Siobhan Kattago: Obama shared more in common with Ronald Reagan than I ever could have imagined

, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy
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Photo: Erakogu

In the days leading up to President Obama’s state visit to Estonia on September 3rd, the eve before the NATO summit meeting in Wales, details of his schedule, travel plans and meetings were meticulously scrutinized. As streets closed and helicopters circled, the contrast between the heavy security surrounding the Commander in Chief and his message of freedom couldn’t have been starker. Obama’s visit dramatically underscored the complex relationship between freedom and security in a post-9/11 world.

While there were distinct moments of hope and optimism in his 45-minute speech, his tone was somber and realistic. The highly symbolic stopover in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, only 200 miles from the Russian border was intended to send a clear message that the United States perceived Russia as a threat to peace and security in Europe. «The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.»

For Estonians, the most important message was of reassurance that all member states in the NATO alliance would be protected under Article 5. More concretely, Obama confirmed the security of Estonia and the Baltic States, should Russia threaten their national sovereignty. «Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who'll come to help, you'll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.»

Eschewing the notion that certain nations reside within the Russian sphere of influence, he emphasized that the Baltics are sovereign states and partners in the NATO alliance. As such, terms such old and new members don’t apply. There are only partners, who share the same values of peace, security and freedom.

In an artfully given and inspiring speech, Obama was at home on the podium with an audience that welcomed the strong link between freedom and security. For the Baltics, NATO guarantees their national sovereignty and they know it. All Estonian political parties are united in their obligation to spend 2% of their GDP on NATO defense.

Obama’s narrative of the Baltic chain of freedom in 1989 and singing revolution demonstrated that he had done his homework and knew the history of this small nation of 1.3 million people. Moreover, the fact that he quoted one of the slogans from the singing revolution by Heinz Valk. «One day, no matter what, we will win» was a powerful tribute to the dissidents who represented the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. This was Obama at his oratorical finest and music to Estonian ears.

Evoking the power of ordinary individuals holding hands against the iron curtain, Obama praised the Estonian tenacity for national independence with an understanding of what they really wanted to hear. Recalling the words of Estonian poetess, Maria Under «who will come to help?» he reassured Estonians that NATO and the US will. The Balts will not be abandoned by the West, as they were in the 20th century. «So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, «who will come to help,» you’ll know the answer - the NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America, right here, at present, now! We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.»

Beyond the local audience, the president strongly indicated that Russian’s actions in Ukraine demand a re-thinking of the NATO alliance and the NATO-Russian Founding Agreement of 1997. Obama’s message to other NATO members was of cold realism. The United States no longer believes that Russia has any pretense of democracy. The shooting down of Malaysian flight MH17 revealed what many East Europeans knew long ago: the emperor wears no clothes.

His message was that Europeans cannot afford complacency. Member states have to pay their fair share for defense spending. NATO has to return to its original raison d’être of peace and security in Europe while also addressing unconventional warfare and terrorism in the Middle East.

In short, Obama’s message was that Europeans shouldn’t take their freedom for granted. While avoiding mention of the cold war, he minced no words. “And yet as we gather here today, we know that this vision is threatened by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It is a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent European nation…This is why we stand with the people of Ukraine today.» Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is a wake-up call for NATO to rethink its strategic alliance.

As I sat in the audience listening to President Obama, it became increasingly clear that while this was the same man who won the Nobel Peace Prize, the same man who championed the universal values of dignity, freedom and democracy -- he had nonetheless changed. With the cold reality of a continued war on terror and a rapidly changing political landscape in Europe, Obama shared more in common with Ronald Reagan than I ever could have imagined.