Estonian Roulette (11)

Europe under the eagle: Prime Minister Andrus Ansip with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany Photo: Reuters/Scanpix
1/5/2012 9:30 AM
Category: Politics

Repeating the course of history in the 1930s, Estonia's foreign policy focus is shifting away from the anglophone powers.

The word "orientation" has an odd, contrived ring to it in English when applied to foreign policy. One (read: the US or Britain) conducts foreign policy. Choosing a "foreign policy orientation" is something done by other, less fortunate and, as a rule, non-anglophone nations.

No such equivocation is associated with the same Latin derivative in Estonian. A small nation located on a geopolitical fault line, Estonia spent the 20th century almost entirely within the gravitational pull of major European powers. The start of the 21st century briefly appeared to break that pattern, with alliances of supposed equals (NATO and the EU) replacing old hierarchies of competing allegiances.

Not for long, however. Europe's drift towards multipolarity once again presents choices for nations less than centrally placed both in terms of geography and/or the continent's shared history. Acknowledging this, Estonia last year returned to the shadow theatre that "orientations" remain for small countries. Choices appear increasingly inescapable. Submitting to them, however, instrumentalizes the chooser, taking it away from true security represented by a rule-governed world order.

Early in the summer of 2011 Estonia affected its first fully deliberate orientation change since the 1930s. Quietly, but emphatically, it overcame nearly a decade's worth of suspicion and distrust associated with Germany and France since the days of the second Iraq War – turning its back on Britain in the process. The move was completed in December when officials publicly and privately castigated David Cameron for his veto preventing Germany and France from setting up their fiscal stability union within the institutional framework of the EU. London was effectively cast as "Europe-wrecker."

Estonia's new orientation takes its bearings from the "Weimar Triangle," comprising Germany, France and Poland. One of the defining moments here was Estonia's decision in July to back the threesome in their determination to set up a separate EU operational headquarters – something which Britain, together with the US, rejects as an intolerable threat to the unity of NATO.

The Eurozone debt crisis has foreshortened the angles of the triangle somewhat, giving increasing prominence to Germany. However, there is no escaping the fact that any Estonian continental orientation must pass through Warsaw. The shadow which Estonia is trying to cast needs amplification to stand a chance of reaching Berlin and Paris.

With the benefit of hindsight, an orientation switch was on the cards as soon as Barack Obama announced his "reset" with Russia. The move also implied a reset in US relations with Europe – something it took time to grasp for governments in Eastern Europe. US resources are stretched, its national interest is shifting away from Europe and, ineluctably, the ability to help oneself has become a prime virtue among allies.

Estonia's accession to the Eurozone obviously also played a major role. It was a mantra of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip in the latter half of 2010 that Estonia's decision was geostrategic, not economic. This was the moment which sealed the quiet scrapping of sentiments such as the one expressed in 2003 by then Prime Minister Siim Kallas when he very publicly rejected going with "Germany and Zhirinovski" against the US in the war with Iraq. The crypto-Atlanticist "We shall break through in Europe" slogan of Juhan Parts, Kallas' successor, shared the same fate. Quietly, but with great determination, Estonia decided in 2011 to "join the Europeans" – to quote a senior Estonian diplomat (who admits to being caught by surprise at the time by the shift).

Another factor has been a growing disillusionment with the UK. Britain has traditionally pursued what from the continent has often looked like an egotistical foreign policy (Lord Palmerston's observation about the impermanence of alliances has not helped). Yet, Britain has also had some splendid "European" moments, paradoxically when at its most isolated, notably in the early days of World War II.

For a while, that perception inspired awe in Eastern Europe – that, as well as the imagined (or otherwise) special (and anglophone) link to the US that seemed to add real value to keeping on the good side of London. However, all that is now in the past. The UK is again regarded by Estonia as an insular nation at the wrong end of Europe.

From an historian's perspective it would be interesting to know what role, if any, Ansip's trip to London in January 2011 played in all this. The Estonian PM went to attend what was ostensibly a green technology summit convened by Britain with the Nordic and Baltic nations. The timing of the event, however, is pregnant with ulterior motives. Was Estonia a bit player in something bigger? Did it fully realize the implications of the event which took place just weeks after the country had adopted the euro? Was Ansip present in London as a German proxy – for example, to brief Berlin later on what had taken place? Estonia's Finance Minister Jürgen Ligi has said his UK opposite number occasionally quizzes him on Eurozone dinners (which George Osborne cannot attend). Perphaps Tallinn has been drafted as some sort of intermediary by Berlin?

