Marko Mihkelson: Estonia needs a more active foreign policy

Estonian and EU flags in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Postimees/Scanpix)
Marko Mihkelson
4/15/2015 6:50 PM
Category: Opinion

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Estonia’s transformation into a border country of the free world requires more active and determined foreign policy activities. Estonia’s defense capability is not complete without smart diplomacy. It is therefore crucial to boost significantly the resources for executing foreign policy, increasing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ share of funding to at least 1 percent of the total state budget in coming years.

February marked 70 years since the event that largely set the foundations for the world order after World War II. At the Yalta Conference, the then allies – the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom – decided to establish a system of international relations based on the United Nations to avoid new major disasters in the future. It cost the division of Europe, and the central issue was the fate of Poland.

One of the participants in the Yalta agreement, Winston Churchill, said at the time: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.” But Churchill was wrong. Stalin broke his promise of free elections in Eastern Europe. Barely a year later, it was Churchill who announced the descent of an Iron Curtain that stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic, in his speech in Fulton on 5 March 1946.

It is unlikely that Churchill had read the Long Telegram from the US diplomat George Kennan, which had been sent from Moscow to Washington only a few days prior to the Fulton speech. Kennan, who also knew Estonia very well, analyzed in the telegram why Moscow had declined to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and how communism should be isolated.

Churchill’s courageous speech and the doctrine proposed by Kennan provided the Western world with a direction and substance in terms of how to fend off Soviet imperialism. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was made possible mainly by valuing these very same principles.

Difficulties with Russia

The collapse of communism together with the dissolution of the Soviet empire marked the end of the Cold War. The West had won, and the European countries which had suffered the most in the major wars now focused on collecting the peace dividend. In this context, however, it was not recognized that the changes in Russia had been merely decorative.

In the West, it remained unnoticed that, after the confrontation between Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev ended, one of the empire’s most important pillars – the secret service – managed to remain almost unscathed. It is therefore no surprise that, after Yeltsin resigned, the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), Vladimir Putin, became the new president of Russia.

In fact, the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union (KGB) had begun to control Russia’s top management immediately after Yeltsin’s successful coup. Sergei Stepashin, a member of the Supreme Council, managed to avoid the demolition of the system and purge before he became director of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK)/FSB in 1994. The chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR), Yevgeny Primakov, had already become foreign minister in 1996, and prime minister a few years later. For a short time between Primakov and Putin, Stepashin became prime minister.

The more confident the pillar of the former empire became, the more revisionist Russia’s world-view became. At a time when Europe believed in Russia’s irreversible course of reform and democratization, the Kremlin went into top gear to change the outcomes of the Cold War. Already at the dawn of Putin’s rise to power, people close to him fantasized aloud about restoring the Russian empire within its 1914 borders.

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression. We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” These words were written by none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin when, on a very meaningful date – 11 September 2013 – he warned the US about using military force against Syria in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Barely half a year later, Putin started a war against one of Europe’s largest countries – Ukraine – disguised by the “little green men” and with the support of “former tractor drivers and coal miners”. To date, thousands of innocent people have been killed.

Of course, in the case of Ukraine, Putin did everything precisely contrary to what he had so nobly underlined with regard to Syria just a few months earlier. This comes as no surprise, since the strategically planned use of disinformation directed against the Western countries has played an important role in the practice of the Russian special services since the late 1950s. Lying and the manipulation of facts naturally accompanies the creation of a distorted world-view.

At the end of last year, Time magazine asked the Soviet Union’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to give an appraisal of current events. Without hesitation, Gorbachev replied that a new Cold War was taking place and the blame for it lay with the Americans.

In reality, of course, the West did not start the new confrontation; it stems from the unwillingness of the current Russian leadership to accept the results of the Cold War. President Putin signaled his intentions to the world in a more serious way for the first time in his speech at the Munich Security Conference eight years ago. To counter the global leadership position of the US, Putin said that “no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security.”

Moreover, even then Putin threatened the division of Europe: the Europeans were “trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us – these walls may be virtual but they are nevertheless dividing, ones that cut through our continent”.

