Obama’s Tokenistic Politics

John F. Kennedy had a European agitator to thank for his biggest public appearance. It was Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who had been urgently requesting that the American president visit the front line city since 1961. Soviet head of state Nikita Khrushchev wanted to rob West Berlin of its viability; tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie; Brandt demanded that the leader of the free world show with his physical presence where the West was.

Kennedy didn’t come. He feared that his visit could have caused a dangerous escalation. He left Brandt waiting for almost two years until, in front of Schönberg town hall, he spoke of himself and all free people as Berliners. Compared to this, Barack Obama’s trip to the Baltic is exuberantly resolute, for once.

The historical similarities between the current Ukraine conflict and the Cold War are not completely legitimate. It is correct, however, that the Baltic countries are on a similar front line position today as Berlin once was. The 6 million inhabitants of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are militarily fairly defenseless and sandwiched between Russia’s ally Belarus and Kaliningrad, Moscow’s enclave, in such a way that their supply lines would easy to cut.

Destabilization of the Baltic is a Possibility

Interference by Putin in the Baltic would be ideologically logical. He is — probably — not striving for world domination like his Soviet predecessors, but he does want control over areas where Russians live and those republics which left the USSR. The Baltic countries were the first to do so, and with visible relief.

Furthermore, the Russian proportion of the population in the Baltic is so large — almost 27 percent in Latvia — that a Russian destabilization like the one in east Ukraine would be easy to accomplish. It would only take some allegedly repressed Russians to supposedly rise up and call for help. There is one major difference: No one need fear at Obama’s visit that the antagonist will overreact.

Obama’s policies are tokenistic, but the weight of his words is limited. That’s how it is with a president who draws “red lines” in Syria and lets them be crossed, says he is “clueless” with respect to the terrorist group Islamic State, and who still hesitates to draw military conclusions. But can we Europeans complain? We are richer than we were in 1961, but we are not meeting the goal of spending at least 2 percent of our budgets on defense. Before the NATO summit, we should learn to not always ask others for help.

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