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Russia and NATO in the Baltics

The demands of ethnic Russian factory workers for political rights in Latvia grow increasingly violent and a Russian special operations unit covertly enters Latvian territory.


In recent months, relations between Latvia’s ethnic Latvian majority and its ethnic Russian minority have grown more tense. When intelligence services receive information that a Russian special operations unit has crossed the border, the Latvian prime minister declares a state of emergency and imposes martial law. The United States faces a seeming repetition of Russian actions in Ukraine, but the stakes for the United States and its allies are considerably higher in Latvia, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

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Russia and NATO in the Baltics SMALL PROMO IMAGE

The Situation

In recent months, relations between Latvia’s ethnic Latvian majority and its ethnic Russian minority have grown more tense. An insurgent faction, Rodina, has arisen within Latvia’s traditional ethnic Russian political party, Harmony, and has reached out to nationalist groups within Russia. Strikes at several factories in Russian-majority towns have turned unexpectedly violent. When intelligence services receive information that a Russian special operations unit has crossed the border and established a command center in one of the factories, the Latvian prime minister declares a state of emergency and imposes martial law. Soon afterward, U.S. intelligence agencies detect the presence of significant Russian military concentrations on the Latvian border. The United States faces a seeming repetition of Russian actions in Ukraine, but the stakes for the United States and its allies are considerably higher in Latvia, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that the United States is bound by treaty to help defend. National Security Council members must consider a number of variables as they meet to choose among potential responses, such as how to balance diplomatic and military action, work efficiently with Congress and NATO allies, develop effective public explanations of policy, and send Moscow a strong signal of Western determination without provoking Russian escalation.





  • Collective defense obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5
  • Relationships among ethnic communities in the Baltic states
  • Post–Cold War expansion of the European Union and NATO and Russia’s relations with these institutions
  • Russia’s political evolution and the legacy and effects of its action in Ukraine
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

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National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
NATO Protest
Russia and NATO in the Baltics SMALL PROMO IMAGE

“How can we not be afraid of Russia if we turn on our televisions…and see politicians suggesting Russia could come for us next?”

—Raimonds Barins, Latvian citizen, June 14, 2015


2.1 The Issue

Latvia, which has a population and territory the size of West Virginia, is one of three small states wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. The other two are Estonia, to Latvia’s immediate north, and Lithuania, to its south. Together, these countries are generally referred to as the Baltic states.

These states are situated in an outwardly secure geopolitical position. They are enthusiastic members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU), the two multinational institutions that anchor the Western order in North America and Europe. Yet despite the protection and solidarity that NATO and EU membership provide, the Baltic states retain a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. They are territorially small and militarily weak. Their economies, though prosperous, are tiny relative to those of other NATO and EU members. Part of the Soviet Union for decades until its 1991 collapse, the countries also include significant ethnic Russian populations.

In 2014, Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Shortly afterward, its military began covertly supporting pro-Russian insurgencies in eastern Ukraine. Like the Baltic states, Ukraine is a former Soviet territory and home to ethnic Russian populations. Western governments have worried that Russia might similarly exploit the vulnerabilities of the Baltic states. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, commits its members to come to the defense of any member that is attacked. Pressure on the Baltics would thus bring into play the most basic of U.S. diplomatic commitments—to defend a treaty ally. In such a confrontation, U.S. choices would be complicated not only by Russia’s military might and the weakness of its tiny neighbors but also by the intricate interethnic relations of post-Soviet states.

Russia and NATO in the Baltics SMALL PROMO IMAGE

“Russia and Putin still have a geopolitical interest in the post-Soviet territories. Russia is trying to use the Russian-speaking minority as a tool to aggressively promote its objectives.” 

—Former Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis, September 27, 2014


2.2 Background

For the last three centuries, Latvia’s history has been deeply intertwined with that of Russia. Part of the Russian empire since 1710, Latvia became independent after World War I and remained so until 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded the three Baltic states and formally incorporated them into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) as union republics.