Eight years later, Russia’s rhetoric is even sharper. At the same Munich Security Conference this year, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, compared the annexation of the Crimea to the unification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Essentially, Putin’s and Lavrov’s consistent line speaks of Russia’s strategic vision to wage the unfinished war. As we know, the Cold War disappeared into history with unexpected speed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Now, particularly with the occupation and annexation of the Crimea and by initiating a war in East Ukraine, Russia’s leadership has chosen a new path of major confrontation with the Western countries. More specifically, it was decided to restart the Cold (hybrid) War put on hold up to now with new momentum to reverse, even if only partially, the “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”– also known as the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Putin provided an ideological framework for this in his so-called Crimea speech on March 18, 2014: the reunification of the riven Russian world.

Taking this into account, the West must be ready for a long-term low in relations with Russia. It requires patience, standing by one’s principles and strong leadership from the politicians. Is Europe ready for this? What could we do to ensure that the European Union and NATO remain united?

Estonia’s greatest foreign-policy challenge, both today and for the foreseeable future, is to combine ensuring security in an increasingly hostile neighborhood with maintaining and strengthening our international competitiveness and favorable investment climate.

There is no reason to deny that times are uneasy. Over the past twelve months, the international media have consistently speculated about the idea that Russian pressure against the West might emerge more acutely in the Baltic region.

Neither the former Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, nor, for example, the British prime minister, David Cameron, hides the fact that Russia’s ambition may be to test NATO’s unity, specifically in the Baltic States.

What should we think about that? Firstly, it does not come as a surprise that Russia’s expansionist foreign policy has not disappeared. We heard the same militant rhetoric in the 1990s, when the Baltic States had only just approached NATO.

Secondly, last year NATO showed by its actions that it takes the protection of all its members seriously, should the need arise. Additionally, the Alliance’s deterrent capability in the Baltic–Poland region is significantly greater today than it was only a year ago. Narva is a NATO border town, and it will remain so.

Thirdly, Estonia itself has been consistent in actually strengthening its defense capabilities. The fact that Estonia is investing more than 2% of its gross domestic product in national defense has accorded us the status among our allies of a reliable partner.

Despite all the growing threats, the security of Estonia has never been as well protected as it is today. There simply is no better or more efficient form of insurance policy than NATO for protecting a small democratic country in the free world.

However, the current international dynamics are such that we must prudently increase our foreign policy activity. As a border country of the free world, Estonia must get used to the new normality as quickly as possible. The threats at our borders cannot become a hindrance to Estonia’s development.

Thus, we must ask ourselves whether we put all our foreign-policy levers into the service of resolving the key issues Estonia is facing. How well coordinated are the foreign policy activities of our various executive institutions? Is our network of embassies and the assignments given to them consistent with Estonia’s priorities? How successfully have we explored the wealth of ideas in the field of foreign policy with local and international think tanks? How successful have we been in maintaining and strengthening the unity of Western countries? And, finally, do we have enough resources to execute our foreign policy successfully?

Better funding of foreign affairs crucial

In discussing Estonian foreign policy, its funding has not come up for a long time. At this very moment it is crucial to raise the issue of increasing funding for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The changes taking place in the world, the degradation of the security environment and, at the same time, the growth of global competition between countries requires a more active foreign policy from Estonia.

This year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is receiving €62.1 million out of the total state budget of €8.5 billion, making the foreign ministry’s share a meagre 0.7%.

The international practice in democratic countries does not provide us with a specific formula. Ministries of foreign affairs are not one of the priorities in state budgets anywhere. Nevertheless, it can be said that, in general, their share of the total state budget is not lower than 1 percent. For example, in the United States it is approximately 1 percent ($49 billion), while our northern neighbor Finland allocates about 2 percent (€1.1 billion) of state budgetary resources to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In Estonia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ share of the state budget has been on a downward trend over the years. For example, shortly before our accession to the EU and NATO in 2003 it was almost 1 percent (€24.1 million). Today, it has decreased by nearly a third.

