The White House
Office of the Vice President
For Immediate Release
August 24, 2016
National Library of Latvia
6:10 P.M. (Local)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s a graceful entrance. (Laughter.) I say to — I don’t often get to speak to three Presidents, twice in one day in the same room. I want to thank them for their hospitality.
And I say to — Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you so much for your remarks, your opening remarks and your commitment to advancing the Alliance.
And, Dainis, your grandson the older he gets, the more he’s going to appreciate all you did for your country. And you have — as my father — were here, he’d look at your grandson and say, Son, you have very good blood running in your veins.
And I want to say thank you to all of you for not only dreaming dreams of independence, but for organizing the proud people of Latvia to ensure those dreams actually became a reality.
I’m honored to share the stage with you. And, ladies and gentlemen, your country has long stood at the crossroads of civilization. This land, the link between north and south, part of the ancient trading route “from the Vikings to the Greeks.”
A bridge between East and West.
And, through it all, you’ve built an identity all of your own — a unique language, an unerring conviction that Latvians deserve the same rights, to be treated with the same dignity of all other people on Earth.
Even this beautiful building is a tribute to Latvia’s heritage. The Castle of Light symbolized a sacred place in Latvian folklore, the home of all Latvia’s wisdom and learning.
Until one day long ago, the Latvian — with Latvia overrun by invaders, the Castle of Light sunk itself deep into the lake, as legend has it, and emerged again only when Latvia was free once more. So I’m proud to stand here today, here in a free and independent Latvia, here in your modern-day Castle of Light.
And to be speaking to you on a day that bears such significance in the history of your nation and the history of the Baltic States. As you pointed out, Mr. Minister, 77 years ago today, Hitler and Stalin made their secret pact to plot to deny the freedom of the Baltic nations and other nations throughout Central Europe.
It was a day when the machinations of men sought to overthrow those God-given rights, which are equal inheritance of all humankind. The years that followed were bitter and they were long. But the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — you survived and thrived.
Fifty years later, standing together, you reclaimed this day. No longer would August 23rd be a day of betrayal and infamy. It would be a day when you showed the world — and I mean this literally — you showed the world the “Baltic Way”. I remember as a member of the United States Senate that vision that was portrayed of 2 million people holding hands, hundreds of miles, forming an unbroken chain from each of your capitals, right here to Vilnius. I was amazed at the time. You inspired the world. You inspired all oppressed people.
The world saw the eternal, indomitable spirit of the Baltic people. We saw the Castle of Light once more, alive in all of you. And we saw you regain your freedom.
And I’m proud to say that through every trial and every testing, the friendship between our peoples has never wavered. When each of the Baltic States declared independence after the First World War, the United States recognized and welcomed Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania to the community of sovereign nations.
And from that day to this day, your nations — our nations — have never, not for one minute enjoyed anything less than the full diplomatic recognition of the United States of America.
Less than a year after the Nazi-Soviet pact, with just a few short paragraphs known as the Welles Declaration, the United States made it known that we did not and we would not accept Soviet occupation of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. (Applause.)
In some ways, the Welles Declaration was a simple restatement of American principles. “The policy of this government is universally known,” it said. And then went on to describe the policy in no uncertain terms: “We believe in sovereignty and self-determination and territorial integrity. We condemn predatory actions carried out by threats or force.”
Nothing could be more straightforward. It’s the same sentiment that I expressed on behalf of our administration just months after we were sworn in at the Munich Conference in 2009.
What I said then holds true today. I said: The United States does not recognize spheres of influence.
We believe “sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions, choose their own alliances.”
That remains a universally known policy of my country. The Welles Declaration laid out principles that would eventually be sealed by the Atlantic Charter, one of the foundations upon which our international system has been built from that moment on.
And, for the Baltic peoples suffering the cruelties of occupation, it did something even more important. It kept alive the ember of independence.
Even when your nation’s flags could not fly here in Riga, even when they could not fly in Vilnius, even they could not fly in Tallinn, they waved proudly in Washington, D.C. They never did not wave.
Even when your language and traditions were pushed down, the world did not abandon the Baltic people. And after the Baltic Way, after the barricades of old Riga when you finally, fully regained your cherished independence, you returned our faith in you by showing exactly what the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania could accomplish.
In just a few short decades, the Baltic People have built true democracies. You opened up economies that unleashed the ingenuity of your people. You believed in the idea of Europe. In my opinion, one of the most audacious and consequential visions of the past century — the idea that after centuries of conflict, Europe could reinvent itself as an integrated community, one committed to political stability, the free flow of goods and people, and a solemn obligation to collective defense — Europe whole, free, at peace. You believed it. You worked to be part of it. And as one of your staunchest supporters, the United States, who fought hard for your admission to NATO, I know. I watched. It obviously wasn’t easy. And it was never inevitable. You earned it. Implementing necessary economic reforms, building vibrant democracies, enhancing your defense capabilities, striving toward the standards of membership.
