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I confess I have a soft spot for Estonia. I visited for my first and only time when I was six years old. Unlike the other Soviet workers and peasants, who every August flocked en masse to the rocky shores of the Black Sea, my family preferred the wide, uncrowded, sandy beaches, cool northern waters, and fragrant pine forests of the Baltic. The three Baltic capitals – Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius – were ancient Hanseatic merchant towns that, despite 30-some years of Communism, mass-deportations, and Russian colonization, had managed to preserve their distinct Baltic character and culture. To my parents, the whole region – but especially Estonia – looked and felt like Scandinavia or, at least, what they imagined Scandinavia to look and feel like.
Tallinn itself I remember as a medieval jewel straight out of a storybook, with winding cobblestone streets, Gothic windows, and a skyline marked by crow-stepped gables, church spires, fortress towers, and red tile roofs crowned by bronze weathervanes and finials. There were pubs, coffee houses, and jazz clubs. The food tasted different. This place felt … Western. Someone told my mother that, if one stood at the water’s edge on dark nights when atmospheric conditions were just right, one could faintly see the lights of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. I clearly remember her standing on the beach at night squinting at the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the Iron Curtain.
For years afterward, I made childish drawings of Nordic Baroque towers and spires, trying to capture the magic of that place. I often wanted to return, but Tallinn was the one place where my childhood steps remained un-retraced. It was not one of the world’s great capitals, it was off the beaten track and, until the summer after my second year in law school, the right opportunity never seemed to present itself. That summer I tried to visit, but was arrested crossing the Russo-Estonian border, which is kind of a funny story.
This tiny Baltic nation — with a population a hair over 1.3 million (over a quarter of whom are ethnic Russians) — is a huge post-Communist success story, deserving of our deepest respect and admiration. It has a per capita GDP of over $30,000, by far the highest of all the former Soviet states, and second only to Slovenia in all of post-Communist Eastern Europe. It is one of the most tech-savvy countries in the world and has been experimenting with legally-binding internet voting systems since 2005. Indeed, Estonia should be especially near and dear to the hearts of Ricochet podcast listeners, as it is the birthplace of Skype.
Maart Laar, the remarkable prime minister most directly responsible for Estonia’s success, learned everything he knew about economics by reading Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. As a result, Estonia is arguably the most libertarian country in the world, making it very different from its Nordic socialist neighbors. It has a flat tax, lax regulations and — until it joined the Eurozone in 2011 — one of the world’s most stable currencies. Over 90% of its previously state-run economy is in private hands. In recognition of his role in bringing about the “Estonian Miracle,” the Cato Institute awarded Laar its Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2006.
Having said all that, let’s take a deep breath, step back away from the slough of sentiment, and plant ourselves on terra firma. In 2004, Estonia joined NATO. This step — while understandable from the Estonians’ point of view — may prove to be the country’s undoing. By expanding NATO’s borders to the very threshold of the bear’s lair, the Bush administration committed the United States, politically and legally, to going to war against a nuclear superpower to protect Estonia and the other Baltic States from Russian aggression.
This was quite insane. Does anyone seriously believe that the United States, after seven years of clueless windbaggery, fraudulent red lines, and throwing our friends out the window to appease dictators and psychopaths, would now honor such a commitment?
Today, unlike in 2004, Russian aggression is no longer purely theoretical. Now comes news that the United States is pre-positioning arms and heavy equipment such as Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and self-propelled howitzers in the three Baltic states as a way of deterring yet another Russian takeover of yet another former colony. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter affirms that the US and NATO are “committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”
Dream on. What’s more, the pre-positioning of equipment is actually worse than a half-measure. It says to the Russians, we are not really serious about our promises to defend these people. It says we will put some hardware in cold storage on their territory and do a joint exercise with them now and again, but we’re not willing to station Americans to act as a tripwire. Please enjoy our tanks and artillery when you overrun them fifteen minutes into your invasion.
I have every sympathy for the Estonians (see above), but they are a tiny people who have had the misfortune of living in a tough neighborhood and being pushed around by bigger neighbors: the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and — of course — the Russians. But that’s their bad luck, not ours. If push ever came to shove, we would sell the Estonians to Vladimir Putin for 30 counterfeit rubles and a mess of beet soup. And we would throw in the rest of the Baltic states for good measure.
Indeed, our foolish commitment to the Balts may prove to be NATO’s undoing. Putin knows exactly the worth of American credibility. Destroying NATO is his number one strategic objective, and there is no better way to achieve it than to demonstrate to the world that NATO’s security commitment to its easternmost members is worthless. After all, it profits the United States little to shed blood for Warsaw or Bratislava. But for Tartu? For Narva? Exploiting American fecklessness as a way of permanently dismantling NATO could prove to be a fruit too low-hanging not to pluck.
I suppose you can’t turn back the clock, but it would have behooved us in 2004 to have remembered our Thucydides:
Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.