The tiny Baltic nation could teach President Trump a thing or two about the value of NATO and what small nations can offer a global superpower
TAPA, Estonia — Birch forest and farmland stretch for miles around the town, providing the kind of idyllic scenery that tourist offices love to photograph and post on websites that describe the charms of this Baltic nation.
In particular, the forest here often draws people into its depths in search of edible mushrooms, an activity so popular it could be classed as a national pastime.
But on this day gates and soldiers guarding them keep civilians from wandering into the forest. The woods also hold part of the Central Training Area where the Estonian Defense Forces hone their skills with small arms, artillery, and armored vehicles so they can repel any enemy.
In a nation that has a 700-year history of multiple conquests by larger, more powerful European neighbors, Estonia’s pursuit for national security can be summed up in a brief phrase: Never again.
Never, ever again.
My escorts tell me the explosions are the sound of soldiers practicing at a nearby grenade range.
Meanwhile, ranks of conscripts are preparing to fire their Israeli-made Galil 5.56 mm rifles on a weapons range under the eye of an instructor. They line up for ammunition, receiving five rounds apiece before they load their magazines, make ready, and fire at silhouettes downrange on command.
In another part of the woods, soldiers in full battle-rattle and face paint practice charting sectors of fire. Others put the finishing touches on their bivouacs as they prepare to spend the night in the field where they will perform various tactical exercises.
Tapa is also the home of its namesake military base, the headquarters for Estonia’s 1st Infantry Brigade. The facility dates back to the time when Estonia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but today the nearly four-square-mile base also displays another side of Estonia’s military mission.
British troops line up at the canteen for lunch along with Estonian soldiers. It’s a small crowd, but the canteen can handle big orders — it is built to feed 3,200 people — and military food services provide a menu that suits the palate of multinational forces who want to eat everything from Chinese fried rice to yogurt.
There are new barracks, upgraded training rooms, and expanded wi-fi so the American, British, and Danish forces that use the base for exercises alongside Estonian personnel or that are here on forward deployment can operate more efficiently.
In fact, it is clear that Estonia, a geographically tiny country with a population of 1.3 million people, is as serious as a heart attack when it comes to its support for the United States, the 29 nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and its commitment to the combat realities of the alliance’s various missions.
Think of it this way: A nation with a population smaller than Phoenix, Ariz., commits itself to a global mission as part of a military alliance that not only provides collective security but thrusts its soldiers into America’s worst foreign policy headaches — Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is a small force, which the Estonian military is quick to acknowledge. The military is also keenly aware that they are part of a team, part of a coalition of nations.
But it is a combat force that has taken some of the worst casualties by percentage of any NATO nation’s contingent in the war against the Taliban.
For that reason — and many others — Estonia might be the best U.S. ally that most Americans have never heard of.
During a time when President Donald Trump openly condemns NATO as a collection of deadbeats and makes statements that cast doubt on his trust in the alliance, the Estonian military maintains a rock-solid belief not only in America’s promises but also Estonia’s own contribution to world peace and security.
That’s why Estonia might also be able to show the United States the way forward regarding the value of NATO, even in the era of Trumpian Twitter-storms. There’s a strong belief here that the United States and Estonia are friends, and that a good friend can remind America that even the most powerful nation on the planet needs the help of likeminded partners — no matter their size.
This story began with some simple curiosity. What makes a tiny nation like Estonia decide that superpower America’s problems are its problems? Why does Estonia not only keep its end of the NATO bargain, but trust the United States to do the same thing?
I decided on the direct approach: I would go to Estonia and ask some questions.
In fact, it seemed like an ideal time to pose those questions. The results of the July 11 NATO summit would no doubt loom large in all of the defense ministries of the alliance.
Before I departed, it was patently obvious there were reasons for NATO nations to harbor a few doubts about the United States. President Trump’s comments before, during, and after the summit regarding NATO-members’ contributions and the validity of U.S. participation in the alliance raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, on July 5, the president harangued German Chancellor Angela Merkel by stating he was unsure “how much protection we get by protecting you.” He capped off his criticism of NATO by saying the U.S. are “the schmucks paying for the whole thing” — something the president frequently alleges.
On the morning of the summit, President Trump stated that NATO members were in debt to the U.S. He said, “Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them.”
“I understand what you’re saying — I’ve asked the same question,” Trump said. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people” — implying that supporting Montenegro (a NATO member) might lead to World War III and that a cornerstone principle of the alliance (an attack on one member is an attack on all) troubles the president.
