The Tallinn Speech

Take note – story published 9 years ago

Only time will tell how important Barack Obama's speech in Tallinn on September 3 will prove to be in the long term. What's not in doubt though is that it represented oratory of a standard rarely seen in the Baltic states and covered a wide range of topics from Baltic history, relations with Russia, minority rights and general observations on the nature of freedom.

The speech can be viewed at Estonia's ERR News here, but for anyone wanting to read the full text, it is reproduced below. Who knows, maybe our own Latvian speechwriters could pick up a few hints for the future...

President Ilves, distinguished guests, people of Estonia—it is a great pleasure to be with you in this historic city, in this beautiful land.  I thank you for the incredible hospitality you’ve shown me today.  My only regret is that I missed this summer’s Laulupidu.  I bring with me the friendship of the American people, and I am honored to be the first President of the United States to deliver an address like this to the people of Estonia.

I just had the opportunity to meet once again with the presidents of all the Baltic states, and I thank President Berzins for being here.  We’re joined by our friends from Latvia.  And Lithuania.  And I want to say a special welcome to everyone watching this out in Freedom Square.  I’m especially pleased to see so many young people here today.  You are fulfilling the dream that your parents and grandparents struggled for but could only imagine—living your lives in free and independent and democratic Baltic nations.

You are fulfilling the dream that your parents and grandparents struggled for but could only imagine—living your lives in free and independent and democratic Baltic nations"

That dream of freedom endured through centuries of occupation and oppression.  It blossomed into independence, only to have it stolen by foreign pacts and secret protocols.  It survived the mass deportations that ripped parents from their children.  It was defended by Forest Brothers in their resistance and sustained by poets and authors who kept alive your languages and cultures.  And here in Estonia, it was a dream that found its most eloquent expression in your voices—on a grassy field not far from here, when Estonians found the courage to stand up against an empire and sing “land of my fathers, land that I love.”  And Heinz Valk—who is here today—spoke for the entire Singing Revolution when he said, “one day, no matter what, we will win!”

Then, exactly twenty five years ago, people across the Baltics came together in one of the greatest displays of freedom and nonviolent resistance that the world has ever seen.  On that August evening, perhaps two million people stepped out of their homes and joined hands—a human chain for freedom, the Baltic Way.  They stretched down highways and across farmlands, from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius.  They lit candles and sang their anthems.  Old men and women brought out their flags of independence.  Young parents brought their children to teach them that when ordinary people stand together, great change is possible.  Here in Estonia, when people joined the line, the password was “freedom”—vabadus.  As one man said that day, “the Berlin Wall is made of brick and concrete.  Our wall is stronger.”

And it was.  Within months, that wall in Berlin was pushed open.  The next year, the Baltic peoples finally voted in elections.  And when the forces of the past made their last grab for power, you stood up.  Lithuanians faced down tanks.  Latvians manned barricades.  Here in Tallinn, citizens rushed to the TV tower to defend the airwaves of democracy.  You won.  You reclaimed your countries.  And in your new constitution you declared, “the independence and sovereignty of Estonia are timeless and inalienable.”

But the people of the Baltic nations also knew that freedom needs a foundation of security.  So you reached out to join the NATO Alliance.  And we were proud to welcome you as new allies, so that those words of your constitution—your timeless independence—will always be guaranteed by the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.

Today, people working to build their own democracies— from Kiev to Tunis—look to you for inspiration.  Your experience cautions that progress is neither easy nor quick.   Here in the Baltics, after decades of authoritarian rule, the habits of democracy had to be learned.  The institutions of good governance had to be built.  Economies had to be reformed.  Foreign forces had to be removed from your territory.

Transitions of this magnitude are daunting for any nation.  But the Baltics show the world what’s possible when free peoples come together for the change they seek.  And in that great contest of ideas—between freedom and authoritarianism, between liberty and oppression—your success proves, like that human chain 25 years ago, that our way will always be stronger.

