America’s Outspoken Ambassador ({{commentsTotal}})

Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

United States Ambassador to Estonia Michael C. Polt has developed a reputation as a diplomat who doesn't shy away from good discussion. ERR News spoke with the ambassador about Wikileaks, recent Tallinn city government events, as well as the American view of Russia.

You wrote on your blog about town hall meetings: “If you are not an American and are invited to either one of these two types of events, watch us among each other and go with the flow and break into the conversation. It may feel a bit foreign at first, but it grows on you quickly.” In another post you remarked on how the mayor of Võru had never met civic officials from Narva and Sillamäe but met them only thanks to a trip to the USA organized by the embassy. If I read between the diplomatic lines, I’d be tempted to conclude you might be suggesting the Estonians could communicate better?

Very carefully phrased, the answer is yes. While I fully agree with what I detect to be the Estonian cultural norm of every silence does not have to be filled with sound, at the same time I think the only way people can communicate more effectively with each other is to actually talk. 

Sometimes a look can say a thousand words and sometimes a silence can speak volumes, but in the end speaking is the way humans interact in the most direct way, and I certainly have found that when I’ve gotten Estonians to talk to me it was always a fascinating conversation. The threshold of getting people to open up is higher here than in is in the United States.

When you say people are you speaking about government people?

I’m talking about “people” people. Government interactions actually are simpler. When I go to speak to the authorities in Estonia, they’re used to interacting on the subjects at hand. That is actually a fairly well-practiced skill that we’ve all acquired through our careers. I’m talking about getting into contact with real people throughout the country from whatever walk of life to say, “Look, I’m here, and I’d like to have a conversation with you. I don’t want this to be an American monologue after which I shake hands with you and we go our separate ways.” 

You made a speech in Tallinn on cyberdefense where you were fairly provocative. Your speech [urging Estonians to consider cyberoffense –ed.] even ruffled the feathers of a Norwegian embassy worker present. Have you attempted to provoke the country into more discussion?

Provoke, yes, but in the positive sense. Not provoke to irritate, or provoke to lecture or provoke to hurt, but provoke in terms of causing you to think, which makes you want to respond. In that sense, yes, absolutely.

Sometimes, like you said at the beginning of our conversation [the interviewer had suggested to the ambassador that if they started with a softball question readers would tune out, -ed.], you want to throw something in there that gets people’s attention and opens the dialogue. In diplomacy, we practice niceness to the nth degree, and there comes a time when you have to set that aside a little bit in order to kick-start something that doesn’t naturally evolve out of a conversation.


You have done a couple of things very differently than your predecessors. One is that you seem eager to engage in debate on topics. Another is that you’ve embraced the American community here (town hall meetings; plus you are probably the only ambassador in recent memory to put on a Hawaiian shirt and invite all Americans to his house and play tug-of-war).  Why have you chosen this approach? Is this your personal approach to the job or has the approach been based on a particular situation in this particular place?

I’ve done it everywhere I’ve been. It’s a personal judgment that I make about how America does America best in terms of displaying who we really are. I’m a zero-generation American and so I learned this as an immigrant. The way America is best is at its most natural. And what’s the most natural thing for us to do? It’s to interact with each other informally. That’s when we basically shine. So the way I interact with the American communities and the way I try to interact with the foreign communities, is to bring it down to a level of “Hey, we’re both cool, we’re both okay, let’s go ahead and do what we normally do amongst regular folk.”

I’ll give you an example. When I was in Serbia there was even a much greater deference to authority than there was here. There was great deal of pomp and circumstance and a much bigger security package, which came around the American ambassador’s presence. I consciously had to remind people that, yes, I am the American ambassador, but I’m a middle class American man from a middle class neighborhood here to represent the middle class which is the majority of America. Once we get past the Your Excellency stuff and the sideline stuff, we get down to the core and we talk and we try to see if we can do something together. If you don’t break that down, you can wave your flag around or drive around in a big fancy car, but you won’t get to the heart of the matter.

Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker [Dec. 12, 2010] that “...the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face and that the officials who carry it out do a pretty good job.” In the same issue, Lizzie Widdicombe wrote about the "...risk that wires will get crossed and hypocrisies will be exposed, resulting in hurt feelings." There are two sides to the situation as those writers expressed. But you’re in a difficult position here inheriting a mess that wasn’t yours. How do you view the Wikileaks situation? 

I’ll first give you our official line and then we can segment that off and talk about the substance. These are alleged cables of alleged reports of alleged statements that were made. The issue is in the courts and judicial system in terms of dealing with the unauthorized disclosure of alleged US classified documents. Okay, let’s put that aside. Now you’ve got my official statement.

Now on the issue of do we practice what we preach? Is our diplomacy publicly and privately in congruence with each other? Are American values reflected in what we actually do behind the scenes, as well as what we proclaim them to be? On the other side, is there a risk — I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy — is there a risk that private conversations can cause individual damage? Is that in the nature of the work we do, and how we describe it in reporting back to our home countries?

I’ll answer the second question first. Yes, the risk is there. To each one of us in this embassy, including myself, I always say: Be explicit. First of all check your facts and be sure you know what you’re talking about. Get it right, but then don’t hold back in terms of sugarcoating it and giving Washington some kind of pablum which you’ve satisfied the requirement but where someone reading it will just fall asleep. Say important stuff about important issues. Yes, there’s a risk that if that kind of stuff were to be divulged in public there can be hurt feelings and worse.

In terms of do we walk the walk as we talk the talk, after 33 years of doing this I’m absolutely convinced that we do. We actually do the things that we proclaim that we stand for. Are we always true to our commitments? Can we always deliver? No, we can’t always deliver. We try to do the best we can and we have the best of intentions. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Along the way we reassess the way we should go ahead and do business or whether we should take a different path to achieve a certain result, but I don’t think we ever stray, at least consciously, from the values that motivate us to be here to begin with. It’s not like any of us get such big salaries that we do it just for the love of money.

One of the alleged cables had I believe the Deputy Chief of Mission suggesting Estonia was paranoid about Russia. I follow the local press and was pleasantly surprised by the way Estonians took that suggestion. Estonians sort of said, “Well, maybe the US is right.” They weighed the question very seriously. Was that your impression as well? 

Yes, that was my impression as well. And that’s my impression of Estonians overall. They tend to treat things seriously. This is a serious bunch of people. They know how to have fun, but they don’t clown around with issues that are important. I think, despite their lack of verbalizing them, I’m convinced that they think about them carefully.

Talking about the substance of the alleged cable, would Estonians feel that we are being critical if we say they are paranoid about their relationship with Russia? I would think that probably the initial visceral reaction would be “Yeah, come on, we have the right to feel the way we feel.”

I’m not acknowledging whether we did or did not call them paranoid, but the fact is we do acknowledge that a country who has a huge neighbor that has a certain history with that neighbor has very serious and legitimate concerns about that relationship is a given. None of us would deny an Estonian the right to say, “I have some concerns and I would like to see those addressed particularly by my friends and allies who claim to be committed to my security” as the NATO alliance does for Estonia.

I’ve heard that before the alleged cables are released you’ve been briefing Estonians who are mentioned in them. Can you react to that? 

First of all, the Wikileaks issue is public knowledge. That there are organizations claiming that they have classified US documents that say certain things about our hosts in various countries around the world is also a public fact. 

Yes, I have gone, as other colleagues of mind have gone, and discussed the potential issues that might arise from the leak of these alleged cables in our relationship, and just made sure that they understand what US policy actually is regardless of what this alleged paperwork flying around claims to say it is.

Concerning the "money for the church," the 1.5 million euros, as well as the information that [Tallinn] city officials have taken part in the sale of explosives to Libya, when does Tallinn, which is often referred to by Estonians as a “state within a state,” cease to become an Estonian issue and start to become an issue of concern to NATO and the United States? Diplomatically speaking, policy speaking, where is that boundary?

