I really wanted to be a hippy
Interview with the US Ambassador Jeffrey Levine.
Published Eesti Ekpress 13 March
Most people believe that for security, Estonia must always look to the United States, not to Europe.
With Russia flexing its muscles again, now would be a good time to look at the U.S. Ambassador, to find out what kind of person he is, and what forces have shaped him.
The good news, for Estonia, is that Jeff Levine, the boyish, 59 year old US representative, to paraphrase Sally Field's Oscar infamous acceptance speech; " really, really, likes Estonia.""
The bad news, for hawkish Estonians, is Levine is not a warrior, at heart he is a hippy. Love and peace, man, make love not war, troops out of Vietnam, all of that.
"I am a bit too young to be a hippy, but I really wanted to be," Levine clarifies.
"I was 15 in 1970, I was never a punk. Hippy was the last movement I really embraced," he said.
Levine is a very amiable, open and honest. Through the whole interview he never stops smiling. Talking to him you get a clear sense of what he must have been like in 1975, pretty much like he is now, though he probably had longer hair and maybe a beard.
He is one of those people who doesn't appear to get old. His values and world view haven't changed. He is optimistic and energetic, and he has a sophisticated knowledge of contemporary pop culture.
This interview also contained a surprising twist, .... but we will come to that at the end.
First we discussed about the pressing issue of the day. (See side bar) What he says is pretty much party line. As you would expect him to say.
It is important the U.S ambassador, and the diplomat corp in general, should like us, and give us the thumbs up to the folk back home, it is these unwritten emotional bonds which are the real glue to strong alliances.
To understand why Levine “really really likes Estonia” you have to look at his background and his career.
Firstly there is his ethnic background. Levine described himself as 1st generation American. Technically he is 2nd generation, that is to say his mother fled Hungary before the war and became an American. His father's side is also of recent immigrant from the Lithuanian, Belarus, area. Levine is a little hazy about when this side of the family came to America . Those of his mother's family who didn't escape were killed by the Nazis. He grew up hearing Yiddish and Hungarian but as was typical of 2nd generations he is fiercely patriotic, and tended to reject his roots as a child and adolescence
"The focus was to assimilate as much as possible and become full American. On my father's side very little ethnic influence,” he said.
"(There was) no interest of my own, until I was in the State Department and at one point the opportunity to be the state officer for Hungary came up."
Like most 2nd Generationers, he is also very sympathetic to ethnic minorities and diversity, because this reflects his own background.
The same forces that shaped Liz Wahl, The Russia Today news anchor, who resigned in a live broadcast last week, also shaped Levine. Wahl is also a 2nd generationer of Hungarian descent.
Then there is the place he calls home.
Levine was born in New Jersey, but he grew up in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s when it became the epicentre of the counter-centre movement. He remembers the first summer of love. It is interesting to listen to him talk about it. Even when he is talking ad hoc it is like a speech; beautiful parallel structures.
"Growing up there you don't realise what a unique area it is until you leave. Uniquely beautiful, uniquely tolerant and uniquely creative and all of that. You have got to leave to recognise that the rest of World and the rest of the United States is not exactly like that."
"If you look at where the Hippy movement, the women's movement and gay liberation movement started, all the social movements started in this area or really took hold in that area."
"It has a lot to do with how tolerant and open-minded the people are, it attracts and is attracting tremendous brain wealth. It is the centre of the tech industry. I still get back there every year."
"It is where I want to end up it is, where I have always known I will end up."
Finally there is his career in the State Department. People assume being a diplomat is an comfortable and easy life. Diplomats get to live in luxury, eat well, meet famous and beautiful people. Everybody courts their favour.
Levine was Peru in the 80s when Maoist fanatics the Shining Path tried their damnedest to blow him and all members of the bourgeoisie to smithereens.
"One week, places were my wife and I had been a week earlier were blown up five nights in a row.
"After two years of living in that kind of environment it does get to you. I was pleased to be leaving," Levine said.
"After two years of living in that kind of environment it does get to you. I was pleased to be leaving," Levine said.