The Baltic states’ status as union republics gave them the constitutional right to secede from the USSR. For almost half a century, this right was merely theoretical, but during 1990 and 1991, as the Soviet Union faltered, the three states exercised it—the first Soviet territories to do so. All of them had seen the growth of new political movements opposed to Soviet rule during the perestroika era of the mid-1980s. All had initially declared independence in spring 1990, though that independence was not fully realized until a year later, in August of 1991, just four months before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Having regained independence, the Baltic states sought closer ties with the West. All three successfully pursued similar programs of political and economic reform, remaking themselves as democracies with booming market economies. They set their sights on membership in both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union in the 1990s, and joined both organizations in 2004.

NATO membership was especially important to the Baltic states’ security strategies. The military alliance had served for decades as the anchor of collective security between the United States and Western Europe, committing the United States to defend its European allies against a Soviet invasion during the Cold War. The Baltic states saw the alliance as the best insurance policy against potential Russian aggression in the future. Russia objected to the states’ entry into NATO, but not quite forcefully. Russia’s relations with the West were largely cordial at this time and, as part of what is informally called the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, the alliance had declared that it had no plans for permanent large-scale military installations on the territory of new members.


What provoked stronger protests from Moscow was the legal status of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states. After World War II, the Russian population of all three republics increased steadily. After gaining independence, Latvia did not extend automatic citizenship to all its residents. Like Estonia and Lithuania, it established language tests for citizenship: residents had to speak Latvian to become citizens. These tests left many Russians living in Latvia formally stateless (and without voting rights). Similar policies limited Russians’ access to higher education and their ability to work in civil service.

By 2015, fewer than half of the country’s ethnic Russians were affected by the restrictions. Even so, demands for changes in language, education, and citizenship policies remained a central plank of Latvia’s main pro-Russia political party, Harmony, which is loosely affiliated with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Harmony has been the largest single-party parliamentary faction since 2011 but has never been invited to form or even join a governing coalition. Despite these divisions, Latvia’s political movements and parties continue to operate within a peaceful framework: ethnic issues, though still a source of friction a quarter century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, have not triggered violence in the Baltics.

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 raised concern among NATO members about the potential for similar Russian actions in the Baltic states. That February, after protesters calling for closer ties with the West removed Ukraine’s pro-Russia president from office, Russian forces annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Russia later held a referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Crimean voters chose union with Russia; NATO and EU members dispute the legality of the vote. In the following months, conflict broke out between pro-Russia separatist groups in eastern Ukraine and the new Ukrainian government. Russia stationed troops along its Ukrainian border in response and has allegedly supported separatists and supplied them with arms, though the Kremlin denies doing so.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine convinced Western leaders that they needed to be better prepared for possible follow-on moves by Moscow. In 2015, NATO governments agreed that all members, including the Baltic states, should increase defense spending. NATO has also significantly enlarged its military presence in the Baltic region, increasing air patrols and deploying ground troops in each of the Baltic states on continuous rotations. The alliance further began conducting larger military exercises in the region to both train its forces and signal its resolve. Russia has responded in kind; in fall 2018, both NATO and Russia conducted their largest exercises since the early 1980s within months of each other.

The United States, for its part, has greatly increased funding for new support to NATO. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama created the European Reassurance Initiative, which bolsters U.S. military capabilities in Europe to support NATO’s efforts in deterring Russian aggression. Its funding has more than quadrupled in recent years; the Donald J. Trump administration requested $6.5 billion for the initiative in fiscal year 2018 and renamed it the European Deterrence Initiative.

Baltic leaders took the lessons of Ukraine to heart. They concluded that they needed to be able to respond quickly to the first signs of similar pressure from Russia against their own countries. To the Latvian government, this meant paying keen attention to signs of cross-border support for more radical Russian nationalist groups within the country. Latvian officials worried that even a few individuals could disrupt stability.

