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From IWP Student to Estonian Ambassador: The Hon. Eerik Marmei shares his story

“When I went back to Estonia, I became the first ever U.S. Desk Officer in the Estonian Foreign Ministry.”

Obama and Marmei 444x718“And what are they teaching you in school?” Eerik’s grandparents addressed him in a guiding tone at the dinner table. “That the Communist Party is good no matter what, and the state will always provide for us,” he answered. His two mentors glanced at one another and then softly replied: “Look Eerik, the truth is very different.”

Living about 450 miles from Moscow, citizens of Eerik’s hometown of Tartu, Estonia were able to keep the Estonian identity alive during Soviet occupation. In his dinnertime discussions, he would learn about Estonian history, their representative government of the 1920s and 1930s, the utility of a free market, the moral bankruptcy of the Communist revolution, and the illegality of the occupation of nation.

“My grandparents always knew the Soviet Union would collapse, and they wanted us to be ready for it,” the Ambassador reflected. “They taught me these things back in the early 1980s, long before the Singing Revolution. So did other grandparents to their grandchildren.” In our interview, Eerik Marmei, current Estonian ambassador to the United States and former IWP student, recalled the turning points of his intriguing life and extraordinary career.

“I remember when I first really became interested in international relations. It was during my high school years. There were a few upperclassmen I knew who would constantly talk about it. They introduced me to the discipline. Later on, my University professor, Kaido Jaanson, mentored me in this field and I developed greatly thanks to him.” Eerik spent countless hours in his University library, digging through ideas denied to him by the Soviet Union. His naturally kinetic personality was amplified by the electric atmosphere of the scholars’ town of Tartu, itself charged by the happenings of the Singing Revolution.

Amb. Eerik Marmei with Michelle Watson and John Lenczowski at IWPAccording to Eerik, his greatest discovery in this period of study was the memoirs of George Kennan, an accomplished American diplomat who started his career in 1930s Latvia and Estonia. By the time he exhausted the resources available at his library, he realized that he was still famished for more. The young student took it upon himself to write a letter to George Kennan himself requesting a book or two. To Eerik’s pleasant surprise, George Kennan personally wrote him back and dispatched thick stacks of books for his usage. “I still have his letter in my personal library,” he recalled with deep satisfaction. “When I was finished with the books he gave, I handed them to the University library where they are still in circulation today.”

As the future ambassador’s intellectual pallet expanded, he found himself drawn to the United States. By 1993, during his last year at Tartu University, he was hired as an intern at the Leadership Institute here in the DC area. In this new environment, Eerik was able to soak up lessons about the American people and political process in a way that was not possible in his hometown library. This exposure later proved to be crucial in the formation of his career.

While stateside, Eerik had the opportunity to read an issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. “I cracked open the magazine, and attached in between the pages was a flyer for a brand new school known as The Institute of World Politics. I took a look and was interested.” True to the form he showed in contacting George Kennan, Eerik dove right into the heart of the matter and contacted the President of the Institute, Dr. John Lenczowski.

“I was running low on financial resources at the time,” Eerik stated, “but Dr. Lenczowski was able to help.” Dr. Lenczowski (who was present at the interview) broke a smile and began to recall the interaction. Perhaps it was Eerik’s flare for negotiations, or maybe it was Dr. Lenczowski’s vision and political talent, but somehow the future and former diplomats were able to find a benefactor to sponsor Eerik’s classes. Dr. Lenczowski’s smile grew broader as he witnessed the impact of this donor’s gift to IWP.

After graduating from Tartu University in summer 1993, Eerik was enrolled in classes under professors Joshua Muravchik and Paul Goble. “I remember it vividly,” he commented. The classes offered him a detailed insight into the American mind. He spoke highly of both professors. “I read everything Paul Goble does. He is not very well liked in the Kremlin,” he stated. It was around this time in that Eerik’s career would kick off.

“I was an intern at the Estonian Embassy to the United States.  The current president (Toomas Hendrik Ilves) was ambassador at that time, and he offered me an internship, which is another reason why I was able to participate in IWP classes.” The ambassador soon noticed the hardworking and talented intern. At the conclusion of his stay, Eerik received a vote of confidence from the future President. “Before I left, we had a chat, and he asked: Why don’t you join the foreign service?” His words struck a chord, and Eerik had found his calling. Armed with confidence and knowledge, his career began to advance. “When I went back to Estonia, I became the first ever U.S. Desk Officer in the Estonian Foreign Ministry.”

Amb. Eerik Marmei greeting President Obama in Estonia, Photo courtesy of the White HouseIn the ensuing years, Eerik would greet three American Presidents on the tarmac as they visited the small yet essential Baltic States. “President Obama has been the second consecutive President to visit our nation, George W. Bush came in 2006, and Bill Clinton met with the leaders of the Baltic States in Riga in 1994.  I’m sure the next one will come to visit as well.” This pattern highlights decades of amicable relations forged by consistent cooperation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a relationship which Ambassador Marmei worked tirelessly to help create.

“I consider some of my greatest professional achievements to be the agreements I took part in creating between NATO and Estonia.” Given the current diplomatic climate in the Baltic region, Article 5 of the NATO alliance provides Estonia with an essential obstacle to foreign invasion. With snap military drills being held by Russian soldiers on Estonian borders, flyovers by Russian strategic bombers, mobilization of Russian naval vessels in adjacent waters, and the kidnapping of an Estonian intelligence officer, defenders of the Estonian people and way of life are counting on NATO support.

Ambassador Marmei was part of a team of Estonians dispatched to NATO headquarters to solidify a relationship in the late 1990s. “At that time, we were just partners,” he said, but he affirmed that the groundwork laid by his team enabled Estonia to become full members of NATO later on. A host of criteria had to be met in order for a country to be accepted into the alliance structure. After a substantial amount of hard work, in 1999 he and his team had provided the necessary requirements. Five years later, Estonia became a full member of NATO.

Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, Ambassador Marmei, while working at the Ministry of Defense, pushed heavily for the creation of a NATO plan to support Estonia in the event of an invasion. “How will NATO defend us without a plan?” he asked. “I was personally negotiating with NATO by this time. It took some heavy fighting in NATO for a year, then in 2009 it was decided that the Baltic States would be part of the Polish contingency plan.” The Polish contingency plan is a course of action designed to enable NATO members to defend Poland and/or the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in a rapid manner in the event of a foreign invasion.

“We had one project that was absolutely essential to complete,” he said. “We wanted to construct an air base at Ämari, Estonia,” he continued. “We were stubborn in our request, and eventually we told NATO that we would continue with the construction of the airfield with or without them. After that, they consented to cover certain costs.” The Ämari airbase currently sits under the routes followed by Russian strategic bombers. In reflecting on the essential nature of the airbase for Baltic airspace defense, the Ambassador commented with emphasis, “We need it.”

At the closing of the interview, Ambassador Marmei had a few comments for readers. “I have always admired the seriousness of the academic institutions in the U.S. I think you are the best in the world, and that is why everybody wants to learn here,” he said. In speaking to current students, he drew from the lessons he has learned. “It is important to visit other countries and experience other cultures. If you have a chance to do exchange programs, take advantage.  It is very important for your future career… I can tell it from my own experience. It widens your worldview, and the bonds you make with people will be valuable. Perhaps you can even study in Estonia.”

Amb. Eerik Marmei speaking at The Institute of World Politics, September 2015