And those of us who always defended your right to self-governance were all the more proud to see you take your place as full allies in NATO and members of the Europe Union.
Today, the Baltic States stand as testament to the power of the European project. Our belief in you, our commitment to keeping the door to membership open to all those who share our values and our commitments was critical, in my view, to your success.
It’s why the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic community has been one of the greatest forces in human history for advancing peace, prosperity, and democracy. Not to mention security.
And now not only are you a successful and integrated part of Europe, you’re the example of nations set by the inspiration of all who seek to follow your path.
At a time when some question the continued belief in Europe integration, your nations are a powerful reminder how much more can be accomplished when we bring down the walls that hinder cooperation rather than erecting false divisions.
And today of all days, we remember and celebrate the power of the “Baltic Way” — the power of standing shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. That’s particularly true when it comes to your shared security. The commitment we have made to one another to ensure our collective defense as allies in NATO has for decades been the cornerstone of global stability, and it remains so today.
Let there be no doubt: America’s Article 5 commitment is rock-solid and unwavering. We have made a sacred commitment. Our honor has been pledged. And we never, never fail to meet our commitments — not just for now, but forever. (Applause.)
President Obama believes that to his core and so do I. And despite what you hear in this heated political season, there is a wide, deep bipartisan commitment to NATO in my country. Don’t listen to that other fellow. He knows not of what he speaks, and he doesn’t know of what he speaks.
We will never forget that Article 5 was triggered for the first time after the United States was attacked on 9/11. So America will never fail to defend our allies. We will respond. And with Russia once more taking aggressive actions and threatening the sovereign rights of its neighbors, NATO remains as vital today as it ever has been.
Aggression still happens in Europe, and we must all be ready to answer that aggression. That’s what Article 5 means — we are all prepared to step up. Not just the United States and the Baltic States, but all of us. An attack on one is an attack on all. Period. End of sentence. It’s that basic, it’s that simple. And we want you to know, we want Moscow to know, that we mean what we say.
We underlined that message last month at the NATO summit in Warsaw, when allied leaders decided to enhance NATO’s forward presence in the Baltic States and in Poland. Canadian troops will take the lead here in Latvia. German troops in Lithuania. British troops in Estonia. And the United States will lead NATO’s presence in Poland.
On top of this, the United States will send a full armored brigade combat team — 4,200 combat-ready American troops — to provide an on-the-ground deterrent force not only in Poland but for the region. This brigade will be headquartered in Poland but they will be training and exercising here in the Baltics on a regular basis — 170 exercises and security-cooperation activities are planned just in 2016. This increase in American force, plus prepositioned equipment for another armored brigade combat team, and together with NATO’s enhanced forward presence, represents the greatest allied commitment capability deployed in the region since the end of the Cold War.
And specifically in the Baltics, the United States has augmented our security and defense cooperation with more than $100 million in new assistance to help bolster your capabilities, build resilience, and deter aggression. We’re improving our ability to work together, and your ability to interface with NATO defenses. Just recently, we’ve delivered Javelin anti-tank missiles in Estonia, secure communications equipment in Lithuania, medium-range air defense radars right here in Latvia.
And by the way, NATO has never been a one-way street of what America can do for our allies in Europe. The United States gains enormous benefits from your membership in NATO. We, the United States, are stronger. We are more secure because of it. Our entire ability to conduct our foreign policy worldwide rests on a Europe whole and free and secure. It’s the basis upon which we’re able to project power anywhere else in the world. And the Baltic States are among the leaders in demonstrating that commitment to our collective defense.
Estonia is one of only a handful of allies spending the full 2 percent of their GDP on defense as requested by NATO. Both Latvia and Lithuania are well on their way to meeting this benchmark by 2018. Together, we’re taking important steps to strengthen all of our defenses and show a strong deterrent commitment so neither Russia, nor any other nation, can ever question the resolve or the capability of this Alliance.
And because Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania know too well what it means to be deprived of your rights, because you know the high price to be paid when freedom is cut short, the Baltic States were also among the first voices to rally the international community in support of Ukraine’s democratic development and impose costs on Russia. And we thank you for that.
As the Ukrainian people fight bravely to defend their democracy and independence, the Baltic States offer a powerful example and inspiration. You are living proof that it is possible to break free and build strong, independent, vibrant democracies and to become full members of the European community.
