Marko Mihkelson: Smart diplomacy to guide Estonia forward

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Marko Mihkelson. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

One of the most important goals of Kaja Kallas' government is (re)affirming the reputation of Estonia as an open, innovative and future-oriented Northern European country, Marko Mihkelson writes.

No more time needs to be wasted on apologizing as the government is free of local mini-Trumps who were fighting over who could drag us into virtual isolation faster, away from our closest allies and friends. That time has passed and we need to move on.

The annual Riigikogu foreign policy debate will take place in the middle of February. This will provide the new government with a good chance to get off the ground. The Iceland Square (location of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – ed.) is expected to send a clear message in terms of future steps and principles in foreign policy.

Ideologically charged foreign policy must be consigned to the past. A small country like Estonia does not have the luxury to send foreign policy off in a different direction every time the government changes. The key to success lies in consistency and the search for a broad consensus in the best possible way. It is more difficult to achieve today than it has been in the past, while we should at least try to avoid drawing lines between the coalition and opposition as was done during the previous government's time.

A broken and tactically inconsistent foreign policy with inbuilt battle lines makes Estonia look like a brawler, while doing our national security no favors. Our goal is the opposite – to give our words more weight that could cause our allies or indeed our enemies to heed them to a greater degree. What should be done to that end?

Firstly. Our foreign policy needs to leave behind project and press release-based action that has come to characterize recent years. The foreign minister announces we will be fighting for religious freedom in the world one day, while we are running for the OECD presidency, spearheading the Three Seas Initiative and looking to become an observer to the Arctic Council and an Afghanistan penholder in the UN Security Council the next.

Activity is not a bad thing, while our foreign policy steam must not be spent exclusively on individual projects or trying to solve crises that are way beyond our means. Every such step needs to have a clear connection to Estonia's foreign policy interests and goals. Becoming an Arctic Council Observer could open up new avenues of cooperation with the Nordics, which is entirely fitting for Estonia, while acting as a penholder on Afghanistan is perhaps too much of an overseas initiative.

We cannot seek to run or participate in every international tropic. What we need are carefully weighed choices that help reinforce our security. Activities that do not make for good press releases must still be pursued. Visibility cannot be our only goal, which is not to say that public diplomacy should be underestimated. It can simply be pursued more wisely and systematically.

Secondly. We need to go back to the basics when it comes to our foreign policy priorities – EU, NATO and strategic relations with the U.S. The latter have been paid a lot of attention in recent years and quite rightly so, while the other two headings have clearly been overlooked.

International tensions have mounted. Security threats that surround us have become more versatile. The structure of the foreign ministry must clearly reflect these global changes. For example, the ministry has a cyberdiplomacy department, while it lacks one for security policy.

Next to that, we need to revise our entire diplomacy toolbox starting with international organizations and mutual representations all over the world right down to our own Eastern Partnership Center and business diplomacy and tie these political goals to real activities.

Regional or thematic strategies (for example, the Asia strategy) help plan limited resources better and allow us to avoid playing political table tennis or sensitive international issues becoming toxic at home.

Estonia has things to sell and the image of the new government alone is enough to turn IT and innovation topics into tools of international reputation once more. Whereas we need to go beyond showcasing the ID-card and adopt concepts of the technology of the future.

Thirdly. Peace needs to be restored at the foreign ministry and a creative environment to facilitate the shaping of policy created. This means that departments must concentrate on supporting the shaping and execution of foreign policy and not the other way around. The administrative service has been bolstered in recent years, while diplomats are often forced to work until they break.

Many diplomats have said that the administrative brass lacking any and all idea of what it means to work at a foreign representation has been especially depressing. This led to a serious in-house conflict last year when new principles of assignments abroad were introduced with poor communication and sense for the atmosphere. The situation culminated in the president vetoing the Foreign Service Act.

Openness is needed in the foreign service, while it must not be allowed to undermine the career diplomacy model that has served Estonia well. Several career diplomats have either left or been forced out in recent years. They have taken with them experience that is a great value in the world of diplomacy.

The situation calls for professional career planning that would simultaneously help strengthen our most important foreign policy competencies and create a less stressful atmosphere for diplomats.

All these and several other steps would give Estonian foreign policy the depth it needs to pursue smart diplomacy – the ability to realize international interests in a way that avoids dangerous conflicts with other countries and the ability to navigate the complicated geopolitical reality while convincingly involving friends and allies in the name of more effectively protecting our national security.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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