NATO members have repeatedly emphasized their Article 5 commitment to Baltic members. Publicly and privately, singly and collectively, they have warned Russia against a policy of pressure on NATO members similar to the policy it has pursued in Ukraine. After its July 2016 summit, the alliance issued a communiqué citing “Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force.” The communiqué also highlighted recent increases in military spending by allies but noted that “there is still much work to be done,” a reflection of frustration, especially in Washington, with unequal contributions to allied security. Despite his criticism of NATO allies, Trump has reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the alliance, and then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called it “ironclad.” Baltic leaders have joined in these expressions of solidarity. “We will stay united,” said Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia’s defense minister, before he assumed the presidency in 2015, “because if we don’t, NATO will die.”

Russia and NATO in the Baltics SMALL PROMO IMAGE

“Our NATO Alliance is not aimed ‘against’ any other nation; we’re an alliance of democracies dedicated to our own collective defense. Countries like Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania are not ‘post-Soviet territory.’ You are sovereign and independent nations with the right to make your own decisions.” 

—President Barack Obama, September 3, 2014


2.3 Role of the United States

Because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is both a central institution of U.S. foreign policy and a major strategic asset, the United States is likely to see any Russian military threat to Latvia as a challenge that it needs to—in some fashion—meet. The United States has a strong interest in maintaining the security of its European allies and in sending a firm signal to Russia that it cannot threaten them without consequence. Yet no decision on supporting an ally in trouble is a simple one, especially when the opposing power is a nuclear-armed state with considerable military and economic might. Any escalation in the conflict could have high costs to both U.S. and NATO military personnel.

As a first step, the United States needs to decide, along with its NATO allies, whether Russia’s actions constitute an armed attack on Latvia to justify invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. If NATO members agree that it does, the United States will be obligated to assist in Latvia’s defense. Second, it will need to carefully consider how to most effectively do so without unnecessarily escalating the conflict. If, on the other hand, NATO members do not invoke Article 5, U.S. policymakers would have more flexibility. However, in either case, Latvians and other NATO allies will seek strong signals of U.S. resolve, and any U.S. action seen as half-hearted under these circumstances could cause allies in Europe and beyond to question U.S. commitment to collective security.

Apart from the question of whether Article 5 applies, the United States has a variety of policy tools to choose from to support Latvia. National Security Council (NSC) members will need to examine the costs and benefits of these tools as well as ways to combine them. They could also advise taking none of the steps if they conclude that U.S. interests are best served by staying out of the crisis, perhaps because they believe that Latvia’s policies caused the problem.

Military measures

If the United States believes that Latvia’s status as a treaty ally calls for a strong show of support, it has a range of military options, such as immediately deploying U.S. rapid-reaction troops, mobilizing a larger multinational NATO contingent, and positioning naval forces off the Latvian coast. If NSC members choose to pursue military action, they will need to consider how U.S. and NATO forces can most effectively respond while avoiding unnecessary escalation. NATO forces could be deployed to reinforce Latvian de-fenses unobtrusively, so as to not inflame the situation, or take a more visible approach that would signal firmness. An immediate deployment of rapid-reaction troops could quickly reinforce critical defenses, whereas a larger response would take longer to assemble but could send a more visible message of NATO solidarity. Additionally, deployments close to the Russia-Latvia border could risk Russian escalation, but stationing troops at a great distance could both limit their ability to react quickly and convey uncertain re-solve.

A military response would send a strong message of resolve to Russia and potentially deter further escala-tion if the Kremlin decides that the risk of open conflict with NATO is too great. Moreover, it would posi-tion troops to respond quickly and effectively if the situation escalated into open conflict. However, a mili-tary response is not a guaranteed deterrent: Moscow could respond by bolstering its own military presence, increasing the risk of a miscalculation or miscommunication that could ignite a large-scale conflict.

