The choice of the Democratic vice presidential candidate is going to be particularly consequential for the US and the Baltics – but judging her solely by hawkishness towards Russia is too simplistic, argues Audrius Ričkus.
In the next few days, Joe Biden is posed to choose his running mate for the upcoming American presidential election. In recent history, there has not been a situation when a vice presidential pick would matter as much. Many political reporters argue that Biden’s presidency (if he does get elected, which seems increasingly likely) will be a transitional one. He would step down in four years to endorse his vice president. The Democratic candidate has denied such rumours, but, given his age, it is not unlikely that his would be a one-term presidency.
A recent Washington Post article suggested Congresswomen Kamala Harris, Val Demings, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, and former Ambassador to the UN and National Security Adviser Susan Rice as the top five contenders to be offered the vice president position.
Curiously, the Baltic states’ media has been relatively mute on the upcoming Biden decision, especially given that this choice might shape Washington’s foreign policy throughout the 2020s. A question does have to be raised: which candidate would be the best possible option for the Baltics?
All contenders have a myriad of policy differences when it comes to domestic and foreign affairs, and it would not be practicable to get into all of them. What matters for the Baltic states is how these candidates view America’s role in the world: a clearly defined internationalist vision of the US would be good for the globe and for the Baltic states alike.
The typical framework used to assess the favourability of an American politician to the Baltic states, at least in Lithuania, is to analyse their stance on Russia. This is simplistic and misleading. President Donald Trump’s administration has its fair share of Russia hawks who seemingly appear to understand Baltic security concerns. However, can Lithuanians feel safe, when US policymakers embrace authoritarian leaders in Brazil, Saudi Arabia or the Philippines as they condemn Russia for human rights violations? Probably not. These decision-makers are more concerned about American sovereignty and power. Baltic security issues are only important as a matter of pragmatism rather than principle.
What should matter in interpreting American policymakers and their relationship with the Baltic states is their dedication to the post-Cold War diplomatic framework, which includes a commitment to international law and humanitarian interventionism. Reaffirming this agenda in the 2020s would lead to a sounder international system with safe and independent Baltic states. It would close the door to backroom diplomatic deals that have so often disturbed the development of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia throughout the 20th century.
The typical framework used to assess the favourability of an American politician to the Baltic states, at least in Lithuania, is to analyse their stance on Russia. This is simplistic and misleading.
The embrace of international norms does not project weakness. The 1990s were, perhaps, the heyday of a democratic and respectful international system. Some mistakes were made, as the Rwandan genocide attests. Nonetheless, the international community under American leadership imposed international law in numerous cases, like in Iraq in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1995. Key norms, such as sovereignty, self-determination, and human rights, were protected, and all potential aggressors around the world had to think twice before resorting to brute self-interest in international affairs. Reaffirmation of this policy by any sitting American president would make the Baltic states safer both in the short and the long term.
Biden has been consistent in his support for international law throughout his years in the US Senate and as vice president. Among other occasions, he reaffirmed this during his 2014 visit in Vilnius. But where do his potential running mates stand?
The four US congresswomen, Harris, Warren, Duckworth, and Demings, support the idea that the United States should form its foreign policy in concert with international institutions and international law. However, the specifics of their beliefs are different.
In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Kamala Harris has noted that the creation and maintenance of international institutions has been the biggest success of US foreign policy after the Second World War. She has not demonstrated, however, her commitment to promoting these ideals, although this might be an unfair critique. Harris has only been a senator since 2017 and has only worked in a Republican-controlled Senate. She is yet to have real legislative power.
Elizabeth Warren also commits to multilateralism and promises to reinvigorate American diplomacy to solve the most pertinent issues of the globe. However, Warren’s failed presidential bid rested on a narrative of internal corruption, and she has often promoted drastic measures with international reverberations, such as cutting the Pentagon budget by 11 percent. No matter how well-meaning she might be, the global community would undoubtedly view this as a further downscaling of American influence. International laws are useless if there is no one with the willingness and the means to protect them.
Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran, has clear views about the US role in the world. Her personal website notes that she would continue to strengthen American military apparatus for deterrence. Duckworth is also committed to matching military power with diplomacy when applicable. Curiously, there is little note of her views on international institutions and multilateralism. It could be inferred that her foreign policy initiatives would largely be aligned with the views of the Pentagon.
Val Demings has not elaborated on her positions as much as the three senators above. During her time in the House of Representatives, she co-sponsored a number of bills on international cooperation. Demings has worked on legislation aimed at curbing international terrorism and promoting cooperation with international institutions focused on development. Most of these bills, however, never became laws.
Susan Rice, a former high-ranking official of the Barack Obama administration, is the candidate that, unlike the four congresswomen, has substantially demonstrated a commitment to humanitarian interventionism and enforcement of international law. Deeply disturbed by the Bill Clinton administration’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, she vowed to the Atlantic in 2001 do everything it takes to stop such blatant violations of human rights in the future.
She had her chance in 2011, when, as the US ambassador to the United Nations, she brokered a UN Security Council Resolution for NATO members to intervene in the Libyan Civil War. Arguably, her preferred policy did not lead to the end of violence in the North African country. There was no plan on Libya beyond containing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli. However, at least for that brief moment in the early 2010s, the international community, under Rice’s leadership, stopped a genocide-in-making. It sent a message to the world about the fate of dictators that would choose mass killing as a policy tool. Unfortunately, the momentum was not utilised, as Obama sidelined Rice’s approach in his future international dilemmas.
Rice would be the best possible vice president that the Baltic states could expect. Her commitment to globally enforce international law, sometimes by force, can lead to a resurgence of clarity in the international system.
If, in four years, she becomes the president – or, perhaps, sooner – it is quite possible that she would lean towards sanctioning injustices in international affairs. The issues that Rice, as a vice president, would have to deal with will most likely be distant from the realities of the Baltic states. However, the imposition of international law, backed by US military and economic power, would send a signal to the rest of the world that sovereignty, self-determination, and human rights have to be respected.
This type of policy would create a more stable and secure global community with significant implications for the national security of the Baltic states.
Audrius Ričkus is a PhD Candidate in International History at the University of Virginia. He is currently based in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.