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"We Are Stronger Because We Are Democracies": President Obama Addresses the People of Estonia

Summary: 
At the Nordea Concert Hall in Tallinn, Estonia, President Obama speaks to students, young professionals, and civic leaders about the enduring strength and promise of democracy.
President Obama Speaks to the People of Estonia

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after delivering remarks at Nordea Concert Hall in Tallinn, Estonia, Sept. 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

At the Nordea Concert Hall in Tallinn, Estonia today, President Obama spoke to students, young professionals, and civic leaders about the enduring strength and promise of democracy. "I am honored to be the first President of the United States to deliver an address like this to the people of Estonia," he said. 

The President first reflected on the history of the Baltic people's fight to secure democracy across the region: 

Exactly 25 years ago, people across the Baltics came together in one of the greatest displays of freedom and non-violent resistance that the world has ever seen.
On that August evening, perhaps two million people stepped out of their homes and joined hands -- a human chain of freedom, the Baltic Way.  And they stretched down highways and across farmlands, from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius. They lit candles and they sang anthems.  Old men and women brought out their flags of independence.  And young parents brought their children to teach them that when ordinary people stand together, great change is possible.  
Here in Estonia, when people joined the line, the password was “freedom.”  As one man said that day, “The Berlin Wall is made of brick and concrete.  Our wall is stronger.”  And it was. Within months, that wall in Berlin was pushed open.  The next year, the Baltic peoples finally voted in elections. And when the forces of the past made their last grab for power, you stood up.

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In celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Baltics in NATO, the President noted that "freedom needs a foundation of security" and shall now "always be guaranteed by the strongest military alliance the world has ever known." That alliance, that commitment to fight shoulder to shoulder, helped ensure that, in Afghanistan, "the largest operation in NATO history will come to an end."

But it is not a military alliance that makes our countries strong -- it is our commitment to democracy. As the President said: 

We’re stronger because we’re democracies.  We’re not afraid of free and fair elections, because true legitimacy can only come from one source -- and that is the people. We’re not afraid of an independent judiciary, because no one is above the law.  We’re not afraid of a free press or vibrant debate or a strong civil society, because leaders must be held accountable. We’re not afraid to let our young people go online to learn and discover and organize, because we know that countries are more successful when citizens are free to think for themselves.

The President also addressed Russia's "brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine." 

It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system -- that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; that nations have the right to determine their own future. It undermines an international order where the rights of peoples and nations are upheld and can’t simply be taken away by brute force. This is what’s at stake in Ukraine.  This is why we stand with the people of Ukraine today.

So the President laid out exactly where the United States stands on this blatant aggression:

Just as we refused to accept smaller European nations being dominated by bigger neighbors in the last century, we reject any talk of spheres of influence today. And just as we never accepted the occupation and illegal annexation of the Baltic nations, we will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea or any part of Ukraine. As free peoples, as an Alliance, we will stand firm and united to meet the test of this moment.

Here's how:

  1. The President reiterated the United States' commitment to defend the territorial integrity of every single NATO ally, noting that more NATO aircraft patrol the skies, more American forces are rotating through each of the Baltic states, and more NATO ships patrol the Black Sea. "I believe our alliance should extend these defensive measures for as long as necessary," he said. 
  2. The President is working with Congress to further increase America's military presence in Europe, an initiative he proposed in Warsaw, Poland this spring. An expanded presence would include more military equipment, more training and exercises between our militaries, and more U.S. forces rotating through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 
  3. NATO must enhance its readiness and rapid response force, including facilities and infrastructure that can receive rapid reinforcements in case of any threat to any ally. This also includes the ability to meet unconventional threats, including propaganda campaigns that drive fears and division among people. "We reject the idea that people cannot live and thrive together, just because they have different backgrounds or speak a different language," the President said. 
  4. All NATO allies must fully contribute their fair share to invest in capabilities like intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and missile defense, which will keep the alliance strong for the future. 
  5. NATO must stand united against Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The United States and partners around the world have already come together to impose major sanctions on Russia for its actions. 

The United States will continue to support Ukraine in its fight to maintain its independence. As the President said:

We want Ukrainians to be independent and strong and able to make their own choices free from fear and intimidation, because the more countries are free and strong, and free from intimidation, the more secure our own liberties are.
So the United States will continue to help Ukraine reform -- to escape a legacy of corruption and build democratic institutions, to grow its economy, and, like other European nations, diversify its energy sources, because no country should ever be held hostage to another nation that wields energy like a weapon. We’ll continue to offer training and assistance to help the Ukrainian military grow stronger as they defend their country. And since ultimately there is no military solution to this crisis, we will continue to support President Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve peace.  Because, like all independent nations, Ukraine must be free to decide its own destiny.

At the NATO Summit in Wales, the President will meet with President Poroshenko of Ukraine "to show that our 28 nations are united in support of Ukraine's sovereignty and its right to defend its territory." He called on NATO to make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its forces.

The President called the situation in Ukraine "a moment of testing," as the violence kills thousands and forces more to flee. He urged the people of Estonia and the Baltics to have faith in a brighter future they can help create:

In the face of violence that seems intractable and suffering that is so senseless, it is easy to grow cynical, and I think tempting to give in to the notion that peace and security may be beyond our grasp.
But I say to all of you here today, especially the young people, do not give into that cynicism. Do not lose the idealism and optimism that is the root of all great change. Don’t ever lose the faith that says, if we want it, if we are willing to work for it, if we stand together, the future can be different; tomorrow can be better.

Get the latest updates from the President's trip to Estonia and the United Kingdom here.