Diplomatic initiatives

In the Situation Room, interest in solving this crisis peacefully will be strong. To pursue a diplomatic resolu-tion, NSC members could consider calling an emergency session of the UN Security Council, of which both the United States and Russia are permanent members. Russia would likely veto any resolution that could result in concrete action, but this approach could draw international attention and put pressure on Russia to stand down. The United States could also call for a meeting of NATO foreign or defense ministers, or even a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which was created to address security issues between NATO and Russia but has met only intermittently since the Ukraine crisis. The United States could also take a more direct approach, dispatching a high-level U.S. representative to Moscow—perhaps preceded by a U.S.-Russia presidential phone call. NSC members will need to decide whether diplomatic steps should be tried before military steps are taken or whether pursuing both steps in parallel would be more effective. They will also need to consider what sort of concessions to seek—an immediate pullback of Russian forces from the border or withdrawal of Russian special operations units already in Latvia (whose presence Moscow de-nies)—or merely to begin talks.


Economic measures

NSC members could also choose to impose economic sanctions on Russia to signal Western opposition to Russia’s actions. Sanctions would reduce the risk of direct military confrontation but could be interpreted by Latvia and other NATO allies as a weak show of support. Moreover, there is no guarantee that sanctions would compel Moscow to act. Sanctions played a large role in Western strategy during the confrontation over Ukraine but ultimately have had no effect on Russia’s involvement in that country. Moscow has also used the sanctions as a tool to inflame anti-Western sentiment. However, combined with a fall in oil prices, sanctions significantly weakened Russia’s economy in 2014. Although it has largely recovered from that downturn, new and more severe sanctions could have a stronger effect on Russia’s actions. As in Ukraine, sanctions can be applied in many forms: against individual leaders, particular companies, or entire sectors of the economy. 

Internal mediation

Because the crisis has arisen from clashes inside Latvia, U.S. policymakers could consider whether it would be useful and appropriate for the United States to involve itself in trying to ease tensions between majority and minority ethnic groups. A special mediator, perhaps one with a mandate from an intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations, might serve this purpose. U.S. policymakers will seek ways to limit the risk that such steps will undercut the Latvian government or legitimize Russian interference and threats. (Moscow will presumably seek a mechanism for continuing oversight over Latvian domestic issues, including education policy, labor law, electoral rules, and other matters. It could even demand autonomy for Russian-majority areas.) NSC members should also consider what steps the United States or NATO could take to reassure Latvia of U.S. commitment to collective defense throughout this process while avoiding any measures that would jeopardize mediation efforts.


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Case Notes Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
annexation:the incorporation of one state’s territory within another state’s. Annexation is regarded as a violation of sovereignty, but relatively powerful states have sometimes annexed parts of weaker ones. Perhaps the best known recent example is Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The United States and other countries do not recognize the annexation.


Cold War:the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, by extension, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship—that characterized international politics between the post–World War II years and the early 1990s. Deemed a “cold” war because the rivalry never resulted in direct warfare between the two, the contest nevertheless sparked proxy wars in other countries and many close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


European Union (EU):a supranational organization composed of twenty-eight European countries, formally established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The EU’s objectives include the economic, political, and security integration of its members, accomplished through such methods as removal of trade barriers; free circulation of EU citizens among certain member countries; and use of a common currency, the euro, by nineteen members. The EU is the largest U.S. trading partner and many of its members are among the most important U.S. allies.


Harmony:a center-left Latvian political party that is the traditional political home of the country’s ethnic Russians. The party is led by Nils Usakovs, who also serves as the mayor of Riga. Loosely tied to the Russian ruling party United Russia, Harmony currently holds twenty-four of the one hundred seats in Latvia’s parliament and has been the largest holder of parliamentary seats since 2011. It has never participated in a governing coalition, however.


insurgency:a rebellion, the primary goal of which is to overthrow or delegitimize a government. Insurgents are irregular forces that have varying levels of organizational sophistication and use political violence and guerilla action to achieve their goals. An example of an insurgency is the ongoing Taliban campaign against the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan.
intelligence:information collected and analyzed by specialists for use by decision-makers. This includes data, photographs, and communications, among other materials, and is collected, often secretly, by individuals and technological methods.


martial law:the military control of a territory, usually established in an emergency situation. Typically, normal laws are suspended; authorities are granted greater powers; and civil liberties, such as freedom of assembly, are restricted.


