National Security & Defense

President in a Front-line Country

At the time of the Republican convention last summer, Donald Trump made some surprising remarks about NATO, and they were buttressed by his surrogate Newt Gingrich. The former speaker of the House talked of Estonia in dismissive terms: “the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” He cast doubt on the worthiness of Estonia to belong to NATO, and on NATO itself.

Gingrich, like Trump, surprised many people, including the president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In 1994, Ilves was his country’s ambassador to the United States. And he sat in Gingrich’s office as the congressman expressed his great enthusiasm for the eastward expansion of NATO, including the admission of the Baltic states. Indeed, this idea was part of the famous Contract with America.

I addressed these issues in my report from the Baltics last fall (here). And Ilves is my guest on a new Q&A. He stepped down as president in October after ten years in that office.

He was born in Sweden, where his parents had fled. They had left in September 1944, in a boat. There was a tiny window between the Nazi occupation and the (second) Soviet occupation. Some 70,000 Estonians were able to take advantage of this window — including Ilves’s parents-to-be.

Ilves grew up in New Jersey (not far from NRHQ, where I’m sitting now). He went to Columbia and Penn. He worked for Radio Free Europe.

Did he ever think he would return — I should say “return” — to a free Estonia and be its president? Nope.

On this podcast, we talk about some big issues: Putin, NATO, the EU, etc. When I was in Estonia, I had the sense of being on the front line of a critical struggle: between liberal democracies and people who want to undermine them. (Not all of these people work in the Kremlin. Many of them live in the liberal democracies themselves.) Estonians live on this line every day. (“The suburbs of St. Petersburg.”) And they set an example for the rest of the West.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is someone with a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. Someone to listen to. Again, that ’cast is here.

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