Elite Perceptions of the US

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Estonian public opinion on the United States has been fairly positive since the Second World War


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Estonian public opinion of the US

Although I don’t have any reliable polling evidence to back up this claim, I think it’s safe to argue that Estonian public opinion on the United States has been fairly positive since the Second World War. Of course, there have been some ups and downs but certain values relating to the image of the US have always been viewed in a positive light. Throughout this period the US has been viewed as a stronghold of democracy and a superpower with sufficient political will and military capacity to stand up to the Communist bloc. People have also admired the outstanding achievements of the US in science and technology and the general belief in US society that everyone has the ability to reach their full potential. These perceptions have been shaped by official politics and media rather than by personal experiences. Perhaps it is also worth of noting that for Estonians, US policy tends to be defined as foreign policy.

The US has a reputation of being a country whose policies are in line with its declarations. For example, although the majority of leading Western countries refused to recognize the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union, the US was the most steadfast in this position. During this time, the US government continued to receive Baltic diplomats who had been appointed to office before 1940 and kept their financial assets in the US safe, while the official external broadcaster of the US government, Voice of America, provided the region with radio broadcasts in the Baltic national languages.

The Estonian Voice of America service had a mixed reputation. While it was popular among elderly people and in rural areas during the 1950s and 1960s, younger people tended to prefer the BBC for world news, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. The BBC was viewed as an unbiased source of information, while Voice of America retained its leading position as a watchdog of human rights up to the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore appealed to people interested in the dissident movement. For many people it also served as a key source of information about the Estonian community in America.

During perestroika an increasing number of Estonians were able to cross the Atlantic and find out for themselves that the American miracle, in all its complexity, really does exist. They were soon followed by a new generation of politicians looking for support in their efforts to restore political independence. Their high expectations were met and US support was of crucial importance in regaining the sovereignty of Estonia.

During perestroika, Estonians were able to cross the Atlantic and find out that the American miracle really does exist

At this time there was an urgent need for expertise to help transform the Estonian economy into a market economy and build well-functioning institutions. American citizens with Estonian roots were among the first to provide assistance, along with the US government. It was quite common for Estonian civil servants to visit the US and attend courses organized by the IMF, the World Bank and the US government, and many others took part in privately funded professional exchange programmes. Arguably, positive perceptions of the US peaked in the early 1990s.

As the Estonian elite began to focus on a possible membership of the European Union, their attention turned towards European issues - with a few exceptions. These exceptions were people in the IT and technology sectors who admired the Silicon Valley environment for start-ups, and Eurosceptics who argued that instead of integrating into the overregulated EU market, Estonian exporters should look to the US. While the public found their arguments more or less acceptable, any normative analysis was not taken seriously. (Similarly, I find it interesting that mainstream media has not picked up on the issues surrounding US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.)

In terms of military and security issues, Estonia’s forces have built partnerships with both their US and European partners. Since the early 1990s, the relationship between Estonia and the US has been constant and strong. The historical memory of Estonia has led to the conclusion that small countries need reliable allies. In the Baltic region the US is regarded as the most reliable and committed NATO partner. The escalation of geopolitical tensions in Estonia’s neighbourhood has consolidated this view. Although US military operations abroad and the deployment of Estonian troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been universally supported, current tensions mean that the advantages of an American military presence in Eastern Europe outweigh all other considerations.

Economic governance issues, at both micro and macro levels, have been observed closely by Estonian experts. US success in maintaining higher productivity growth rates has remained the main point of interest with many experts arguing that European policy-makers should learn from US policy. Others, however, believe that the American lifestyle is too focused on accumulating wealth, and argue that US per capita growth rate outpacing that of Europe is just a reflection of this bias in moral values, rather than a worrying trend.

Following the recent recession and financial turmoil, Estonian economists appear to have become increasingly interested in US economic governance, especially the non-standard measures implemented by the Federal Reserve. The general view of US economic policy among analysts has improved due to US policy responses to the financial crisis, which are judged to have been far more effective than those applied in Europe.

To conclude, Estonian public opinion on the United States appears to be based mainly on pragmatism and not so much on moral values. Attitudes towards the US are influenced by US economic governance and foreign policy measures, the lessons and practices of which are useful for dealing with the challenges facing Estonia.