We deal with central governments and we deal with people. We have an official diplomatic channel of communication, that’s the government of the country. And we have a public diplomacy which addresses the people to people contact. 

We do not get involved unless it is a specific situation such as we have in Afghanistan or Iraq where as a world community we have decided to engage with our host government to help them develop certain capacities internally. But in a normal relationship like we have here in Estonia, in a very strong and friendly relationship like we have in Estonia, we do not get engaged in domestic political discourse […]. That’s not our purview. 

But you ask where does the line come in. When the actions of any entity of government at whatever level in the country start getting into a foreign policy issue which is of concern to us, that’s when the line appears. But we then don’t go to that city or county or community organization, we go to the foreign ministry or the prime minister’s office and we say, “Is this where Estonia is?” If they were to confirm that yes, this is where Estonia is, then we go ahead and start engaging on that issue. If they say, “That’s not where Estonia is” then it becomes an Estonian issue.

Have you put that question to the state? 

On the issue of?

Let’s say the sale of explosives to Libya – on that particular issue which runs counter to US policy. Have you engaged them on that topic?

I have not engaged them on that topic. At this point, we do not have any credible issue to actually make a formal representation to the government on saying “we’re concerned about what’s going on off of Estonian territory.” If it were to come to that on any issue, something of concern such as nuclear power technology or nuclear weapons technology proliferation of any kind, we would be on the doorstep within minutes.

You wrote on your blog about the oil shale agreement between the US and Estonia. It’s been in the Estonian press that some Estonians believe there’s a real possibility that the US will hire away Estonian scientists. Are you the agent for hiring away scientists?

[Laughs.] No, of course not. There’s an objective reality here. Estonia has a long-standing set of experiences in oil shale exploration. The United States has vast resources in that area. There are a whole slew of geological, environmental, political, and economic issues over the exploration of oil shale. But at the same time, with this agreement, we’ve decided we’re going to start exchanging information and cooperating in looking at this energy source. Which, after all, is what we hope will be a transitional energy source as we get to a renewable energy future not dependent on fossil fuels  -- which is the policy of the United States.

We’re not going to hire or steal Estonian scientists, researchers or technicians. What we want to do is know what they know and hopefully collaborate.

Concerning the US view of Russia, many say Obama’s reset policy is misguided. But in a March/April 2011 article in The American Interest titled “Neo-Feudalism Explained,” Vladislav L. Inozemtsev wrote, “…Russia will not soon look like any country in Western Europe or North America. It will not collapse, and it will not radically evolve. It will simply be. And what hope the future supposedly holds will resemble the wry Stalinist joke that the horizon is a far-off place that continues to recede as you approach it.” Having spent some time now in Estonia and had the chance to see Russia through Estonian eyes perhaps, what is your opinion?

I would agree with the part where he talks about where Russia will simply be, [though] not in a static sense that Russia will never change. If you go pre-Cold War ending, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, there were a lot of us, me included, who believed that was not likely to change in my lifetime. […] I don’t believe in “no change.” Whenever you say things are never going to change, you’re just asking to be proven wrong. I don’t believe the horizon will forever recede.

But the part about Russia will be what it will be has a serious kernel of reality to it, which in my view the rest of us on the outside are not going to able to affect in a major way. Russia will be what the Russians will make it. […] I don’t think the rest of us can change Russia and make it better, make it more democratic, make it less corrupt, make it whatever you want to call it. But what we can do is affect the relationship we have with Russia in terms of how Russians see us as in the relationship as threatening, non-threatening, in friendship, not in friendship, as partners, as adversaries. 

That’s what we have control over. Not the internals of the Russia being, but the externals of the Russia interacting with the rest of us. And that’s what the reset thing is really about. Whether you like the term “reset” or not, it’s just a catchphrase. The deeper meaning of this is, does the United States, the American people, the world community wish to have a constructive relationship with a large country called Russia? My answer – America’s answer – is yes.

Interview by Scott Diel

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