Then he was in Egypt in the first Gulf war.
"It was a tense environment to be there."
Levine, last assignment was Hungary. He was keen to serve because of his family background but there were frustrations.
"The Hungarian have had a much more difficult transition, they have spent much more time looking backwards to the territory that they lost at the end of the First World War.
"They have not done a very good job in coming to terms with their activities in the Second World War and for whatever reason, they haven't been able to move to strong democratic institutions and good governance."
"The Estonians have been far more successful in their transition and not spent too much time looking backwards."
So for Levine, Estonia is the cushy number all diplomats look forward to, finally. A country similar to his own in terms of get up and go, language, and institutions. Plus there are no chance of being blown up.
"In terms of culture it is the closest to the United States in any country I have served in and certainly the level of English adds to that. It's a very easy place to live."
Levine is particularly impressed with the IT community here.
"There are a lot of Estonians, who spend more time in California than I do
He plans to stay in touch with the tech people when he leaves the region.
"They are such a fascinating bunch and they are doing so much."
Estonia is not as diverse as California, but Levine says he has encountered less anti-Semitism in Estonia than in any other assignment, he also says something else very interesting, but more of that when we come to the twist.
Levine is the type of person who forms strong life long emotional ties with people and places. This is not true of all diplomats, as it is not true of all people.
"At lot of people, in the foreign service after 20 or 30 years really don't have that sense of home any more," he said.
"My best friend in high school is still my best friend and he is actually the editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee.
“My foreign service friends are likely all over the world and all over the United States."
Levine didn't plan to be a diplomat. His background was in journalism, he didn't plan that either.
"I went into college like at lot of people not quite sure what I was doing.
"I was taking a lot of humanities courses, professors commented I was a pretty decent writer that sort of moved me into journalism as a profession."
He was on the founding staff of USA Today.
"Looking back I enjoyed the experience but it really was a terrible place to work. So at the end of two years I was really interested doing something else, so when the opportunity came up to join the foreign service came at the right time.”
Levin talks candidly about the flaws in the media.
"I came to discover about myself that I really don't like bad news and to be highly successful in the media you got to like bad news and be surrounded by in and intrigued by it. It just wasn't me."
Levine's cultural tastes reflect his upbringing. Mostly he likes rock music.
"The first album I ever bought was Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the holy company, Jefferson Airplane was there. The Grateful Dead, Jesse Cohen Young."
Now he listens to folk and indie rock bands, The Lumineers, Mumford and Son, Icelandic band, Of Monsters and Men and our own, Ewert and Two Dragons.
He reads modern American fiction. He mentions "A visit from the goon squad" by Jennifer Egan, a rock and roll book with a non-linear narrative, and mystery novels.
When he is talking about himself, Levin is most candid. Clearly he has had a great career in the foreign service but he admits it has come at a price.
"I felt that for most of my adult life I haven't been free to express myself or express my own opinions.
“Because you don't get to do it as a street reporter and you don't get to do it as a diplomat.
"Even now I am aware of what it would look like on even if I like something on Facebook. I am aware of what it could look like if it were skewed, I am still in Estonia as an ambassador, there is very little I can do in a personal capacity.
"After I have done all this, the ability to speak freely and the ability to comment is something I am looking forward to."
It is at this point the interview took its surprising twist. As a former journalist it turns out the ambassador was just as interested in me as I was in him.
Suddenly I was the one being interviewed. Some of what we discussed I can't write, let's just say he was interested in all sides of the arguments about Ukraine.
He asked me about how and why I came to Estonia, if I liked it, about my election to Volikogu and about my candidacy for the European Parliament. The US ambassador seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of an visibly different, ex-pat, representing Estonia at an international level.
"It was great to see you here and it was great to see you wanting to be involved, it was great to see you being elected," he said.
“I was really pleased, it is a testament to the Estonians.”
"There is not a lot of diversity here compared to the rest of the World. It would be great to have Estonia as a cosmopolitan city that attracted people from all over the World."
The party line
On America commitment to Estonia.
How big a threat do you consider Russia to Estonia?
