A conversation with former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a unique political figure. Born to Estonian refugees, he was raised in New Jersey before returning to Europe to work as a journalist at Radio Free Europe in Germany. After the end of the Cold War, he entered the government of the new Republic of Estonia, working his way up from Ambassador to Minister of Foreign Affairs to Member of European Parliament and finally to President of Estonia. President Ilves is now a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

On January 13th, I sat down with President Ilves to discuss the future of NATO, European defense, cybersecurity, and the rise of populism. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.


Jake Dow: Donald Trump has been all over the place on many policy issues, but one of the areas where there has been some consistency is on Russia, his refusal to acknowledge election interference, and his criticism of NATO. At what point did you realize Trump was a different type of American political figure as it pertained to European security policy?

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: When he made his statement that if NATO members don’t pay, then the US may not come to their aid. Estonia is one of the four European countries that does pay, so you could say, “Oh well.” On the other hand, it was a clear break from what is understood to be that when you have at treaty you fulfill the treaty. A ratified treaty becomes domestic law. When Estonia ratified the North Atlantic Treaty, it became domestic law, so Estonia is obligated to follow the articles and so forth.

We were in Afghanistan, so when Article 5 was invoked, we said “ok, here we go.” And we were there without any caveats, which was different from how many European countries responded.

JD: Recently, Beppe Grillo, the populist leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, said Italy’s NATO participation should be put to a referendum. Le Pen in France has also challenged NATO. How resilient is NATO as an institution against this pressure? If countries in Eastern Europe start to doubt its “stickiness” how does that change their geopolitical calculus when it comes to security issues?

THI: If someone opts out of NATO, they opt out of NATO. That’s a country’s choice.

JD: But can the institution as a whole survive defections?

THI: I think it can. But I think it’s a problem. You would have to do a major recalculation. I don’t see much of a reason for someone to drop of out of NATO, I mean aside from in the case of Le Pen or Beppe Grillo, where you get this knee jerk reaction, an anti-American knee jerk reaction. We’ve seen that since 1949. I don’t see this as serious, other than as part of a campaign.

JD: How should we conceptualize NATO’s collective defense in this time of so called ‘little green men’ and cyberattacks where it’s unclear the extent to which governments are involved, when the whole information environment is so opaque? Do we need to be a rethink when to trigger Article V in this new era?

THI: You look at the history of cyber. We the Estonians were pushing for more attention to cyber since we joined. Everyone said ‘eh’. It was Estonia that suffered the first clear cut cyber attack that was political. The problem is that the forensics are hard. If you send a missile across a border and it blows up an electric power station, you see it! The missile comes and blows it up. If you take down a power station through cyber action, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, you can maybe get to the point where you can say this was a cyber attack. Who did it is much more difficult to say in a clear cut way.

One subset of cyberattack which we have suffered was distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks, which is actually a form of public private partnership. The bots that are doing this were the ones who otherwise spend their time spamming people. That is a criminal activity, but you can rent these things from the mafia. That is why it is a unique form of public private partnership, since it was clearly politically motivated by a nation-state but outsourced to illegal criminal networks.

JD: So attribution issues make it too difficult to invoke Article V?

THI: It is a fundamental law of statistics that correlation does not equal causality, but you’d be dumb to ignore the correlations.

JD: General Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, advocated in his confirmation hearing for a permanent US troop deployment to the Baltics. How do you see the idea of deterrent deployments? Is Article V so weak that we need to put more troops there and get skin in the game or is it purely a military concern because the Baltics are so geographically exposed given the small gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad?

THI: It’s all of those. To put things in perspective, until 1989, you had a small garrison of French, British, and US troops in Berlin, completely surrounded. They just had to be there. The most indefensible place ever was Berlin from 1945 to 1989. The US had something like a quarter million troops in Germany during the Cold War, and even then people said that we’d start the fight back at the shores of the Atlantic.

The other thing about NATO is because of Article V, if you attack a NATO member, it’s not as though the battle will be fought there. You are fighting all of NATO all over the place, not just NATO located in this little corner. My point is that so much of what I read “oh well they’re not defensible.” That’s not the point, they’re defensible precisely because the point at which Article V is invoked, everyone is involved, everywhere is fair game.