So, it became clear that I had to answer a few other questions as well:
Is NATO really a deal for schmucks? If the United States is foolish for supporting what many consider the most successful military alliance in world history, what does NATO do for the U.S.?
I decided the best way to begin was to first accept, for the sake of discussion, what has become the Trumpian Test of Worth: whether a member nation of the alliance budgets the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP for national defense. For better or for worse, the president has gained significant attention using NATO’s own benchmark to propel his assertions.
It is a short list of nations: Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
When I made my initial review, in my own odd way I could make sense out of four names on the list.
The U.S. and the U.K? Of course they are there: The United States has dominated NATO from its beginnings in 1949 (the treaty was even signed in Washington, D.C.) and the United Kingdom is perhaps America’s staunchest post-war ally.
Poland? People tend to forget Poland is the economic powerhouse of Eastern Europe, possessing the eighth-largest economy in the EU. It also has a one of the best militaries in all of Europe, possessing more tanks than even the Germans — which is a pretty handy asset to have when faced with Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, your next-door neighbor.
Greece? They hate Turkey, and Turkey hates them. Enough said.
But Estonia? Most Americans don’t even know Estonia exists.
However, it is a popular tourist attraction for budget travelers. Excursions ranging from Asian tour groups swamping Old Town in the capital city Tallinn to Finns from Helsinki and Brits on Lads’ Night Out have discovered a euro spent in Estonia goes a long way.
But it is not a country with a reputation as a player on the world stage. In fact, even my Estonian acquaintances will be the first to concede their nation is usually known for only two things: Skype was invented there by a trio of Estonian computer wizards and the language of Estonian (which belongs to the Baltic-Finnic branch of Finno-Ugric languages) is beyond learning unless you are native born.
(“Don’t worry,” an Estonian friend told me. “We feel the same way about English.” Yet, English is spoken widely and fluently throughout the nation.)
As for its military, Estonia has one of the smallest forces within the NATO alliance. According to their Ministry of Defense, the total peacetime troop level is 21,000 personnel, which includes both regulars and a high-readiness reserve of officers and non-commissioned officers.
In addition, Estonia now has about 60,000 trained reservists with the goal of reaching 90,000 reserve members by 2022. The voluntary Estonian Defence League or Kaitseliit (similar to the National Guard in the U.S.) has about 25,000 members who wear the same uniform as Estonian Defense Forces troops and possess military gear.
Estonia is also on the forefront of cyber-warfare. The nation not only hosts the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn but also inaugurated a new Cyber Command for the Estonian Defense Forces on August 1.
As for spending, Estonia budgeted € 523.6 million for national defense — about 2.14 percent of GDP or $608 million. On top of that, the government also decided to spend an additional € 62.5 million ($72.6 million) to expand facilities and training areas like the ones at Tapa that accommodate increased allied presence.
In other words, a small nation with very limited natural resources, the same military manpower potential as Bolivia, and an annual national budget less than the annual municipal budget of Munich is willing to put its blood and treasure on the line to not only defend itself but assist NATO wherever it can.
“We try to always help out where there are security issues,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, told me during a Skype interview. “The whole idea is to be as integrated as possible. Two percent is a no-brainer for us.”
Helping out also includes sending combat troops “with no caveats,” Ilves said. “They are smack dab in the middle of Taliban territory,” as well as supporting the fight against terrorism in the African nation of Mali.
True, the number of Estonian soldiers operating in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Mali is often measured in the dozens.
But when measured by per capita contribution, Estonia’s force in various NATO operations is impressive. At the height of NATO combat operations in Afghanistan, the Estonian contribution was the fourth highest per capita after the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Norway.
Their casualties are also significant: In Afghanistan, nine Estonian soldiers have died and 92 soldiers have been wounded in action, one of the highest casualty percentages per capita of any nation participating in the coalition.
Does that mean President Trump is right and the other 24 nations in NATO are a bunch of bums? Hardly. First of all, NATO members contribute to the organization’s funding on an agreed cost-share formula based on their gross national product — in other words, it is a proportional arrangement.
True, the United States provides 22 percent of the operational budget — but the U.S. has the largest GDP in the world.
Also, no nation owes any other nation or ally money — no one in NATO is in debt to anyone else, and other members are providing funds that comprise the rest of the budget. NATO also takes into account other forms of burden-sharing such as equipment purchases and manpower involvement in combat and peacekeeping operations.
In short, NATO is not a protection racket. It is a collective security alliance.
