Trakai Castle, Lithuania. 13 January. The Snow Meeting is famous. Every January Lithuania brings together prime ministers, foreign and defence ministers from across what is increasingly referred to as the Nordic Baltic region, together with senior American, French, and German officials and commentators. The British were of course not there. Shame. Thankfully, Blogonaut Friendly-Clinch was in full Churchillian flow at one point asserting that “Britain would NEVER accept German leadership” (adopt suitable Churchillian tones). The old man would have been proud of me.
As I draft this I am gazing across a wistful winter lake at a real-life, make-believe castle dusted by the late snow of an unusually warm Lithuanian winter. We did the rounds of the usual suspect subjects – one feels the warm breath of Russia always in Lithuania, NATO was no-goed, although for once I may have come up with a good idea for the forthcoming Chicago Summit by suggesting the Strategic Concept be reinforced by a Strategic Contract. The European Onion was peeled, skinned and dissected…again, and much time was spent considering America’s retreat from Europe. The Grim Banker sat silent in the corner.
However, what really struck me was the significance of a Nordic Baltic Grouping. What could it possibly mean? The “Nordic-Baltic 8”, or NB8 as it known in the awful parlance of international wonkery, sounds like a group of wrongly-convicted political prisoners. On the face of it there is little in common between them other than a large expanse of water – the Baltic Sea…and perhaps yet another European idea in search of a bureaucracy. Three reasons:
The first is Germany. All roads lead to Berlin. The many new bridge, road and railway projects discussed all had one thing in common – Germany. To appropriately mix my metaphors Berlin is cementing its political leadership of Europe by hard-wiring Germany into the physical centre of Europe. The Nordic Baltic 8 flank Germany to the north. As such the ‘8’ have very little to do with balancing Russia, which was seen more irritant than threat, but influencing Germany. The old East-West European axis is being replaced by a new North-South axis with Germany the 'pivot' (this month's fashionable word in the strategy boutiques).
The second reason is energy and here Russia will be an issue. Massive oil and gas reserves are being discovered in the Barents Sea and Greenland, still nominally Danish. An arc of energy will soon stretch from Canada to Russia via the ‘High North’. The Nordic region in particular will become the epicentre of the new energy geopolitics. This could also lead to renewed tensions with Russia, both in terms of competition over the exploitation of said resources and because over time Europe could well be weaned off Russian energy. The Kremlin needs high oil and gas incomes to maintain its grip. If Russia sneezes the Baltic States catch cold.
The third reason represents nothing less than a revolution in strategic affairs and will turn the world on its head. As the Arctic ice melts the fabled North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific will become real, linked to a new North East Passage via Northern Norway. This change to global trading and energy shipping patterns will be so profound as to revolutionise the way the world makes money. Norway’s North Cape will become the new Cape of Good Hope. Canada’s Baffin Island will become the new Cape Horn. The Middle East will be by-passed together with much of the piracy-strewn Indian and Pacific Oceans. In time China, Japan, Russia and Central Asia might well look north for their ports and trade routes, rather than south and east.
So, implicit in this modest meeting of modest people in a beautiful place was not just another regional wrangle, but the forthcoming revolution in strategic affairs that will do much to define the twenty-first century world. This makes America’s decision to retreat from Europe all the more silly, just as it makes Europe’s decision to retreat from strategic reality all the more dangerous. Indeed, the world will not just ‘pivot’ on Asia, it will also ‘pivot’ on the two High Norths of Continental North America and Europe; the new Super-Highways for the ‘Global Commons’. A meaningful US-European strategic partnership will be critical to the security of both.
Therefore, the transatlantic relationship will be as important in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth and the Nordic-Baltic states will be on the front-line. When I come to the Baltic States I am always reminded why we need NATO and the European Union, which is today little apparent in the old, tired West of Europe. The proud, decent people of Lithuania deserve our support and our solidarity.
Or maybe it is just that the cold, clear air of Europe’s east clears my befuddled strategic brain. Shame there was no real snow though.