We’re stronger because we are democracies.  We’re not afraid of free and fair elections, because true legitimacy can only come from one source—the people"

We’re stronger because we are democracies.  We’re not afraid of free and fair elections, because true legitimacy can only come from one source—the people.  We’re not afraid of an independent judiciary, because no one is above the law.  We’re not afraid of a free press or vibrant debate or a strong civil society, because leaders must be held accountable.  We’re not afraid to let our young people go online to learn and discover and organize, because we know that countries are more successful when citizens are free to think for themselves.

We’re stronger because we embrace open economies.  Here in Estonia, we see the success of free markets, integration with Europe and hard reforms.  You’ve become one of the most wired countries on Earth—a global leader in e-government and high-tech tech start-ups.  The entrepreneurial spirit of the Estonian people has been unleashed, and your innovations—like Skype—are transforming our world.

And we’re stronger because we stand together.  This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Baltics in NATO.  A decade ago, skeptics wondered whether your countries were up to the task.  Today, they need only look at our training exercises, where our troops grow even stronger together, shoulder to shoulder.  Look at Afghanistan, where our forces have sacrificed together to keep us safe—and where, in just three months, the largest operation in NATO history will come to an end, as planned.  So there’s no doubt—the Baltics have made our alliance even stronger.

Your progress reflects a larger truth—because of the work of generations, because we’ve stood together in a great alliance, because people across this continent have forged a European Union dedicated to cooperation and peace, we have made historic progress toward the vision we share—a Europe that is whole and free and at peace.

As we gather here today, however, 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.  It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system—that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; that nations have the right to determine their own future.  It undermines an international order where the rights of peoples and nations are upheld and cannot simply be taken away by brute force.  This is what’s at stake in Ukraine, and this is why we stand with the people of Ukraine today.

Let’s put to rest, once and for all, the outdated thinking and distortions that have caused this crisis.  Our NATO Alliance is not aimed “against” any other nation; we’re an alliance of democracies dedicated to our own collective defense.  Countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not “post-Soviet territory.”  You are sovereign and independent nations with the right to make your own decisions.  No other nation gets a veto over your security.

The protests in Ukraine, on the Maidan, were not led by “neo-Nazis” or “fascists.”  They were ordinary Ukrainians—men and women, young and old—who were fed up with a corrupt regime and who wanted to share in the progress and prosperity they see in the rest of Europe.  And they did not engage in an “armed seizure of power.”  After an agreement was brokered for constitutional reform, the former president then abandoned his office, and parliament endorsed new elections.  Today, Ukrainians have a new democratically-elected president—and I look forward to welcoming President Poroshenko to the Oval Office this month.

It was not the government in Kiev that destabilized eastern Ukraine; it’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia.  And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a “humanitarian” or “peacekeeping mission.”  They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks.

As a result of state-run propaganda, many Russians have become convinced that these steps strengthen Russia.  But reaching back to the days of the tsars—trying to reclaim lands “lost” in the 19th century —is not the way to secure Russia’s greatness.  It only shows that unrestrained nationalism is the last refuge for those who cannot deliver real progress and opportunity to their own people at home.

Let’s also be clear where we stand.  Just as we refused to accept smaller European nations being dominated by bigger neighbors in the last century, we reject any talk of spheres of influence today.  And just as we never accepted the occupation and illegal annexation of the Baltic nations, we will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea—or any part of Ukraine.

As free peoples, as an alliance, we will stand firm and united to meet the test of this moment.  Here’s how.

First, we will defend our NATO allies—every ally.  In this alliance, there are no old members or new members; no senior partners or junior partners—there are just allies, pure and simple.  And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single one.  Today, more NATO aircraft patrol the skies of the Baltics.  More American forces are on the ground—training and rotating through each of the Baltic states.  More NATO ships patrol the Black Sea.  Tonight, I depart for the NATO Summit in Wales, and I believe our alliance should extend these defensive measures—for as long as necessary.  Because the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.