As for the question regarding why American sons and daughters should die for small countries who are NATO members, or any nation in NATO no matter what the size, one analyst in Estonia has a succinct answer.
“For the same reason why Estonian boys and girls went off and died for Americans after 9–11,” said Tony Lawrence, a research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security. “It’s about working together for peace, stability, and global security.”
Estonians in general maintain warm feelings toward the United States. During the Cold War, the U.S. never recognized the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. In addition, there is still a sizable generation of people in Estonia who not only remember Soviet repression but vividly recollect Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts that offered news, information, and hope in contrast to the steady diet of Soviet propaganda imposed by Moscow.
But many Estonians also remember one important detail about 21st-century history. Article 5, NATO’s basic tenet that calls on member nations to come to the defense of an ally under attack, was only invoked once: In response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.
That led to NATO operations in Afghanistan, first with the International Security Assistance Force and then the current Resolute Support Mission as the struggle against Taliban insurgents continues. Every NATO member contributed forces — including Estonia, which joined the alliance in 2004.
However, Lawrence and others I interviewed are quick to say the NATO relationship is not transactional. In other words, it is not meant to be a quid pro quo arrangement.
They said what makes NATO work for the United States, Estonia, or any member nation are their shared political values — namely democratic self-government, a commitment to liberty and freedom, and a belief in human rights — and the assurance all members are unified in working to preserve and defend those values.
“It’s good to have like-minded friends and allies about, particularly in times of difficulty,” Lawrence said.
If the United States retreats from its influential role in NATO, another powerful nation will be more than willing to take advantage of America’s absence. Annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and repeated cyber attacks on NATO and the United States are some of the examples that bear witness to Russia’s ambitions that include aggressively pursuing territorial expansion and the weakening of Western democracies.
“If America were to withdraw its guarantee of European security, it would appear weak and could expect its interests in Europe and elsewhere to be challenged by competitors,” Lawrence said. “Russia is one such competitor. Standing up to an assertive Russia is in America’s interests as much as it is in Estonia’s.”
Besides, the U.S. cost of restoring peace in Europe has been high — two world wars, some of the worst American wartime casualties ever, and untold billions of dollars spent on reconstruction of a shattered continent.
A cost-conscious President Trump might consider which is less expensive: Another European war to protect Western democracy, or moral and financial support of NATO.
“Why did Americans fight and die in Europe during the two world wars and commit so much to the Marshall Plan and the Cold War defense of the same?” said Bill Combes, a lecturer at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu and retired U.S. Navy captain who was a submarine commander. “I think it is because we are still a little European.”
“If Russia was to deprive even more Europeans of their self-determination, I think the U.S. is morally obliged by both common interests and the NATO alliance to come to Estonia’s or the other Baltic States’ aid and assistance,” said Combes, who has long-standing personal and family ties to Estonia. “Contributing modest sums now to improve the Baltic States’ own resilience and to deter potential Russian aggression will be infinitely cheaper in lives, equipment, and money than the cost of the military effort that will be required to restore their territorial integrity.”
My escorts walk me to a building at 1st Infantry Brigade Headquarters where there is a conference room. As we enter the building and stride down the hallway, I see that the walls are covered with plaques from U.S. military bases as well as bases and units from other NATO nations.
So are the walls in the conference room. They are a testament to the cooperation between the Estonian Defense Forces and the American armed forces.
I meet with Col. Veiko-Vello Palm, the brigade commander. In just a few days he will participate in a change of command ceremony because in March he was appointed the next chief of staff of the Headquarters of the Estonian Defense Forces.
Among his achievements are service as director of the Operations Department of the defense forces headquarters and two tours of duty in Afghanistan. For the past three years, he not only commanded 1st Infantry Brigade but was also heavily involved in organizing the hosting of NATO units stationed in Estonia.
Those units are part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, four multinational battle-groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The battle groups, led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively, are combat ready and there for a purpose.
“Their presence makes clear that an attack on one ally will be considered an attack on the whole alliance,” a NATO official told me before I journeyed to Estonia.
Russia, which shares a border with all four NATO nations involved in Enhanced Forward Presence, is considered the threat, although many in both the Estonian military and NATO are quick to say they do not believe there is immediate danger.
During the interview, Palm said “a clique” in Russia doesn’t believe in democracy, and that clique is the threat. His “greatest joy” would be a neighbor “who would be a strong democracy and have a strong economy.”
