US Ambassador to Estonia Jeffrey Levine: I really, really like Estonia

Most people believe that for security, Estonia must always look to the United States, not to Europe. And so, with Russia flexing its muscles again, now would be a good time to look at the US Ambassador, to find out what kind of person he is and what forces have shaped him.

The good news, for Estonia, is that Jeffrey Levine, the boyish, 59-year-old US representative, “really, really” likes Estonia.

The bad news, for hawkish Estonians, is that Levine is not a warrior, at heart he is a hippie.

“I am a bit too young to be a hippie, but I really wanted to be,” Levine clarifies. “I was 15 in 1970, I was never a punk. Hippie was the last movement I really embraced.”

Levine is 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 – although 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 dated, and he is optimistic and energetic.

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 first generation American. Technically he is second generation, that is to say his mother fled Hungary before the war and became an American. His father’s side are also  recent immigrants from the Lithuanian-Belarusian 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 second generations, he was fiercely patriotic and tended to reject his roots as a child and during his adolescence.

“The focus was to assimilate as much as possible and become full American. On my father’s side there was 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 second generationers, he is also very sympathetic to ethnic minorities and diversity, because this reflects his own background.

Then there is the place he calls home.

Levine was born in New Jersey, but he grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s; “Growing up there you don’t realise what a unique area it is until you leave. Uniquely beautiful, uniquely tolerant and uniquely creative. 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 hippie 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, which has included assignments that were anything but luxurious.

Levine was in 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 where 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.

Then he was in Egypt in the first Gulf War. “It was a tense environment to be there.”

Levine’s last assignment before Estonia was Hungary. He was keen to serve because of his family background but there were frustrations. “The Hungarians 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.”

“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 is no chance of being blown up.

“In terms of culture it is the closest to the United States to 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 in Estonia. “There are a lot of Estonians who spend more time in California than I do.”

He plans to stay in touch with the Estonian 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.

Levine didn’t plan to be a diplomat. His background was in journalism, but 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. I came to discover about myself that I really didn’t like bad news, and to be highly successful in the media you’ve got to like bad news and be surrounded 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 Sons; an Icelandic band called Of Monsters and Men; and Estonia’s 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, Levine 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 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 a 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. He asked me about how and why I came to Estonia, if I liked it, about my election to the Tallinn City Council and about my candidacy for the European Parliament.

“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 with the rest of the world. It would be great to have Estonia as a cosmopolitan country that attracted people from all over the world.”

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This interview was also published by Abdul Turay in Estonian on his blog.

Cover photo: Jeffrey Levine on a viewing platform overlooking the Tallinn Old Town. Courtesy of Amcham Estonia.

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About the author: Abdul Turay

Abdul Turay is a Tallinn-based political columnist and author. Originally from the UK, but now an Estonian resident, he was the first British citizen elected to the Tallinn City Council in 2013.