nationalism:a sense of pride in and loyalty to a national identity, which may or may not correspond to a sovereign state. This identity is often based on common traits such as ethnicity or language.
NATO-Russia Council:a forum, established at the 2002 NATO-Russia Summit, to strengthen relations between Russia and the NATO alliance. Regular meetings of the council, which facilitates cooperative discussion and action on shared concerns such as nonproliferation and counterterrorism, were suspended after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
NATO-Russia Founding Act:a 1997 agreement, signed by Russia and the sixteen countries then belonging to NATO, establishing several parameters for relations among the signatories. Among other stipulations, the parties promised to consult each other frequently on shared concerns, such as nonproliferation and conflict prevention, and take joint action when they agreed. NATO members also agreed to refrain from stationing significant numbers of forces in any former Soviet states that joined the alliance.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO):a military alliance among twenty-eight countries on both sides of the Atlantic, from the United States and Canada to Turkey. Established in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and ten western European countries, NATO—sometimes known as the Atlantic Alliance—has grown over the years to include many former states of the Soviet Union. Article 5 of the treaty that created NATO establishes its core principle of “collective defense,” which commits member countries to defend each other if attacked.


perestroika:a set of political and economic reforms, or restructuring, that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted during the 1980s. Accompanied by a policy of glasnost, or transparency, the reforms are largely viewed as having unintentionally brought about the end of the Soviet Union. Chief among the reforms was moving away from a centrally planned communist economic system and toward a more decentralized market economy.


referendum:a vote, typically organized by a government, in which participants approve or reject a certain policy proposal. This is a form of direct democracy, in which citizens themselves (as opposed to elected representatives) make a policy decision.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secession:the act of breaking away from a territory or leaving an organization, usually for the purposes of establishing a new one. The secession of eleven southern, slaveholding states from the United States and their subsequent establishment of the Confederate States of America led to the American Civil War.
Soviet Union:officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the political entity in existence from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to the early 1990s that encompassed modern-day Russia and fifteen neighboring countries. With a communist economy and totalitarian system of government, the Soviet Union grew to be the other major superpower in the post–World War II era. As such, it was the principal antagonist of the United States during the Cold War.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations" tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4). Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

Daniel Arkin, “Baltic States Fear Putin Amid Escalation in Ukraine,” NBC, September 2, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/baltic-states-fear-putin-amid-escalation-ukraine-n193326.

Matt Ford, “Russia’s Seizure of Crimea Is Making Former Soviet States Nervous,” Atlantic, March 1, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/russias-seizure-of-crimea-is-making-former-soviet-states-nervous/284156/.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Collective Defence,” July 7, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm.


2.2 Background

Matthew Luxmoore, “Latvia struggles with restive Russian minority amid regional tensions,” Al Jazeera America, June 13, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/13/latvia-resists-russian-soft-power.html

Michael Birnbaum, “Russian warplanes keep buzzing the Baltics. Here’s how NATO scrambles,” The Washington Post, November 6, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russian-warplanes-keep-buzzing-the-baltics-heres-how-nato-scrambles/2016/11/06/15c1ea6e-9df4-11e6-b552-b1f85e484086_story.html?utm_term=.c0cbc987b36f

Shaun Walker, “Riga mayor: ‘I’m a Russian-speaking Latvian and patriot of my country’,” Guardian, June 15, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/15/riga-mayor-im-a-russian-speaking-latvian-patriot-nils-usakovs.


2.3 Role of the United States

Michael A. McFaul, “Confronting Putin’s Russia,” New York Times, March 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/opinion/confronting-putins-russia.html?_r=0.

Tom Batchelor, “US Special Forces deployed at Russian border to defend Baltic states ‘scared to death’ by Vladimir Putin.” Independent, January 4, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/us-special-forces-russia-border-lithuania-latvia-estonia-putin-scared-to-death-a7509736.html.

Carnegie Corporation of New York, “U.S.-Russia Relations: Quest for Stability,” https://usrussiarelations.org/1/introduction.



Further Reading

Paul Belkin, Derek E. Mix, and Steven Woehrel, “NATO: Response to the Crisis in Ukraine and Security Concerns in Central and Eastern Europe,” Congressional Research Service, July 31, 2014, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43478.pdf.