At the same time, the future of Europe whole, free and at peace hinges on improving cooperation and integration across Europe, including here in the Baltic States. Regional cooperation has been vital to the success of Latvia and all the Baltic States. And regional cooperation is what brought me to Riga today.
Earlier today, I attended the Baltic Summit, where we spoke about a broad range of issues where Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are already working closely together, and how the United States can continue to foster the partnership among our nations. So many challenges in a globalized century can only be met by acting hand in hand. We are more efficient, we are more effective when we work together to mitigate cross-border threats, to strengthen our shared security environments. That’s particularly true among close neighbors. And together, the Baltic States have already done a great deal to advance your shared interests and shared values.
Today, I was encouraged by the mutual resolve for the Baltic States to continue deepening your cooperation to improve border security, strengthen cyber-defense capabilities, foster more inclusive societies, grow strong and innovative economies that are built for the 21st century. And I want to congratulate the people of Latvia on the milestone you reached earlier this year, joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It marks an important recognition of Latvia’s progress and heralds your place among advanced economies in the world.
Another critical area where Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will all benefit by continuing to work together is by strengthening energy security, as well. Not long ago, this region was known as the “energy island,” cut off from the rest of Europe. And the Baltics States know as well as any nation that — national security consequences of being energy dependent. You’ve lived it for the past 25 years.
But recently, you’ve made significant progress in diversifying your energy sector to ensure you are no longer dependent on any one nation for your energy. Here in Latvia, you’ve taken important steps to liberalize your gas sector, which will allow the formation of a fully integrated regional market in the Baltics. And with the inauguration of Lithuania’s liquefied natural gas terminal — appropriately named “Independence” — you took a huge leap forward to end the Baltic region’s energy reliance on Russia.
It’s impressive. The progress is impressive. But there’s work still to be done. It’s important you follow through on your efforts to diversify energy supplies and increase connections to Europe so that no country can use energy to undermine your sovereignty. And the time to act is now, because this is a transformative moment in global energy markets.
The United States and North America — Mexico, the United States and Canada — will be the energy epicenter for the 21st century — in part to our abundance of natural gas. We’ve moved from anticipating massive imports of liquefied natural gas to becoming the world’s fastest-growing exporter. For the first time, gas from the United States is being used here in Europe. And every country in Europe can now buy that American resource.
That’s critical, because Europe needs diverse sources of gas — not new pipelines that lock in greater reliance on Russia. Russian gas can and should be part of the European market, but that market needs to be open and competitive. Everyone has to play by the rules. So we’re eager to continue working with our partners to help the region secure the energy future you deserve.
And finally, these steps will help keep the region moving forward with growing economies, thriving businesses — a thriving business environments that invites investment, and inclusive, multiethnic societies. But achieving this future requires the people of the region to continue to strengthen your democracies, building what we in the United States call “a more perfect union.” We are still working on it ourselves.
In democracy, it’s a civic duty to ensure governments are accountable to their citizens and not the narrow interests of the powerful. The rule of law has to apply equally to everyone. Justice systems must be equitable and efficient and transparent. Otherwise, we will not attract international commerce and business. And in a moment when Russia seeks to use corruption as a tool of coercion and influence around the globe, rooting out corruption is essential to preserve your national sovereignty. It’s a cancer to the body politic. It’s among the highest acts of patriotism to root it out. It’s how you protect the future you have worked so diligently to build.
That’s what those 2 million people joined hands for all those years ago. Denounced and harassed by the Communist Party, her work banned, your great poet once wrote: “That which passes must shout. Must plead. Must prove. When it’s eternal, it can be kept silent.” Such was the character and fortitude of the Latvian people. Like your Estonian and Lithuanian brothers and sisters, you endured the shouts and rages of Soviet occupation, while the silent stones of Old Riga sheltered and sustained the Latvian spirit.
You survived, confident of your enduring place in the world. But even the eternal cannot stay silent forever in the face of indignities. Eventually, you began to sing. You sang the banned anthems of your people — “God Bless Latvia,” “Sun, Thunder” — and I’m not sure how to pronounce “Daugava.” I mispronounced it. I apologize. You pulled Latvian flags from hiding. You weathered — Freedom Monument in flowers of defiance. You took back your country.
So today, as we celebrate the remarkable history of your nation — the remarkable story of the Baltics — we have to look to the future. Let us reaffirm our shared belief in the unbroken human spirit and the yearning for freedom that unites all people. Let us, together, build a future that lives up to our highest values. And let us never doubt that whatever passing challenges we may face, no matter how much they shout or plead or seek to prove, the friendship between the Baltics and the American people is eternal.
May God continue to bless your countries, and may God protect our troops and all those who safeguard our mutual freedom. Thank you for having me. (Applause.)
6:35 P.M. (Local)