Perception are changing with the situation in the Ukraine. We don't see it as the kind of threat that needs addition reaction other than what is guaranteed by NATO.(ed note Since this interview the US has sent troops to Estonia as have other NATO nations)
Some people would said Ukraine is a different case. The Russian nation was founded in Ukraine. What do you think?
One of the areas of disagreement that we have had with Russia philosophically is this idea that Russia should be allowed to have a sphere of influence. The Russia should be allowed to dictate what kind of security relations they can have, what kind of political relationship they can have. And our position has been that in the 21st century every nation has the right to decide its alliances and this applies in the Ukraine as well.
What do you think of Putin's actions in the Crimea?
(They are) awful. I think the Russians have invaded another country. Nobody knows exactly how it will be play out, whether they are after territory, after chaos in the Ukraine, but the 21st Century there have to be better ways. And Russia has to understand that it can't dictate to its neighbours and can't use the fact that there are Russian communities in these countries.
Whenever Russia starts to flex it muscles people start getting nervous because of the history of the region and because Estonia has a very large Russian-speaking minority. What assurances can you give, beyond what has already been said that America is standing behind its ally?
I don't think there is anything that I can say that hasn't been said already.
Estonia is a NATO ally and the bedrock of the alliance is Article 5 which says that if one country is attacked all the other countries will come to its aid.
And America takes this commitment very seriously, especially with a country like Estonia that has been such a good ally, has done so much to contribute to the security of the alliance. Everything they have done is appreciated and our commitment to Article 5 is solid, we understand we have the capability to be here large, and be here, fast.
Russia's understanding of this commitment should prevent it from ever becoming a necessity but it is very real.
How about placing U.S. Troops at the border?
I don't see a scenario where that would be a solution. (Urmas) Reinsalu raised the issue, we appreciate Estonia's desire to have a U.S. Security presence. Everybody would like a friendly guard at their front door, but given the real threat, plus national resources I can't see it happening in any routine sense.
Military intervention is off the table then?
It is currently nothing that looks very attractive. I can't say concretely that it can't happen. But right now the focus is on diplomatic efforts. I haven't seen anything that say we are considering military action.
So when some people in the Estonian press start talking about World War III that is an exaggeration?
I don't see it on the cards, on either side.
On the Snowden revelations that America spied on its allies.
How can America rebuild trust with Europe after spying on them?
Snowden definitely been problematic. President Obama has been so committed to a transparent style of government. Our response for years was we don't comment on intelligence matters and this really changed that dynamic and changes the conversation.
So the President was willing to speak. Just because we are bigger at it or better at it doesn’t change the dynamic, “let's talk about it”, but it is not a public discussion. He has not said we will not use our intelligence assets. We are not going to say that we are going to stop doing, but he did say just because we can do it does it mean we should do it.
We are sharing those changes with the people who need to know. We do understand that this was unsettling to the European public, the American public and national leaders. This generated a discussion everywhere. But there is no evidence, because non exists, that any part of this intelligence was used in an oppressive way. It was really being done in an intelligence sense. It was never done for economic benefit, or industrial espionage.
It was done because the intelligence did offer protection especially in the counter terrorism world. That there was a security benefit to the United States.
Many other countries have this capability and none of those countries has stepped forward and said we are not going to do it either.
One thing to spy on enemies, another friend?
Certainly where it has been most problematic,
So no reassurance to European allies?
In a general sense, No. More of an attempt to explain how and what was being done.
On the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (T-TIP)which the United States is currently driving for.
Some people say T-TIP is nothing to do with trade, is about U.S. companies being able to sue national government for lost profits.
The T-TIP is trying to deal with the two large bureaucratic systems, at the core of that is coming to agreement of common standards, we will either harmonise what we require of industry or accept each other certification.
It says “if is cleared in America we will accept it is Europe, it is cleared in Europe we will accept it in America.” That is hard to do. I don't think it a attempt to take advantage of the other system.
So is not about forcing GM foods on countries that don't want them?
NO. T-TIP is no directed at any one industry or one product, it is just a way to make trade easier.