Naturally, the issue is not just about the specific percentage, but a more active diplomacy that would be more profitable for Estonia nevertheless requires greater resources. As of today, our foreign service should be more dignified and protect Estonia’s interests in the most effective way amid strong competition.

Unnecessary tensions with its closest allies should be avoided

From the standpoint of Estonia’s future, the consensus among Western countries as well as the viability of organizations such as the EU and NATO is critical. With its revisionist aggressiveness, Russia has set the goal of redesigning the security architecture of Europe, which essentially means breaking down NATO and the disintegration of the European Union.

Today, Putin’s policies have, rather, yielded the opposite result. The EU has jointly put pressure on Russia with sanctions, and NATO has rapidly increased its deterrent capacity. However, it cannot be ruled out that Russia will succeed in finding waverers or weak links among European countries through its massive propaganda and influencing activities.

Estonia’s foreign-policy efforts should be channeled into convincing our partners and allies that NATO and the EU are capable of facing the threats at our borders. It is not important whether the threats come from east or south, or even from cyberspace.

In a recent opinion piece, the editor-in-chief of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Kurt Kister, writes that transatlantic security cooperation has lived its time due to the retreat of the Americans and, in place of NATO, we should establish EUTO – a European Union Treaty Organization. This would definitely not be in Estonia’s best interests. We must strongly fend off such ideas and keep them off the agenda in major discussions.

To strengthen the unity of the West, Estonia should avoid creating unnecessary tensions with its closest allies and be active in creating new relationships. We cannot afford to be unduly offended, as happened last year in our relations with Finland and Hungary. Closing the Estonian Embassy in Budapest was a hurried and ill-considered decision.

The world is a much larger place than just our near neighborhood in Europe

It is naturally in our best interest that Tallinn should host as many foreign embassies as possible. To achieve this aim, we must continue to work hard. We must also work with those countries considering the closure of their embassies in Estonia.

Estonia’s foreign policy is more successful if more fresh ideas are valued in the field. We have a very professional diplomatic cadre, which has done a lot for Estonia’s success in recent decades. Over the years, a brand-new and well-educated generation has also joined the foreign service.

At the same time, we must be self-critical. Although Estonia has been active in foreign policy in the last few years, it lacks a brave and visionary spirit. Without constantly supplementing strategic viewpoints, it is not possible to adjust tactical moves to strengthen our international position. Our diplomacy must get used to the fact that, even though we are a small country, we must view the world as a much larger place than just our near neighbourhood in Europe.

Estonia’s independence is best secured by wise and determined diplomacy

One of the major changes in the world is that the countries of Asia, major economic powers as well as political ones, are steadily becoming more prominent. Of course, China’s growth is particularly important.

In 2012, the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report on Estonia’s opportunities in Asia up to 2025 by summarizing dozens of work group hearings. The Asia strategy has given a visible boost to the public debate on how to increase the potential for Estonian exports and how national activities could support it. A particularly positive example to highlight is the decision of three Estonian universities to establish a common Asian Studies program. At the same time, the government should restore the Asia program to coordinate foreign trade activities and support our entrepreneurs in accessing these markets more effectively. Standing and waiting must be abandoned. In Asia, the principle that secures the greatest success is: the state in front, the entrepreneur alongside or behind it.

One of the visible levers of Estonian foreign policy is the capacity for development cooperation and the provision of humanitarian aid. A new development plan is being drafted in the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and new destination countries are being selected. In recent years, the main destinations for our development aid have been Afghanistan, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. In addition to supporting the principles of sustainable development advocated by the UN, it is in Estonia’s best interests to help our neighboring countries to secure their sovereignty.

To conclude, Estonia’s independence is best secured by wise and determined diplomacy. Independent Estonia has achieved all its great historical victories with its allies. Big defeats have struck us when we were alone. Never again alone – this is the most central issue in ensuring our security in the long term.


Marko Mihkelson is a former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament, now heading the Parliament's National Defense Committee. This article is based in part on a speech made during the Parliament's foreign policy debate on February 12, 2015.

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