JD: There’s a rising tide of illiberalism globally. Liberals, in the most broad sense of the term, are really losing the argument from Brexit to the United States to the Philippines. Why is liberalism on the retreat, and what needs to change for liberals to more successfully defend their values?

THI: Well the first thing to say here is that liberalism, outside the United States, is not a left wing concept. I say, “I’m a liberal.” That says nothing about whether I’m left or right, but I believe in free and fair elections, rule of law, respect for human rights.

Now why is this happening? People have forgotten what war is like. In the case of Europe, the European Union was created to prevent wars. There was genuine fear in the late 1940’s and after the utter destruction of Europe in World War II, that tensions were beginning to mount again between France and Germany. That was a conscious effort to reduce tensions. The problem is that it now means nothing when you hear people in the European Union saying “Europe is a project for peace.” That said something to those who grew up in a post-war Europe. For people my age, Germany was being reconstructed; you knew all these horrible things had happened. What year were you born?

JD: 1996

THI: The EU already existed as a union. People say “these bureaucrats don’t know what are they talking about.” No one has a memory of war, none. When were your parents born?

JD: 1955 and 1960

THI: Their generation might have a memory of the post-war era.

JD: We’re Jewish so the historical memory is a bit more present.

THI: If you’re Jewish you might have a better understanding. Of course right now if you’re Jewish in Europe, you are probably getting really sensitized. Until recently, the attitude that existed was that you can never say anything Anti-Semitic, but now you see people doing that. In the United States I see the “alt-right” movement and it is not an America that I knew. I grew up in the US in a town where I was not Jewish, but everyone else was and had a relative that had fled or had died. The idea of someone making comments of the kind that we see today, these dog whistles and having the Star of David tweet with Hillary Clinton, I mean what is going on? The same thing is happening in Europe.

JD: But beyond European institutions and liberalism more broadly in the sense of equal protection of law and the like, do you agree with others saying that this is a reaction to the fact that liberalism hasn’t delivered the economic goods?

THI: No. People don’t have a memory of war and they don’t understand strong institutions defending those things that were most fundamentally violated during the war and that you need to have those things guaranteed. Weimar Germany was one of the most liberal societies around, the institutions just weren’t very strong and it fell to rabid populism.

I don’t think free and fair elections, rule of law, respect for human rights are issues that have much to do with whether the economy is moving or not. And it has not been an issue up till now. We’ve seen huge ups and downs in the economic fortunes of Europe and the United States since World War II, but no one ever questioned the fundamentals of liberal democracy and the need for strong institutions defending it.

We’ve seen the prime minister of Hungary saying we need illiberal democracy. I don’t know what he meant by that, but it’s worrisome. Clearly we see it in other countries of the EU, which wouldn’t get in the EU today.

JD: Who specifically are you referring to?

THI: I don’t want to get into that specifically, but we see tendencies of governments clamping down in ways that if they were to now apply to the EU, they would not get in. We see a reluctance on the part of Europe to do much about it. Europe really needs to get it’s act together. When a state of the EU is acting in ways that don’t conform to the norms set up, it’s a tough time.

JD: Why come to Stanford, and what are your goals in your time here?

THI: My life has proceeded along three strands which rarely meet each other.

When you come from a country where your relatives have been deported and you are a child of refugees, things like democracy mean a lot. I read of lot of John Locke when I was 15.

For the same reasons, I grew up wondering “why am I living in the United States,” and the answer came back to the Cold War. With that in mind, foreign security policy has always been something I’ve been interested in.

And then third, because of a complete fluke, the little town I grew up in had a math teacher who was doing her PhD at Columbia on Math Education, and she decided on using 10 guinea pigs in my school to teach us programing when we were around 14. So I learned to program 49 years ago. IT has been something I’ve been doing for years. In my country I’ve been the person pushing for 25 years the development of IT as one way for Estonia to bootstrap itself out of the poverty we found ourselves in in 1991. That also means addressing issues of cybersecurity and the like. All of a sudden in the last six months all these three strands have come together: hacking, democracy, and bad behavior in the foreign security realm.

So why did I pick Stanford? This is the place to be if you want to do those three things. It’s the dream place for me. It’s all here. It’s a one stop shop.

Jake Dow, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.