“I don’t believe that beyond our eastern border there lives a savage nation where all the people wake up in the morning thinking how to defeat and destroy all small nations, how to trample human rights, and so forth,” Palm said. “This is not the picture I have or the picture anyone else in Estonia has.”
But Palm also said Estonia is committed to its defense and believes in the promises made by the United States and other NATO partners — the nation expects alliance members to come to its aid, but it would fight alone if necessary.
“For a smaller country, it is always an existential fight, an ‘all-in’ fight,” said Palm. “You cannot have a nice, small war with your neighbor and think, ‘Well, we lost that but we will regain ourselves in two weeks or two years and we’ll be back.’ It’s always an existential fight. This is what we want our allies to listen to very carefully.”
As for the question of what Estonia can do for the United States, Palm said even small nations have something to offer the country with the richest and most powerful military on the planet.
In fact, the support of small nations through the NATO alliance can sometimes be more important to the United States than any other factor. For example, smaller nations know what it is like to deal with fewer military resources and an apparent lack of progress — an insight that can help the United States, which shows no sign of withdrawing from Afghanistan anytime soon.
He recalled an experience during his second tour in Afghanistan when he was working with local authorities and assisting them in rebuilding their military capability.
“What struck me, especially when talking to Afghan National Army officers or Afghan National Police officers, were the similarities,” Palm said. “In 1992 when we restored our military after regaining independence, many foreign advisors from Germany and the U.S. helped us rebuild our military. I remember sitting on one side of the table, listening to those smart, white bosses telling me how the country and the military should be run. Then in 2010, I found myself in a similar situation but on the other side of the table.”
“Having these memories and these types of experiences from 20 years prior, I think I was more accepted by my Afghan colleagues because I understood their viewpoint,” Palm continued. “I understood their perspective. It wasn’t the six-month perspective that NATO officers and soldiers have where you have to complete what you are doing because that is your tour length.”
I am back in Tallinn, location of the headquarters of the Estonian Defense Forces. The weather in the Baltic has been unseasonably hot and I am breaking into a sweat as I walk across the grounds.
My escort accompanies me to the outer office of Gen. Riho Terras, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces. While we wait, the tallest, most imposing man I have ever seen in uniform enters the room.
He is bearded, towering enough to play NBA, and he snaps to attention when Terras emerges from his office. Speaking Estonian, the soldier delivers the morning report to the general, who thanks him quietly at the conclusion.
When the soldier departs, Terras invites us to enter. He explains his affection for the United States is based in part on personal respect for America’s decision never to recognize the Soviet annexation of Estonia and the other Baltic States in 1940.
That decision, his memories of Voice of America broadcasts, and U.S. support for Estonia regaining its independence in 1992 were powerful influences on him. The shared values between the two nations including their love of democracy is one reason he believes the NATO alliance serves U.S. interests in places like Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the interests of all the member nations.
“Those are not the places where we want to go, because we have nothing to do with them,” Terras said. “But we do it based on an understanding that values-based alliances need to keep together to achieve certain aims and a certain understanding in the world.”
That understanding is NATO allies are dedicated to promoting “the values base of the Western world” and that “we need to do it together.”
As far Terras is concerned, the spending question within NATO is not the most important issue. He would gladly absorb a larger budget if his government decides to increase defense spending, but another matter is more pressing.
“The most important thing for the strategic gravity of the alliance is unity,” Terras said. “If that is broken, and Russia is using all ways of breaking the unity of NATO nations, then NATO will finish its existence. So, everything you do needs to have the strategic aim of keeping the center of gravity intact, and that is the unity of NATO.”
When it comes to President Trump’s negative statements regarding the alliance, Terras said the actions of the Trump administration demonstrate its support both of Estonia and NATO unity. Those actions include the July 2017 visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the Estonian Defense Forces’ headquarters, the presence of American troops on Estonian soil, and the U.S. decision to increase spending on Baltic defense through the European Deterrence Initiative.
Established in 2014 about three months after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the initiative is an Obama-era international partnership that increases U.S. military presence in Europe for security purposes.
Last year, Congress approved and Trump signed a bill authorizing a $100 million funding increase for Baltic defense through the program.
In addition, Terras also believes the administration respects Estonian commitment to supporting American troops in the Middle East even in the face of heavy casualties for a military of its size. “We do our part — we’re small, but always among the first in and in the front,” he said.
Keeping those promises is also part of his nation’s security, Terras said. Estonia would fight alone to maintain its freedom and independence — but it is always better to have like-minded friends on your side.
