Saturday, March 30, 2019

No Coincidences: Reflections on the 90th Birthday of Lennart Meri

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 29 -- Today would have been former Estonian President Lennart Meri’s 90th birthday. His son Mart asked me to write an appreciation. It has been published in Eesti Paevaleht ( The English original is below:

            On the day Lennart Meri was born, March 29, 1929, another event important for the history of Estonia occurred: George Kennan, then a junior American foreign service officer crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia to expand the American legation in Tallinn.  Lennart Meri often spoke of this coincidence because of three lessons he took from Kennan. Indeed, he insisted that it wasn’t really an accidental coincidence – those he liked to say were only those we don’t understand – but a conjunction of events that mattered to him and because of the role he played to Estonia and the larger world.

            First, Lennart Meri frequently observed, Kennan had reinforced his own understanding that foreign and domestic policies are not the two separate realms some imagine them to be but rather all of a piece. What a country does within its borders profoundly affects and is affected by what it does and can do beyond them.  If a country wants one kind of foreign policy, such as to be linked into the European world, it must pursue one kind of domestic agenda. If it doesn’t, it will soon discover that its foreign policy goals will have been subverted and even made impossible. And if a country wants one kind of domestic set of arrangements, it can only pursue one kind of foreign policy but not another.

            Kennan in his writings and distinguished diplomatic career taught that, Lennart Meri remarked; and it is a lesson that the Estonian president said was one that both Estonians and Americans forget only at their peril.

            Second, the Estonian president said, Kennan’s arrival in Estonia underscored that Estonia mattered to the West and always would, whatever some may think or do.  Perhaps the leading US diplomatist of his generation, Kennan never looked away from Estonia even when he was acting on the broadest world stage. As some may have forgotten, his containment policy which was directed against the aggressive designs of Soviet Moscow led him to be one of the most stalwart defenders of American non-recognition policy from its inception in 1940 to the end of his life.  And as many may not know, in the dark days of January 1991, I can testify that his interest in and concerns about Estonia never flagged. More than once during that month, I received telephone calls from him and from Lennart Meri right next to each other, with the Estonian foreign ministry talking about what was happening in Tallinn and the retired US diplomat wanting to know what Washington was doing to ensure that things there would go in the right direction.

            Lennart Meri took from this when I told him about it the important lesson that again many forget: Estonia has fast friends; and it is important to remember them because in the world as it is, one can seldom win over one’s enemies; but one can lose one’s friends.  For small countries as well as large, losing one’s friends because of something one does can be worse than facing the enemies that all countries have.

            And third, Lennart Meri equally frequently said, Kennan in his work both diplomatic and scholarly had shown the importance of taking a longer view, of considering one’s own life and that of one’s country in the sweep of history rather than being driven by momentary pressures. When Kennan talked about “the sources of Soviet conduct,” Meri said, he pointed not to what Stalin personally wanted but rather to the history of the Russian state, a history shaped by geography, culture, and religion, and one that drove Moscow in one direction rather than another. Estonia, the Estonian diplomat and politician reflected, was similarly affected by its geography, culture, and religion. Those factors, however much neglected at any particular moment, always matter – and they are neglected only at the peril of his country.

            Lennart Meri is famous for having remarked more than once that he as an Estonian would rather have Canada for a neighbor.  Most people take that comment for the jocular remark it certainly was. But contained within it was a fundamental insight, one that Lennart Meri and George Kennan shared.  Estonia doesn’t have Canada for a neighbor: it has other countries; and it must learn to operate from the place on the map it occupies. Over the years of his life, however, he showed that Estonia could move on a mental map, becoming not the Western most of eastern countries but the eastern most of Western ones, another observation he took from Kennan who cited that observation of the Marquis de Custine concerning Russia.

            Intellectual giants, as the wisest of men and women have observed, as such because they have stood on the shoulders of others. They have been willing to learn from and then apply and develop the thinking of others.  Lennart Meri was such a man, and Kennan was one of his teachers.  Consequently, the Estonian leader was exactly correct in saying that there was no coincidence in his birth and Kennan’s first arrival in Estonia being on the same day.  It would have been a coincidence, Meri once said, if they hadn’t appeared on Estonia’s map when they did and on that date.

            The linking of such dates is all too often neglected, but as we mark the 90th anniversary of Lennart Meri’s birth, we need to remember this one because of what it meant for Meri, for Estonia and for my country, the United States.  Fortunately, 67 years after Kennan came over the border and Meri arrived on this earth, Lennart Meri, then the president of Estonia, traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, in the United States to decorate the retired diplomat and scholar for his role.  By doing that, Lennart Meri came full circle in a way and his doing so should remind all of us of the importance of such links and such lessons not as subjects of mere historical interest but as guides to how all of us, Estonians and Americans alike, should behave now and in the future. 

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