The Inconvenient Message of Baltic Prosperity

A week ago I had the pleasure of attending for the first time the biannual conference of the Joint Baltic–American National Committee. It was a very positive experience; I learned a lot from the presentations, met some awesome people, and (as usual with these conferences—at least good ones) the best part was the discussions had over drinks when it was all over. The entire staff* of JBANC deserves a lot of credit for running a smooth, high-quality event.

[*I get the impression the “entire staff” of JBANC is pretty much Karl Altau and several impressive interns and volunteers.]

A lot was said that needs to be said repeatedly, so I will be sharing some thoughts in a series of blog posts sparked by the conference.

You can watch the conference yourself thanks to Marcus Kolga, who live-streamed it and posted it to YouTube here and here.

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My first thought comes from the opening keynote address given by Kurt Volker, former United States Permanent Representative to NATO. He said we are a country based on core, fundamental values, and that we are at our best when respecting and promoting them. When these values are under threat, it’s always a matter of time before it directly impacts the US. It is important to pay close attention to the margins of freedom and related values: Are those margins expanding or contracting? Looking at the world today, it’s hard to argue that freedom is expanding.

One theme that arose frequently throughout the conference was the idea that the Baltic countries are models of these values. Preserving the success stories of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is important not ONLY for geographic reasons, but because they stand as a giant billboard announcing to the world that the way of freedom can succeed. This is important because the question is not settled, and the idea that freedom will ultimately fail is a core message of Putin’s massive propaganda machine.

The Cold War was not a conflict between two morally equal systems whose only difference was geography. It was a battle, among other things, between moral, political and economic freedom, and its imperfect proponents in the West, and a totalitarian system that systematically violated human nature by taking his freedoms, devaluing his work, and stealing his property, a system that ultimately considered its own people as its primary enemy.

If this is true—if the Cold War was not only geopolitical but ideological—then our ideological victory in the Cold War was not the geopolitical fact of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the fact that, once given the chance, those peoples who escaped Soviet domination and freely chose their own way, have not only done better, they have truly thrived. They have shown that with sacrifice and planning and commitment, you can come back—and relatively quickly—from totalitarianism to freedom.

Baltic prosperity is the single greatest sign of the rightness of the West’s victory over the political system that Vladimir Putin looks back upon fondly, and whose demise he considers the worst disaster of the 20th century.

This is why it doesn’t matter that the Baltics are not near the US, or that that they border Russia. It wouldn’t matter if the Baltics were in the dead center of Russia: The success of the Baltics on the path they freely chose is crucial to demonstrate the legitimacy of all we have fought and died for over the last century and more. And projecting to the world that free countries are not worth defending, no matter where they are, endangers freedom everywhere.