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Toomas Hendrik Ilves: Foreign ministers often lack foreign policy knowledge

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

One of Estonia's weaknesses, like that of many other parliamentary states, is that its foreign minister is often someone who has risen through the ranks to the position of party chair, rather than someone who has the required knowledge for the role, according to former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

In an interview (link in Estonian) given to daily Postimees at last weekend's Munich Security Conference, and responding to a question about foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu's (Isamaa) annual foreign policy speech last week, Ilves said that it was difficult to say exactly, since foreign ministers who were themselves experts on foreign policy had more been the exception, than the rule, in recent years.

"One of my personal disappointments was that I grew up thinking that the foreign minister was simply the creme-de-la-creme of a government, but when I became a foreign minister myself in 1996 … I came to see that they are largely people who were runners-up in elections to party chair," Ilves said.

Ilves found himself at a loss for words to describe the level of many foreign ministers he encountered once he ascended to the post himself; "[posing the question] 'Have you also read anything?'...what came out of their mouths was just..."

Ilves also spoke at length about Russian misinformation campaigns, and the need in Europe and elsewhere to step up to the plate in this area, the U.S. elections later this year, and what he saw as a contrast between the triumphalist tone of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also attended the Munich conference, and the more reflective, less optimistic theme of the event summed up in its keyword, "Westlessness."

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs over two terms, 1996-1998 and 1999-2002, going on to serve two terms as President of Estonia, 2006-2016.

While foreign minister, Ilves met with, among others, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Foreign ministers of the day he would have met included Klaus Kinkel and Joschka Fischer (Germany), Tarja Halonen (Finland), Valdis Birkavs (Latvia), Niels Helveg Petersen (Denmark), Robin Cook (U.K.) and Igor Ivanov (Russian Federation).

Post-presidency, he has been serving as Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, within the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.

Urmas Reinsalu also attended the Munich conference, where he said that there was no alternative to transatlantic cooperation (i.e. with the U.S.), adding the stand-off between Russia and the West will continue.

Reinsalu was Isamaa, or IRL as it was known then, leader, 2012-2015.

The original Postimees interview (in Estonian) is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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