Daniel Calingaert, “How the US can respond to Russia’s propaganda,” The Hill, July 29, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/international/249426-how-the-us-can-respond-to-russias-propaganda.

Robin Emmott, “Pledging unwavering defence, NATO braces for Trump,” Reuters, November 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-reaction-nato/pledging-unwavering-defence-nato-braces-for-trump-idUSKBN1341DF.

DefenseNews, “Northern Europe, Baltics Worry About the ‘Unknowns’ of a Trump Reign,” November 9, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/congress/2016/11/09/northern-europe-baltics-worry-about-the-unknowns-of-a-trump-reign/

Thomas Frear, Ian Kearns, and Lukasz Kulesa, “Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe More Likely?” European Leadership Network, August 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2015/08/07/ea2b8c22/Preparing%20for%20the%20Worst.pdf.

Dan Glickman, “The U.S. Response to Russia’s Assertiveness: Economic, Military and Diplomatic Challenges,” Aspen Institute, April 3, 2015, http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/upload/2015-Russia.Conference.Report.Berlin.pdf.

Jules Gray, “Will Russia crush Latvia’s chance of economic prosperity?” World Finance, January 16, 2015, http://www.worldfinance.com/home/will-russia-crush-latvias-chance-of-economic-prosperity.

Josef Janning, “Ruxit is real: Russia’s exit from Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations, February 27, 2015, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_ruxit_is_real_russias_exit_from_europe311243.

Juris Kaža and Liis Kangsepp, “Baltic Countries Fear Impact of Russian Food Sanctions on Business,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/baltic-countries-fear-impact-of-russian-food-sanctions-on-business-1407437297.

"Latvia becomes 18th state to join the Eurozone," BBC, January 01, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25567096.

Maria Lipman, “How Russia has come to loathe the West,” European Council on Foreign Relations, March 13, 2015, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_russia_has_come_to_loathe_the_west311346.

Siddhartha Mahanta, “These Baltic Militias Are Readying for War With Russia,” Atlantic, November 26, 2017, http://theatlantic.com/photo/2017/11/baltic-anti-russian-militia/545465.

Kimberly Marten, “Vladimir Putin: Ethnic Russian Nationalist,” Washington Post, March 19, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/19/vladimir-putin-ethnic-russian-nationalist/.

Jonathan Masters, “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” CFR.org Backgrounder, February 27, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/nato/north-atlantic-treaty-organization-nato/p28287.

———, “The Russian Military,” CFR.org Backgrounder, September 28, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/russian-federation/russian-military/p33758.

Paul McLeary, “Swedes Lean Toward NATO, Await Moscow’s Response,” Foreign Policy, September 1, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/01/swedes-lean-toward-nato-await-moscow/.

Derek E. Mix, “The United States and Europe: Current Issues,” Congressional Research Service, February 3, 2015, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS22163.pdf.

Jim Nichol, “Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service, March 31, 2014, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33407.pdf.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO’s Readiness Action Plan,” October 2015, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2015_10/20151007_1510-factsheet_rap_en.pdf.

Gerard O’Dwyer, “Rising Tensions Boost Nordic, Baltic Spending,” Defense News, June 27, 2015, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/policy-budget/2015/06/27/finland-sweden-russia-nato-baltics-tensions-budgets-gdp/29289941/.

David Ochmanek et al., “U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World: Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Force Planning,” RAND, 2017, http://rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1700/RR1782/RAND_RR1782.pdf.

Kaspar Oja, “No Milk for the Bear: The Impact on the Baltic States of Russia’s Counter-Sanctions,” Baltic Journal of Economics, January 2015, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1406099X.2015.1072385.

Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, “Resurgent Russia pushes Nordic states towards West,” December 14, 2015, https://dailybrief.oxan.com/Analysis/DB207296/Resurgent-Russia-pushes-Nordic-states-towards-West.

Jeanne Park, “The Perils of a New Cold War,” Interview with Dimitri Simes, Council on Foreign Relations, October 21, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/russian-federation/perils-new-cold-war/p37132.

