” says the congressman. He adds succinctly: “Should Russia ever enter into a war against the United States of America, the US will win.”

But asked about President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from the anti-missile defense system plans in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, Shimkus is blunt to say he has “long” supported a robust missile defense program.

“I’m not sure if having such a system in place would have prevented recent Russian aggression, but it would reassure our allies now of our readiness and commitment to defend NATO territory,” he says.

Weighing in on the recent vociferous comments from Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė that Russia (quote) is “a terrorist state”, the American politician says he “can’t speak to what President Grybauskaitė meant by her comments”, but notices that the Russian government continues to sow seeds of discord and instability amongst its neighbors.

“Whether it’s through the propaganda and covert pressure we see in the Baltics or the direct military invasion that has taken place in Ukraine and Georgia,” Shimkus says.

President Grybauskaitė, he insists, faces the challenge of countering the aggression of the Russian government every day, firsthand.

“I have a great amount of respect for the challenge she faces and the job she is doing. We must stand with our NATO allies to show the Russian Federation that our allies do not stand alone,” the US lawmaker insists.

While the world, especially in the uneasy, security-preoccupied regions like Baltics, perhaps still expects bigger engagement from out-going US President Barack Obama, John Shimkus swiftly dismisses the hope.

“Unless the situation on the ground changes substantially, I don’t expect much of a change in what is going now between Russia and Ukraine,” he asserted.

With GOP-controlled Congress and Senate appearing to many unable to nudge the president for more pronounced actions, Shimkus agrees that is the case, but explains that it has to do with the US Constitution and laws that grant the president near exclusive authority to conduct American foreign policy.

“There is a roll for Congress in terms of providing funding for lethal and non-lethal assistance and authorizing the use of force, but there are limits to what we can make any president do,” explains Shimkus.

When it comes to the US military to Ukraine, he says, all Congress can do about it is provide the funding for such aid, but, again, it cannot force the president to send it overseas.

Russia has, obviously, been a hard nut to crack for the Western coalition. With many believing that switching Russia off the global banking system would deal it a crippling blow, Shimkus says that economic sanctions take time to affect change and require participation from other major economies.
“The US can’t do much more through sanctions without a greater commitment from major European powers like Germany and France,” noted Shimkus.

With the 2016 presidential race hopefuls popping up in the Republican Party, he chuckled upon hearing question whether he might think in the future of running for presidency of the United States.

“I’m very happy serving my constituents in the House of Representatives,” he said, adding that “regardless of the party affiliation, the next US President will be also a staunch ally of the Baltics.”

Having certainly caught the American dream in his life, he praises the system, capitalism, which opened for him the door to the US Congress.

“Capitalism has brought greater prosperity to a greater number of people than any other economic system ever devised. It’s a system that rewards hard work and creativity without regard to where one begins on the socioeconomic ladder,” he says.

When government does not pick winners and losers, he says, individuals have the opportunity to pursue their own dreams, to take risks and either enjoy their success or try again if they fail. “That’s what liberty is all about,” he adds.

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