Report prepared by Eduards Ozoliņš and Priit Grabbi.
Which U.S. Democratic presidential candidate is best-suited for the interests of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? In this breakdown, we are looking at the positions of the candidates – their previous public statements, votes, plans and actions related to the Baltics - while considering issues such as their support for NATO, Russia sanctions, and other relevant topics.
In our report we have gathered information on the current top six candidates, according to all major polls. This report is not to be considered an endorsement of any candidate. The Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. (JBANC) has also reached out to campaigns offering them a chance to give their views directly, but so far we haven't received a response. In case we do, we will update our report accordingly.
United States Senator from Vermont
Senator Sanders is currently considered the frontrunner in the Democratic race for the nomination. So far he has the most delegates, he is leading in national polls, as well as having significant financial resources to keep campaigning in full force, compared to his counterparts, excluding self-financing billionaire candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.
Sanders’ views towards NATO, which include the Baltic countries, and his voting history towards sanctions against Russia for its actions against Ukraine, cannot be ignored. Going back to 1997 then-Congressman Sanders opposed NATO enlargement, including any future membership for the Baltic countries in the alliance, calling it an unnecessary provocation against Russia, also noting the cost of such expansion for the U.S. taxpayer. He went on to quote former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who once said that “if we ever think of bringing the Baltic countries into NATO we ought to have our heads examined.”
Moreover, Sanders has consistently opposed U.S. sanctions against the Putin regime in Russia. For example, in 2017 Sanders was one of only two Senators who voted against imposing new sanctions on Russia, targeting that country’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria. At that time Sanders explained that he supports sanctions against Russia, but was against the measure, since it also included sanctions against Iran. However, he is on record for voting against Russia sanctions, or not voting at all on them.
More generally, many view the prospects of a Sanders presidency as having the potential for furthering U.S. isolationism from international affairs and decreasing its military power, while at the same time keeping the core alliance with European countries and NATO.
The Sanders campaign has stated that the candidate supports ongoing membership of the U.S. in NATO and in 2016 he went as far as calling it “the most successful military alliance in, probably, human history.” At the same time, just a year before that in 2015, Sanders made a statement calling for a new NATO that would include Russia. However, Senator Sanders did respond “Yes” to a 2020 questionnaire by the New York Times, to the question “If Russia continues on its current course in Ukraine and other former Soviet states, should the United States regard it as an adversary, or even an enemy?”
Former Vice President of the United States
Once the early frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden currently polls around 17% nationally, and around 28% in South Carolina, which is considered a necessary win for Biden's campaign to keep on going.
Vice President Biden has a very strong track record in supporting the Baltic countries and NATO. He showed clear support for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during his time in office as a Vice President, as well as before that in Senate and after that as a public figure and during his time as a presidential candidate.
During his official visit to Latvia on August 23, 2016, on the anniversary of the Baltic Way and Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he also met the leaders of the three Baltic countries. There, Vice President Biden pledged U.S. support for the Baltic countries, emphasizing bipartisan support for NATO. He expressed U.S. support for NATO’s Article 5 and strongly dismissed then-presidential candidate Trump's anti-NATO rhetoric. In 2020 Biden predicted that “NATO will end within four years” in case Trump is re-elected.”
Remarking on the accomplishments of the Baltic states during his visit to Latvia, he also expressed that he has been following the Baltic matters closely for decades: “I remember as a member of the United States Senate that vision that was portrayed of two million people holding hands, hundreds of miles, forming an unbroken chain from each of your capitals, [from] right here to Vilnius. I was amazed at the time. You inspired the world. You inspired all oppressed people.”
During his time as a Senator, Biden co-sponsored the “Baltic Freedom Day” Resolution. He also was a floor manager in 1998 during the U.S. Senate's first vote on NATO expansion since the Cold War. It is interesting to note that Biden was asked to be a floor manager for not only the Democrats, but also for Republicans.
In a plan published by Biden's campaign, he plans to “restore and reimagine” partnerships such as NATO, keeping and improving NATO's capabilities, restoring America's leadership in foreign policy, and leading by “the power of our example.”
Former Mayor of New York
Having served as a mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013, billionaire Michael Bloomberg joined the Democratic presidential race in November 2019, much later than all the other candidates. Without outside donors or an organic movement behind his campaign, he has managed to rise in polls by flooding the airwaves and online media with advertisements, spending far more than any other presidential campaign, so far amounting to 450 million dollars in ads. Currently polling around 13% nationally, it remains to be seen how well he performs in getting actual votes, since he has yet to participate in the initial Democratic primaries and caucuses.
