Have you ever wondered what exactly goes on in our nation’s capital and how it relates to you as an Estonian-American and the issues you care about? As the Estonian American National Council’s new Washington DC director, I’ve spent my first couple months on the job learning exactly that – and have found the process quite interesting!
This is the first of a series of updates of on the Washington scene that I will be writing, and I hope that you will find it of interest.
It will be posted on the Estonian American National Council’s website (www.estosite.org) and on EANC’s Facebook page. We hope to establish a mailing list of people interested in receiving these updates. If you are, please send your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first challenge has been figuring out who all the players are and where they fit into the development of policy and legislation. So far, I’ve met with people in four major areas – Congressional offices on Capitol Hill; other non-profits concerned with policy in central and eastern Europe, like the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) and the Central and East European Coalition (CEEC); think tanks, like Rand, the Atlantic Council and the Heritage Foundation; and government agencies, like the State and Defense Departments. This might kind of sound like a review of your junior high civics class, but I’ll try to keep it specific to the process as it relates to Estonia and where you can get involved, too!
The Hill and Non-profits
Congress is where the rubber meets the road. They pass budgets and laws, and without them, there’s no movement or direction (some may argue that there’s no movement or direction in Congress, but that’s another topic beyond my scope of coverage!). Groups like EANC, JBANC and CEEC stay informed on issues and legislation that relate to our regions of interest and visit Congressional staffers to discuss their importance. The staffers in turn let their Senators and Representatives know that their constituents are interested in legislation regarding the region.
This is where constituent action can really make a difference – I’ve heard staffers say that your representatives in Congress want to hear from you! Contacting your Congressperson directly is the best way to get your voice heard. One of my jobs is to let you know about legislation that might be of interest and how to contact your rep.
A great place to start is with the House Baltic Caucus (HBC). JBANC recently published a call to action for continued funding for U.S. support to the Baltics here, including a link to a sample letter you can personalize and send yourself, a link to the list of current members of the HBC, and a link where you can double-check who your representative is. They also published a Wikipedia page on the HBC at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Baltic_Caucus. Please check them out!
Every week it seems there’s at least one new report release or panel discussion on NATO’s readiness, Russia’s behavior, or European security. They’re usually very interesting and thorough and provide an insightful perspective on the topics at hand. I’ll just share couple of my favorites:
One study is about the Russian-speaking population in Estonia. It found that an invasion similar to Russia’s advances in Ukraine is unlikely to succeed in Estonia because of the cultural differences between the two diasporas. A synopsis is here if you don’t want to read the full 19-page report.
An Atlantic Council report looks at transatlantic security and stresses the need for our European allies to increase their defense budgets and take more responsibility for preserving their stability. The panel discussion suggested that some European nations became complacent thanks to the peace dividend of the 1990s and have taken for granted that the U.S. would provide for their security. Now that new challenges are arising, more equal teamwork is required to meet them.
And finally, this report from the RAND Corporation has gotten the most buzz in the last few weeks. It’s the one that predicted through extensive war gaming scenarios that a Russian invasion of Estonia or Latvia would reach their capitals in no more than 60 hours, leaving NATO with no good options for responding.
Both of the security reports provide recommendations for meeting the shortfalls they foresee. The piece that’s missing is analysis of how likely a Russian invasion of NATO territory really is. While they are based in rigorous academic methods, to me, they still boil down to speculation. One thing most experts seem to agree on is that Putin is proving to be unpredictable, strategically-minded and willing to engage in behavior that has taken the world by surprise. Whether he actually has the audacity to test NATO’s resolve remains to (and let’s hope never will) be seen.
The State and Defense Departments seem to be the practical ones of the bunch. They take in information from a wide array of sources, to include the media, think tank reports and their own governmental networks, and determine their policy priorities, which turn into budget proposals to Congress. The State Nordic-Baltic team recognizes the value of keeping interested citizens informed and has been considerate enough to meet with JBANC representatives regularly over the years. For summary of the last meeting, see our website: www.estosite.org/eanc-activities/. It’s the second article on the page.
The government policymakers have access to information the rest of us don’t and on the topic of European security, they have expressed doubt that an attack on the Baltic States is imminent. Their current policy reflects the need to pay attention to and deter any threats by bolstering NATO’s capabilities in Europe. Their and the Obama administration’s answer since the events in Ukraine has been the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which so far has received wide bipartisan support in Congress and is expected to do so again for 2017. ERI came out of the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 and will likely be adjusted based on outcomes from the upcoming summit in Warsaw in July. In any case, U.S. support of European security shows no signs of dwindling. Stay tuned for updates after the Warsaw summit and in the next administration!
So, that’s my world as your representative in Washington. It’s a lot to sort through and make sense of, and getting the hang of it will be a process. I hope that as I figure things out, you’ll find some interesting information in my posts and share your comments and questions, which I’ll answer as well as my understanding of the issues allows.