That is why Terras is keenly aware that Estonia is stronger and safer because of NATO, and that is a major incentive to take on global missions.
“We are willing, and we are showing that we have the resources to be ready,” he said. “We are participating in all areas where NATO or the European Union wants to go because we want to be a reliable partner in the Alliance because for Estonia this is the insurance certificate. Without one, we would be a very, very small country.”
The answers to my questions are clear. To be sure, Estonia keeps its end of the bargain because it trusts other NATO allies to do the same if Estonians ever find themselves with their collective backs to the wall.
But it is obvious that more than self-interest drives their participation in the alliance. It’s the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence this year, and people here are remembering how hard it was not only to win their freedom, but what that freedom means.
Estonia decided to throw in its lot with NATO because it wants fellowship with like-minded democracies, including the United States. If taking on a piece of America’s problems is part of the cost of freedom, so be it. If joining hands with other nations to face an assertive Russia is part of the bargain then that is just what NATO unity is all about.
“Estonia and Russia share a border which also is NATO’s eastern border,” a Ministry of Defense official told me on the condition of anonymity. “This border is not just a physical and geographical marking, but also a line between two different ways of seeing the world order, understanding human rights, universal values, international law, the rule of law, the importance of the wellbeing of its own citizens.”
“Estonia and the other Baltic states have made enormous steps to become part of the West and by succeeding we have delivered hope to so many other nations — Georgia and Ukraine to name a few,” the official continued. “It’s about creating an environment where the economy can prosper and the wellbeing of our citizens is guaranteed, which ultimately makes the world more secure. The border for this secure environment and for these values for a U.S. citizen lies in Estonia and therefore it’s worth it to protect these principles.”
Granted, NATO is far from flawless. U.S. presidential administrations stretching back to Ronald Reagan have raised the issue of burden-sharing, and Donald Trump is hardly the first to ask about the fairness of America’s huge contribution in dollars and manpower. In addition, some members of NATO — Turkey comes to mind — have weakened their commitment to liberal democracy, which dilutes the alliance’s mission and causes foreign policy dilemmas for fellow members.
But an American president intimating that the United States would not honor its treaty obligations to the NATO alliance is unprecedented. Of course, perhaps Trump is simply exercising his penchant for stirring the pot — he tweets one provocative thing, says another, while his administration still moves forward with plans that strengthen ties with allies in Europe.
But the president of the United States is the commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces and the head of U.S. foreign policy. What he says and what he tweets have consequences, and both America’s allies and enemies are listening and watching. An American president should not make off-the-cuff comments that leave loyal allies scratching their heads in astonishment or that prompt enemies to consider their opportunities.
Many of the people in Estonia I interviewed all said the same thing: It would be a tragic mistake for the United States to withdraw from its world leadership role. They consider American involvement essential to the most successful values-based military alliance in history.
That is not because of America’s deep pockets or the belief that the U.S. should bail them out of their problems. Far from it: The Estonian military made it clear that any adversary who invaded their nation would quickly find themselves in an Afghanistan on the Baltic, where an Estonian with a weapon behind every tree, rock, and street corner would make the invaders’ life a nightmare.
Estonians suffered under occupation by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Never again — never, ever again.
They want U.S. leadership because they know that the alternative is other powerful nations, nations who do not share America’s love of liberty and democracy, will rise up to take America’s place, possibly imposing an international agenda that is not friendly to human rights, peace, and freedom.
Widespread liberal democracy in Europe remains a cornerstone of U.S. national interest for numerous reasons including trade and the ability to influence foreign affairs, as well as simple decency.
Besides, NATO was born out of the desire to thwart World War III. Two global wars during the 20th century took a horrendous toll: more than 100 million dead, nations demolished, and human suffering without equal in history.
Without NATO it is safe to say not only would the world have fought a third global war by now, it probably would have been a nuclear holocaust.
In short, NATO is at least one reason the end never came.
Because of these facts, President Trump could learn a thing or two from a smaller nation who is reliable ally. Friends matter, whether you are large or small. Shared values matter — and the true test of an ally is often their choice to fight and die for what both nations hold dear.
Outside of the Estonian Defense Forces headquarters is an oak tree planted by Vice President Mike Pence during his visit last year as a symbol of support and respect between the two nations. Gen. Terras said he considers that tree a sign that he can trust the United States to keep its word.
Estonia keeps its end of the bargain. That is a lesson that President Trump should heed.
Support for this report was provided by a grant from Ruth and Walter Coppock/Coppock Family Charitable Funding.