So far we don't know much about Bloomberg's foreign policy plans, however, he has criticized President Trump for enabling Russia to interfere in the U.S. election process. However, remarks have resurfaced recently from Bloomberg's 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute, where he compared Russia's annexation of Crimea to the United States annexation of California. Moreover, during the same speech he also went on to compare the Russian takeover of Crimea to the U.S. possession of Guantanamo Bay.
Somewhat similar to Sanders, Bloomberg too compared the expansion of NATO as a provocation against Russia, saying that “One of the reasons that Putin has reacted the way he did is there was a movement to have NATO be right along the Russian border.” Nevertheless, Bloomberg also gave the same answer to a New York Times questionnaire, agreeing to the point that the U.S. should regard Russia as an adversary or an enemy if it keeps its current course in Ukraine.
Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
“Mayor Pete” was somewhat of a dark horse in the beginning of the race for the Democratic nomination. Barely edging out Senator Sanders to win the first voting state of Iowa, and then following just behind Sanders in New Hampshire, the former mayor’s momentum proves that his intellectual approach to domestic and foreign policy issues resonates with educated voters. Across multiple recent national polls, Buttigieg fluctuates between 8-13%.
Along with Biden, and perhaps Senator Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg has an advantage in foreign policy, as he served in the U.S. Navy Reserve as a naval intelligence officer, and completed one tour in Afghanistan. Buttigieg’s stance on near peer military powers, like Russia, is that of a realists approach. Calling for a new policy towards Russia that “must include a regional security framework that promotes stability for Eastern Europe and incentivizes Russia to adhere to international norms”.
“While the U.S. must not exacerbate instability or conflict, we should not shy from responsible defense assistance to a democracy in the heart of Europe that is under assault because its citizens have chosen a democratic European path” Buttigieg said in a response to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Buttigieg has praised Estonia on a few occasions, covering governance, transportation, and technological innovation and progressive policies. His pro-NATO stance aims to treat current increases in EU defence capabilities and structured cooperation as a “force multiplier,” in tandem with U.S. forces and NATO.
United States Senator from Massachusetts
Senator Warren has spent time in Eastern Europe, expanding her foreign policy platform. In 2017 she spent time with Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser, talking about cyber and defence cooperation, as well as EU-U.S. trade relations. In the same trip, she visited the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, applauding its position as a forerunner in European technological and cyber capabilities following the 2007 cyberattacks from Russia.
In an article she wrote for Foreign Affairs, Warren stated that “In Europe, we should work with our allies to impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia for its attempts to subvert elections, and we should work to help our European allies develop energy independence.”
“Russia is actively working to destabilize countries along its borders and to undermine the European Union and NATO” Warren said in a statement to Congress. Warren blames President Trump for the backsliding of EU and NATO relations, Tweeting, “America is strongest when we work together with our allies – including the 28 NATO members who share our democratic values. Undermining NATO is a gift to Putin that @realDonaldTrump seems all too happy to give."
This helps demonstrate an amount of awareness that Senator Warren has for issues facing Europe.
Warren currently polls around 19% nationally.
United States Senator from Minnesota
Senator Klobuchar visited all three Baltic countries a year prior to Senator Warren. Accompanied by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the group met with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to discuss NATO relations and EU defence. The trip followed President Trump's comments on NATO being “obsolete.” The senators reassured that relations would remain unchanged.
In an earlier debate, Klobuchar brought up nuclear relations with Russia.
“When we look at international agreements, we must start negotiating back with Russia... but the president precipitously got out of the nuclear agreement with Russia and we must start negotiating, even though they were cheating, for the good of this world. And we must also start the negotiations for the New START Treaty.”
The current New START treaty, made to halt the proliferation of nuclear and kinetic arms, is set to expire in February of 2021.
Senator Klobuchar supported various sanctions on Russia following cyberattacks on U.S. elections and critical infrastructure. She states that “sanctions alone will not stop Russian cyberattacks” implying the necessity for the U.S. to bolster its own cyber defence, as well as finding ways to coerce and encourage Russia to participate in global competition through valid economic and diplomatic means.
Senator Klobuchar, similar to most of the other candidates, would have a tenacious position towards Russia, acknowledging that interference with Eastern European democracies and EU markets would weaken U.S. economic gains as well as endanger regional security.
Klobuchar currently polls around 5% nationally.