You can’t cut yourself off from the 21st century: A conversation with Toomas Hendrik Ilves

The former President of Estonia on the need for U.S. leadership in Europe and around the world. 

Toomas Henrik Ilves speaks at the St. Gallen Symposium on May 7, 2009. (Courtesy of the University of St. Gallen)

The child of Estonian exiles, Toomas Hendrik Ilves was raised in New Jersey and was working as a journalist in Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. With Estonia’s independence restored, he went to work for his new country, serving as Ambassador to the United States, Foreign Minister, and then President from 2006-2016. He recently spoke to Jonathan Tepperman, The Catalysts Editor-in-Chief, about why Washington must remain engaged in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and beyond.


How worried are Estonians and other people in the region about the war in Ukraine and the recent fight in Washington over military aid to Kyiv? 

I think the general attitude in central and eastern Europe is that unless more is done to assist Ukraine, the Russians will win there and then they will keep going. 

Regarding the United States, it is not merely the behavior of Congress. What was also really damaging was the utter failure to do anything with regard to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which the United States and the United Kingdom pledged to maintain the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for Ukraine agreeing to give up its nuclear weapons, missiles, and strategic bombers. 

This failure came into stark relief recently, when the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of other Western countries were quite active in shooting down the drones and missiles that Iran launched at Israel. The absolute refusal to do the same for Ukraine – despite the moral and almost legal obligation dating from 1994 – has created a great deal of skepticism about the commitment of the United States. More than I have ever seen in my lifetime. 

You’ve written that you’re worried about “U.S. self-deterrence.” What do you mean by that term? 

It’s the worry, “let’s not do that, it might provoke the Russians.” It involves believing Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking him seriously. All President Putin has to do is to say, “I’m going to use nukes if you help Ukraine,” and then Chicken Little starts running around in a number of U.S. institutions. 

What would have happened if Congress did not approve more military aid – or doesn’t next time? 

Ukraine would lose. In the worst case, that could mean 25 to 30 million refugees in Europe. It would turn Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania into front-line countries. It would mean killing fields in Ukraine, massive human rights violations, ethnic cleansing. 

Do you think Ukraine can win this war? 

If they don’t get help, they will lose. If they do get help, they might win. But the West has now created a no-fly zone for Israel. What about Ukraine? The Ukrainians started asking for a no-fly zone in 2022. 

The United States has also made things harder for Ukraine by telling Kyiv not to attack Russia’s oil refineries. That kind of fighting has been the essence of warfare since the 1940s. What did the United States do during World War II? It attacked the Nazis’ energy sources: the oil fields of Ploiești, Romania. What did the United States do when it attacked Saddam Hussein in 2003? It destroyed his electrical system. That’s how you fight a country. 

Refusing to allow Ukraine to do so has caused deep disaffection among people in central and eastern Europe. 

If the United States does step back more broadly, as isolationists would like, can Europe replace its role in Ukraine and elsewhere? 

Well, Europe can step up, but not to replace the United States. Parts of Europe do need to step up. Estonia has given 1.3% of our entire GDP to Ukraine in all forms of assistance, military and nonmilitary. We have increased our defense spending to 3% of GDP. Poland is going up to 4% and is buying 850 main battle tanks, which is more than all of the other countries in Europe have combined. So some of Europe is already stepping up.  

But will Germany ever reach 2% [of GDP on defense spending, as NATO rules require]? I don’t know. The problem basically comes down to western Europe not taking the Russian security threat seriously enough.  

What do you think the ideal U.S. Russia policy would be? 

Containment. It’s not a new idea. It’s 75 years old.  

If the United States reduces its role in the region, will some countries there start to hedge their bets and change their relationship with Russia? 

We see it happening already with Hungary and Slovakia. And Austria has been sucking up to Russia all along. So it’s a serious problem. Countries that have their security threatened are forced to make choices. The Finlandization of Europe is not an impossibility.  

The same goes for relations with China. If the United States really pulls out of Europe, why would European countries continue to follow the U.S. lead? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in China yesterday. Germany doesn’t want to give up its potential Chinese markets, and if the United States stops providing security to countries like Germany, it will lose a lot of leverage. 

How does the state of democracy in the United States affect the state of democracy in Europe? Is the rise of populism here affecting the strength of populism there? 

Of course. U.S. soft power is not only about Coca-Cola and democracy. The hard right in my own country and throughout Europe is basically adopting the rhetoric and approach of the MAGA people. 

What would you say to a skeptical U.S. public about why the United States should continue to play a big international role? How does U.S. leadership affect the lives of ordinary Americans? 

Well, eventually there will be threats to the United States, and when that happens, you want to have allies. Let’s go back to Afghanistan. Look at all the countries that participated in the international effort there. On a per-capita basis, Estonia suffered the third-most casualties. That represents a major commitment.  

Now take all of Europe and NATO. If the United States needs assistance again in the future but has abandoned its allies, can it really expect a reciprocal commitment?  

You can always say, “We don’t care, we’ll go it alone.” Well, we’ve had that kind of isolationism twice before: preceding the years 1917 and 1941. And in both cases, eventually things got so bad and so many U.S. interests were threatened that the United States had to come in anyway. And when it finally did, it was late, which made it so much more expensive in terms of both blood and treasure. 

Let me put it this way: Had there not been a Marshall Plan in 1948, had the United States not created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, odds are you might have ended up with an independent, Western-leaning United Kingdom, but it’s not at all clear what the continent would be like. If the Soviet Union had extended to Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, I think the Cold War would have been very different. 

And remember that the Marshall Plan represented spending about 1% of U.S. GDP. At the time, it was a big investment. But if you look at the numbers today? Not so much. Europe got back up on its feet, which led it to become the largest trading partner of the United States, which it is still – 75 years later still. It’s providing markets; could the U.S. economy continue booming without markets abroad? And it’s providing security. So I don’t get the isolationist argument. You can’t cut yourself off in the 21st century.