Any cause-and-effect links in all this (if they do exist) would be very difficult if not impossible to disentangle. Great shifts, even in small countries, are pushed by many cross currents. What appears more than likely, though, is a direct link between the change in Estonia's foreign policy orientation and its membership of the Eurozone. The latter presupposed Berlin's approval and that approval, in turn, must have been caused by intimations of interest in Estonia. Interest, however slight, is always part of a broader calculus of advantage and disadvantage constantly being computed by any major power. In other words, Estonia is likely to have a role, however small, in Berlin's designs.

This throws into sharp relief a generic aspect of all orientation-based partnerships. The countries doing the orienting place themselves in the role of pawns, objects of manipulation ultimately subject to sacrifice as well as promotion. As such, the least (and often the most) such countries can do is to become and remain fully aware of the real stakes of the game. In the most mundane of terms, this prompts one to surmise that Estonian ministers’ mornings are now spent with copies of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well as FT Deutschland, not just the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. Equally, Prime Minister Ansip's bedside reading now presumably prominently features works by Max Weber and Thomas Mann, among others.

Less obscurely, a number of further upshots suggest themselves. First, Estonia is about to exit the rule-guided universe which inspired its foreign policy throughout the 1990s and much of the 2000s. More charitably, one could argue that rule-based universe itself is on the way out and that fact alone has forced Estonia to adjust. Be that as it may, Estonia is again becoming more vunerable. It is much more difficult – and dangerous – to try and punch above one's weight in a non-rule-based environment.

Secondly, "de-listing" Britain from among its closest friends means Estonia is about to lose its only major European ally who has treated with at least surface respect the periodic incantations of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves about Estonia having extricated itself from Eastern Europe to claim its rightful place in Europe's North (whatever that might mean).

Thirdly, and in a closely related development, by aligning itself with Germany, Estonia has effectively applied for membership in a club where it won't be more than a cultural and geopolitical appendage, clinging to the coattails of historical Europe (reminiscent of 15-16th century maps of Europe which drew the continent in the likeness of a female figure whose skirts faded into Asia somewhere between the Black and Baltic Seas). Estonia is again becoming part of a history which is not of its own making, a history spoken in German (and to a lesser extent French).

Fourthly, and less abstractly, Germany's new austerity union places Estonia into a novel political-moral framework where capitalism is conceived very differently to what has been the norm for Tallinn since 1991. Angela Merkel and her predecessors strike far more than a pose with their disdain for the Anglo-Saxon money markets (epitomised by Helmut Kohl's "gnomes of Zurich" jibe). Theirs is a historical self-determination that springs from a civilizational project harking back to the days of Martin Luther. When Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, muses over the "saturation" of markets, he has in his sights more than some simple tinkering with certain elements of global capitalism. He represents a quasi-Calvinist vision of the moral ills of runaway bouts of uncontrolled economic growth of the kind Estonia has so far emphatically welcomed. Which, in turn, means that in order to find a shared language with Germany (without which an orientational shift would remain meaningless), Estonia must jettison much of the neo-liberal underpinnings of its economic ideology. It also means ceding sovereignty in a fashion which the government has hitherto been loath to contemplate publicly. Another fascinating aspect will be the fate of the EU's convergence policies, which will inevitably have to take a back seat in an austerity-bound fiscal union.

A fifth horizon of issues has to do with Germany's likely re-emergence as the type of power which could prove "too large for Europe" (but too small for the world). This is something that has recently inspired a growing body of realist and neo-realist US commentary. It is not an issue which will affect Estonia directly as its resolution will be wholly effected elsewhere. It does, however, present Tallinn with a number of secondary calculations which it cannot avoid. Leading among those is the question of France, the junior partner in the increasingly wobbly Franco-German axis. France has shown a remarkable degree of interest in the Estonian economy of late (Alstom, for instance, was contracted by Eesti Energia in 2010 to build a 950-million euro power plant). It is conceivable that this is part of a wider Parisian strategy to compensate for losses in "strategic depth" in Southern Europe (where governments leak economic and political authority at a perilous rate).

Sixth, Estonia will inevitably have to make choices on the Russian front. Both Germany and France have no interest in their partners stoking up tensions with Moscow and their idea on stability could ultimately affect Estonia's citizenship policy as well as relations with Moscow in general.

Worryingly, the shift in Estonian orientations has so far remained unaccompanied by steps to widen the country's options where possible. Above all, contacts with Finland, Estonia's closest surviving cultural and linguistic relation – as well as a regional power with an independent defence capability – remain formal at best, still largely conducted via Brussels. Estonian politicians are wont to keep Helsinki at arm's length, resenting imagined slights (last year's semi-concerted official umbrage at Finnish media coverage of Estonian matters is a galling example), ever mindful of economic opportunities but doing little or nothing to promote meaningful solidarity across the Gulf of Finland.


Ahto Lobjakas is an analyst at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and former Brussels correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

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