Trump's team needs Baltic training

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Head of the International Center for Defense Studies, former ambassador to the United States Jüri Luik says in an interview to Postimees that Estonia's agreements are with the United States of America as a country, not with individual presidents.

What kind of a foreign policy course should Estonia plot now? Should we change something?

Estonia's current foreign policy heading, including allied relations, proceed from our national interests. Good US-Estonia relations have developed over a long period of time, and there is no reason why Donald Trump should set about dismantling them. We must stay calm ourselves, lest we contribute to uncertainty.

What are our chances of getting on the same page with Donald Trump as president?

First of all we must make efforts to establish strong contacts with his foreign policy team. This won't be easy of course, since we know very little about them. Washington is aware of the problems of the Baltic countries in general; however, we must definitely make efforts to thoroughly clarify matters to Trump and his team. We must quickly build up their Baltic know-how in a situation where it might be nonexistent today. Or to put it more dramatically: we need to accomplish the work of several decades in six months.

That said, considering Trump's broad-based political support, I believe many mainstream Republicans are willing to join him. It is also in his interests as he needs congressional approval for his people. Mainstream Republicans are up to speed on what worries us.

Should we be worried about the validity of Article Five?

Article Five is part of the Washington Treaty. It is a valid agreement. Ratified by the US Congress. Trump hasn't threatened to discard it even in the heat of the campaign.

It is another question what subject matter his administration will attribute to it. It is imperative the US comes through on stationing troops in Europe. Their purpose is to maintain peace in Europe, something every US president is interested in.

We have heard various ideas on how Estonia should change its security policy. Among them there have been opinions that we should hike our defense spending abruptly. What kind of changes should we make in our security concept?

The situation is not a simple one; however, we should not discount the Americans yet. All of our agreements are with the United States of America, not individual presidents. USA is our ally, we must maintain constant dialogue with them to explain our topics. The Baltic countries have political weight in Washington.

It has also been proposed that Estonia should boost its presence in Washington and the USA in general. Andreas Kaju has proposed creating a Baltic lobby group in the US capital that would work closely with Poland. Are these sensible proposals?

Reinforcing the Estonian embassy in Washington is a very good idea no matter how you look at it. The role of the Congress has grown considerably for us. Considering its sheer size and level of complexity, the work that awaits us there is substantial. That said, we cannot leave our European efforts weakened. So the budget of the foreign ministry should definitely grow.

What are the next steps by Donald Trump we should keep an eye on now?

The president-elect usually redefines their program after elections, gradually removing promises that are not realistic. In that sense, Trump's public appearances are far more important now than they were before the election.

Of course it will be interesting to see the formation of Trump's team. Often the positions that do not require congressional approval are the most important. For example, Trump can appoint virtually anyone as his national security adviser. The orientation of that person is very important as they stand very close to the president.

Of course it matters to us who he will nominate as his foreign and defense secretaries. However, it may be a good while before we learn these names as his assumption of office is still some time away.

Donald Trump showed himself to be more sensible and balanced than previously in his victory speech yesterday. In your mind, to what extent will he be able to realize his program?

His situation is better than might have been expected. Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Republicans in the US Congress need to be very friendly towards him, considering his substantial election success.

That said, it depends on the promises. It is difficult to imagine mass deportations of illegal labor, while erecting a fence on the border with Mexico remains a possibility as stretches of that fence already exist. It is obviously hopeless to try and have the Mexicans pay for it.

Which items in that program could matter the most to us?

It is very important to us how the new president of the United States sees the world. How he imagines allied relations in NATO and ties with the European Union? Whether he values them, or do they merely constitute an inevitable legacy from yesterday? What is his idea of deterrence? How he plans to communicate with his allies?

Hopefully NATO, USA, and Europe summits will follow closely on the heels of Trump taking office to give leaders a chance to meet.

What does Trump definitely plan to achieve in foreign policy?

I believe we need to count on a serious attempt to repair relations with Russia. Every newly elected president has attempted it, and Trump has vowed to do the same. However, everyone else has failed miserably, and I believe so will Trump.

He cannot give in to Putin's demands to an extent where the latter would find it is enough. Putin's priority is not to reach an agreement; rather it is to fight the West in order to be a great leader for his people. The Trump administration will probably also deliver a serious blow to free trade; all such agreements with Europe are dead now.

The world's two leading English-speaking countries have basically expressed no confidence in the entire recent political system inside the past half-year. Where should we seek the reasons behind such developments?

I believe it is a general trend that does not only characterize Anglo-Saxon countries. Its roots lie in people's disappointment with the development of democratic politics. It has led to the appearance of a professional political class that is seen as alienated from the concerns of the people. Trump's voters expect him to dismantle that system. In that sense, and somewhat amusingly, Trump is the candidate of those who hoped for change.

Talking about the election night, it became increasingly clear after results from each state came in that something had gone very wrong with forecasts and polls. How did Trump manage to fly under the radar like that?

There were two polling companies that got it right and that were ridiculed by others before the election. Most forecasters followed traditional voter behavior models too rigidly. Trump managed to bring out his traditional supporters, white Americans without a college education, and successfully court traditional Democratic states, like Pennsylvania.

Clinton did not manage to infect her supporters with the same level of enthusiasm; it is probable a lot of her supporters saw Bernie Sanders as a more suitable candidate. Voters really wanted change, and Clinton represented the status quo too much.