During the long Soviet occupation, the great Estonian poet, Marie Under, wrote a poem in which she cried to the world: “Who’ll come to help?  Right here, at present, now!”  People of Estonia, people of the Baltics—today we are bound by our treaty alliance.  We have a solemn duty to each other.  Article 5 is crystal clear—an attack on one is an attack on all.  And 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!”  We’ll be here for Estonia.  We’ll be here for Latvia.  We’ll be here for Lithuania.  You lost your independence once before.  With NATO, you’ll never lose it again.

We have a solemn duty to each other.  Article 5 is crystal clear—an attack on one is an attack on all"

Second—and in addition to the measures we’ve already taken—the United States is working to bolster the security of our NATO allies and further increase America’s military presence in Europe.  The new initiative I proposed in Warsaw this spring includes several elements, and we’re working with Congress to get it done.  Here in the Baltics, it would mean positioning more American equipment so it’s ready if needed.  It would mean more training and exercises between our militaries.  And it would mean more U.S. forces—including American boots on the ground—continuously rotating through Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania.

Third, NATO forces need the ability to deploy even faster in times of crisis.  This week, our alliance must unite around a new plan to enhance our readiness.  We need to step up our defense planning, so we’re fully prepared for any threat to any ally.  We need to have the infrastructure and facilities that can receive rapid reinforcements, including here in the Baltics.  We need to enhance NATO’s rapid Response Force so it can deploy even more quickly and not just react to threats, but deter them.

Even as we meet conventional threats, we need to face other challenges.  That includes propaganda campaigns that try to whip up fears and divide people from one another.  We reject the lie that people cannot live and thrive together, just because they have different backgrounds or speak a different language.  And the best antidotes to such twisted thinking are the values that define us.  We must acknowledge the inherent dignity and human rights of every person—because our democracies cannot truly succeed until we root out bias and prejudice, both from our institutions and our hearts.  We must uphold a free press and freedom of speech—because, in the end, lies and misinformation are no match for the truth.  We must embrace open and inclusive societies, because our countries are more successful and more prosperous when we welcome the talents of all our people, including minorities.  That’s part of the work we must do.

We must embrace open and inclusive societies, because our countries are more successful and more prosperous when we welcome the talents of all our people, including minorities

Fourth—even as we keep our countries strong at home—we need to keep our alliance strong for the future.  We need to invest in capabilities like intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and missile defense.  And here in Europe, nations need to do more to spur the growth and prosperity that sustains our alliance.  To its great credit, Estonia stands out as an ally that contributes its full share—its full two percent of GDP—to the defense of our alliance.  Latvia and Lithuania have pledged to do the same.  This week’s summit is the moment for every NATO nation to step up and commit to meeting its responsibilities to our alliance.  Estonia does it; every ally must do it.

Fifth—we must continue to stand united against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.  Repeatedly, President Putin has ignored the opportunity to resolve the crisis in Ukraine diplomatically.

The United States, the European Union, and our partners around the world have therefore come together to impose major sanctions on Russia for its actions.  And make no mistake, Russia is paying a price.  Capital is fleeing and foreign investment is plummeting—because investors know that today’s Russia is a bad bet.  The Russian economy has slipped into recession.  Its energy production—the engine of Russian growth—is expected to drop.  Its credit rating is near junk status, and the ruble just fell to an all-time-low.  In short, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are weakening Russia and hurting the Russian people.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We have no interest in weakening Russia.  It is a nation with a rich history and a remarkable people.  Nor do we not seek confrontation with Russia.  Over the past two decades, the United States has gone to great lengths to welcome Russia into the community of nations and to encourage its economic success.  We welcome a Russia that is strong and growing, that contributes to international security and peace, and that resolves disputes peacefully, with diplomacy.  In contrast to Russia’s isolation and economic woes today, that path—including a stable and prosperous Ukraine—also means greater success and opportunity and respect for Russia.  That is the path Russia can choose; the path that will deliver true progress for the Russian people—but it’s a path that starts by Russia changing course and leaving Ukraine.

This brings me to the final area where our nations must continue to stand together—in our steadfast support of those who reach for their freedom.  That includes the people of Ukraine.  Few understand this better than the Baltic peoples.  You know, from bitter experience, that we can never take our security and liberties for granted.