“Prime Ministers’ Council of the Baltic Council of Ministers Joint Statement,” Republic of Estonia, December 5, 2014, https://valitsus.ee/sites/default/files/bcm_joint_statement_2014_draft_05.12.14_maardu_13.00.pdf

Jan Puhl, “Where Putin’s Empire Meets the EU,” Baltic Front, July 3, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/concerns-grow-in-baltics-over-resurgent-russia-a-1041448-druck.html.

“Putin’s War on the West,” Economist, February 14, 2015, http://www.economist.com/node/21643189/print.

Jussi Rosendahl, “Finland not afraid to criticize Russia: new foreign minister,” Reuters, May 29, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/29/us-finland-politics-russia-idUSKBN0OE1OP20150529.

“Russia moves nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad,” Reuters, October 08, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-usa-missiles-confirm-idUSKCN1280IV.

Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers, “U.S. Is Poised to Put Heavy Weaponry in Eastern Europe,” New York Times, June 13, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/world/europe/us-poised-to-put-heavy-weaponry-in-east-europe.html?_r=0.

Stephen Sestanovich, “Could It Have Been Otherwise?” American Interest, April 14, 2015, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/04/14/could-it-have-been-otherwise/.

Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Russ Oates, “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2015, http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/06/Pew-Research-Center-Russia-Ukraine-Report-FINAL-June-10-2015.pdf.

Michael Shurkin, “The Abilities of the British, French, and German Armies to Generate and Sustain Armored Brigades in the Baltics,” RAND, 2017, http://rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1600/RR1629/RAND_RR1629.pdf.

Alison Smale, “Latvia’s Tensions With Russians at Home Persist in Shadow of Ukraine Conflict,” New York Times, August 23, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/world/europe/latvias-tensions-with-russians-at-home-persist-in-shadow-of-ukraine.html.

Andrius Sytas, “Baltic states seek more NATO help ahead of Russian exercise.” Reuters, February 09, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-baltic-nato-russia-idUSKBN15O2HZ.

Jeffrey Tayler, “The Seething Anger of Putin’s Russia,” Atlantic, September 22, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/russia-west-united-states-past-future-conflict/380533/.

“Ukrainian President Address to Congress,” C-SPAN, September 18, 2014, http://www.c-span.org/video/?321426-1/ukrainian-president-petro-poroshenko-address-congress

“Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Ukraine’s Challenges,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 24, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/ukraine/ukrainian-prime-minister-arseniy-yatsenyuk-ukraines-challenges/p35741.

“UPDATE 3-EU keeps up pressure on Russia by extending economic sanctions,” Reuters, June 22, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/22/ukraine-russia-eu-idUSL8N0Z819Z20150622.

U.S. Department of Defense, “European Reassurance Initiative,” Budget Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, January 26, 2015, http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2016/FY2016_ERI_J-Book.pdf.

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Policy in Ukraine: Countering Russia and Driving Reform,” Hearing, Testimony by Ambassador John E. Herbst, March 10, 2015, http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Herbst_Testimony_REVISED2.pdf.

Alex Ward, “Trump just committed to NATO’s Article 5. Finally.”, Vox, June 9, 2017, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/6/9/15772292/trump-article-5-nato-commit

Joshua Yaffa, “Can Putin Get His Way on Syria?” New Yorker, September 28, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/putin-returns-to-the-u-n.


Quotation Sources

Michael Birnbaum, “In Latvia, fresh fears of aggression as Kremlin warns about Russian minorities,” Washington Post, September 27, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-latvia-fresh-fears-of-aggression-as-kremlin-warns-about-russian-minorities/2014/09/26/b723b1af-2aed-44d1-a791-38cebbbadbd0_story.html.

“Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia,” The White House, September 3, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/03/remarks-president-obama-people-estonia

Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, “Latvia’s Russia Fears Rooted in History,” Moscow Times, June 14, 2015, http://old.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/latvias-russia-fears-rooted-in-history/523589.html.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.