The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Baltic Way solidarity demonstration allowed Latvia to look back on what has been achieved and reminded us of a dynamic and changing international environment. A new European Parliament and Commission with new objectives and tasks have been elected in the European Union. The rhetoric and behavior of the administration of the US President Donald Trump have a profound impact on the international system and regional dynamics also in Latvia. At the same time, the US has consistently held on to its commitment to strengthen security on the alliance’s eastern flank, and it has motivated the allies to do their homework. The NATO Summit in London has re-affirmed solidarity within the alliance, while reminding of the need to continuously strengthen both the fundamental principles of the transatlantic alliance and cooperation between its member states.
2019 also stands out for two more anniversaries – it has been 15 years since Latvia became a proud member of the EU and NATO. Active participation in these key organizations is a testament to both the sustainable development of our country and the endurance of its Euro-Atlantic ties.
For international relations, 2019 was not an easy time. The institutionalized international political order of the last century continued to undergo significant changes. International institutions, international law and free trade, and international political values are no longer self-evident, but under increasing pressure and in need of our support. On the Latvian foreign policy front  in 2019 we should look at a trio of power centers – U.S.A, Russia and Europe.
Latvia and U.S.A
Changes within top echelons of the US administration, political turmoil within the country and uncertainties in US foreign policy have continued to unsettle international relations in 2019. US policy towards Russia remains embroiled by issues raised during investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, Trump had another meeting with Putin at the Osaka G20 Summit in June, and after the G7 meeting, announced that next year’s meeting in the USA would see a return to the G8, with the presence of Russia again at the table. Russia’s role in Syria appeared strengthened after the sudden and seemingly uncoordinated decision by Trump to withdraw troops. This uncertainty and unpredictability of actions of Trump’s administration towards Russian Federation caused tension in Latvia’s policy-maker circles.
Latvia is interested in strong ally fully committed to democratic values and human rights, therefore domestic policy of U.S. is also of Latvia’s concern. Staunch support for the EU and NATO is not only a necessity that has been dictated by the life and experience: it has become a part of Latvia’s foreign policy identity, and it would require something extreme to happen for things to change in this regard. Significant changes in Latvian foreign policy can happen because of shifts in the international order.
Good news for Latvia, America’s commitment to defending Europe remained undiminished during 2019, with an armored brigade combat team being deployed on a nine-month rotating basis. This is supported by the prepositioning of equipment for a second team that could deploy if a need were to arise. US engagement in the Eastern Flank remains solid, with plans to deploy a further 1,000 troops to Poland. Washington has doubled its financial support for its European deterrence initiative to 6.5 billion euros.
In their turn, Latvia and neighboring NATO countries contribute 2% of GDP towards defense. The 2019 Consolidated Budget Law passed by the parliament of the Republic of Latvia, Saeima, on 3 April, set the defense spending at 2% of the GDP, or EUR 636.65 million having reached the increase of EUR 60.3 million if compared to the plan of 2018.  Latvia is fully committed to keeping the national defense expenditure at this level for the foreseeable future.
Latvia and Russia
Along with USA, the external relations policy of Latvia has to deal with Russia as the close neighbour of Latvia and global power which can influence international affairs. Dialogue between Russia’s president and his Western counterparts can yield positive results, as long as a unity of approach prevails and attempts to “divide and conquer” are rejected. Dialogue should also take place on the basis that NATO’s defense and deterrence policy remains robust in parallel with any agreements.
In 2019, on a more regional level, Latvia has contributed to practical relations with the neighbor. Latvia’s presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, which includes Russia, provided a focus on practical projects relating, for example, to climate change, spatial development, cultural heritage and societal security. The closing meeting in Jūrmala gave Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Pankin the opportunity to hold a productive bilateral meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs.
Latvia and European Union
In 2019, life in Europe involved the anticipation of change – everybody was waiting for the new composition of the European Parliament and of the Commission, Latvia was waiting for the final words on the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, for future decisions on the multi-annual budget, for enlargement. Brexit elicited an unprecedented political and constitutional chaos in the United Kingdom in 2019. The government kept Latvians in the UK well-informed and advised on how to deal with various scenarios.
The results of the European Parliament elections confirmed that Europeans are calling for change. Sixty percent of the newly elected MPs are new, and the majority of political groups are no longer made up of only two parties. The new balance of power prevented the possibility of old ways of agreement. At the end of the year, the European Parliament approved the new European Commission with a new president Ursula von der Leyen, who has already come out with an ambitious and comparatively more social agenda than the previous one.
In those new conditions Latvia gained some influence in Europe. An important role is planned for Latvia’s European Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis in the achievement of priorities for reducing inequality; he has been nominated for a position as an EU executive vice president with the “Economy That Works for People” portfolio, with the goal of combining the social dimension and the market dimension of the economy. Dombrovskis was given not only an important portfolio, but also the role of one of three “executive vice presidents” along with Danish and Dutch political heavyweights Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans. For Latvian MP it is very ambitious position to achieve.
Also European experience of Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš has ensured that Latvia has a high-profile and dynamic role in Europe that has not been previously seen, with the foundations having been laid by veteran Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs. Additionally, Latvian diplomats were allocated high positions: Ilze Juhansone as interim EU General Secretary and Pēteris Ustubs as chief diplomatic adviser on the team of new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen .
Previously another opportunity for Latvia to play a decisive role in EU political dynamics came at the informal summit of Heads of State and Governments in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May 2019. Through some determined actions, Prime Minister Kariņš approached President Macron to let him know that Latvia wanted to join the French initiative within the EU on climate change – Latvia then joined a group of eight European member states that support the setting of more ambitious goals for Europe: achieving climate neutrality in the region by 2050. This required Latvia to reconsider its national position in order to achieve the goal. Remarkable, that this decision of Latvia to join the climate change initiative came as a positive surprise to the French. Moreover, Latvia’s decision, according to conversations with French officials thereafter, changed the dynamics surrounding this initiative. It is one of the greatest achievements of Latvia in the external relations.
Latvia has done very well in external relations in 2019. In any event, Latvia’s foreign policy was neither dead nor buried, but rather it was very much alive and invigorated. Consistency and strategic patience are required from Latvia in handling both Russia and America. The rhetoric and behavior of the administration of the US President Donald Trump have a profound impact on the international system and regional dynamics. At the same time, the US has consistently held on to its commitment to strengthen security on the alliance’s eastern flank, and it has motivated the Latvia to grow their defense expenditures.
Kariņš role as negotiator for the EPP and appointment of Valdis Dombrovskis to an executive vice-president role in the Commission were both successful foreign policy achievements for Latvia in the complex environment of EU power negotiations. At the beginning of 2019, very few people could have anticipated that Latvian politicians would make such good use of the opportunities presented by changes in EU institutions during the course of the year. Kariņš’s long tenure in the European Parliament and Dombrovskis’s sound reputation were clearly important contributing factors in this.
It is worth to say, that Latvia’s minimal resources were used to maximum effect in Europe in 2019.
 Latvian Foreign and Security Policy. Yearbook 2020
 Website of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Latvia. https://www.mod.gov.lv/en/news/pabriks-spending-2-gdp-defence-we-are-significantly-strengthening-combat-capabilities-latvian
 Lieģis, I. Alive and Kicking in 2019. In: The Latvian Foreign and Security Policy Yearbook 2020
*This article has been made in cooperation with China-CEE institute and is the intelectual property of China-CEE institute