We want Ukrainians to be independent and strong and able to make their own choices, free from fear and intimidation.  So the United States will continue to help Ukraine reform—to escape a legacy of corruption and build democratic institutions, to grow its economy, and—like other European nations—diversify its energy sources, because no country should ever be hostage to another nation that wields energy like a weapon.  We’ll continue to offer training and assistance to help the Ukrainian military grow stronger as they defend their country.  And since there is no military solution to this crisis, we’ll continue to support President Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve peace, because, like all independent nations, Ukraine must be free to decide its own destiny.

This week, NATO must send an unmistakable message of support to Ukraine as well.  Our alliance has had a partnership with Ukraine for more than 20 years.  Ukrainian forces have served with distinction in NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan.  In Wales, we’ll meet as an alliance with President Poroshenko to show that our 28 nations are united in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to defend its territory.  Of course, Ukraine needs more than words.  NATO must make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces.  We must do more to help other NATO partners—including Georgia and Moldova—strengthen their defenses as well.  And we must reaffirm the principle that has always guided our alliance—for countries that meet our standards and that can make meaningful contributions to allied security, the door to NATO membership will remain open.

This is a moment of testing.  The actions of the separatists in Ukraine and Russia evoke dark tactics from Europe’s past that ought to be consigned to history.  Masked men storm buildings.  Soldiers without flags slip across the border.  Violence sends families fleeing and kills thousands, including nearly 300 innocent men, women and children—from across Europe and around the world—when their airliner was shot out of the sky.  In the face of violence that seems intractable and suffering that is so senseless, it can be easy to grow cynical.  It can be tempting to give in to the notion that the peace and security we seek in the world is somehow beyond our grasp.

But I say to all of you today—especially to all the young people who are here—don’t ever give in to that cynicism.  Don’t ever lose the idealism and optimism that is at the root of all great change.  Don’t ever lose the faith that says—if we want it, if we work for it, if we stand together—the future can be different; tomorrow can be better.  After all, the only reason we’re here today—in a free and democratic Estonia—is because the Estonian people never gave up.

Don’t ever lose the faith that says—if we want it, if we work for it, if we stand together—the future can be different; tomorrow can be better"

You never gave up when the Red Army came in from the east, or when the Nazis came from the west.  You never gave up when the Soviets came back, or when they sent your best and brightest to the gulag, never to return.  You never gave up through a long occupation that tried to break your spirit and crush your culture.  Their tanks were no equal to the moral power of your voices, united in song.  Their walls were no match for the strength of your people, united in that unbreakable chain.  Like the Poles and Hungarians, the Czechs and the Slovaks, and the East Germans atop that wall, you were stronger, and you always believed, “one day, no matter what, we will win.”

Today, your example—your victory—gives hope to people the world over.  Yes, there will be setbacks and frustrations, and moments of doubt and despair.  The currents of history ebb and flow, but over time they flow toward freedom—more people, in every corner of the earth, standing up and reaching to claim those rights that are universal.  That’s why, in the end, our ideals are stronger.  That’s why our ideals will win.

Dignity will win—because every human being is born equal, with free will and inalienable rights.  And any regime or system of government that tries to deny these rights will ultimately fail, and countries that uphold them will only grow stronger.

Justice will win—because might does not make right, and the only path to lasting peace is when people know that their dignity will be respected; that their rights will be upheld.  And citizens, like nations, will never settle for a world where the big are allowed to bully the small.

Democracy will win—because a government’s legitimacy can only come from citizens; because in this age of information and empowerment, people want more control over their lives, not less; and because, more than any other form of government ever devised, only democracy—rooted in the sanctity of the individual—can deliver real progress.

Freedom will win—not because it is inevitable, not because it is ordained, but because these basic human yearnings—for dignity, for justice, for democracy—will never go away.  For they burn in every human heart—in a place where no regime can ever reach; a light that no army can ever extinguish.  And so long as free peoples summon the confidence and the courage and the will to defend the values we cherish, then freedom will always be stronger and our ideals will prevail—no matter what.

Thank you.  Elagu Eesti!  And long live our great alliance.  Thank you very much.

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