Ilves and Mihkelson create Estonian Council on Foreign Relations

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Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Marko Mihkelson. Source: ERR

Thirty Estonian foreign and security policy experts, politicians, entrepreneurs and officials announced the creation of the Estonian Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday. The NGO is the initiative of former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson.

"The idea matured over time," Ilves admitted. The former president said that the impulse to create the council came after a conversation he had with Mihkelson last fall after both had read an article on the American Council on Foreign Relations that was created 100 years ago. "It was created as a reaction to the country's sharp turn toward isolationism and protectionism at the time," Ilves explained.

He recalled that while Estonia only had a handful of people able to navigate foreign and security policy 30 years ago, hundreds now actively engage in foreign policy and diplomacy, not just in state agencies but also in the worlds of business and journalism. "Foreign policy also matters to travel agents," Ilves added.

The Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee chair agrees: "Estonia cannot be successful in the wide world without know-how and a feel for things. Over the last 30 years, we have gotten a lot of professionals but also students for whom the world around us and the ability to make sense of it are important," Mihkelson said. "We have so far lacked an association or society where people who deem foreign and security policy important can meet," he added.

Ilves also regards it important to introduce foreign policy debates into civil society so it would not remain exclusively the playground of state-funded think tanks and foreign and defense ministries' press releases. "To have a lively yet professional debate."

The board of the Estonian Council on Foreign Relations is made up of Mihkelson, Ilves, Merle Maigre, Liisa Past and Eiki Berg. The board is elected for a term of two years.

The council urges people who are interested in foreign and security policy to join its ranks. Securing a recommendation from two members is a requirement of membership.

The forming members of the council are Eiki Berg, Piret Ehin, Ardo Hansson, Henrik Hololei, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Taavet Hinrikus, Marina Kaljurand, Siim Kallas, Indrek Kannik, Andres Kasekamp, Indrek Kasela, Riina Kionka, Meelis Kitsing, Mart Laar, Kadri Liik, Vivian Loonela, Jüri Luik, Peter Lõhmus, Matti Maasikas, Merle Maigre, Marko Mihkelson, Sven Mikser, Urmas Paet, Liisa Past, Tiit Pruuli, Kristi Raik, Raul Rebane, Rainer Sternfeld, Sten Tamkivi, Raivo Vare.

The mission statement of the Estonian Council on Foreign Relations

February 24, 2021

In the beginning of the 1990s, with its independence restored and full of promise, Estonia re-entered a world itself just as full of hope. The Cold War was over, the Evil Empire had collapsed and we felt it would be just a matter of time until the victory of democracy across the world. The accession process of Central and Eastern European nations to the European Union and NATO left both sides with the sense that we were riding on the crest of a wave. In Estonia this meant eagerly espousing a societal model based on Western freedoms, openness and globalization, which a large majority of its citizenry supported.  The orientation of the country and society was largely based on consensus and trust was high for those leading foreign policy.

The world has changed in thirty years as has Estonia. We are defended by international organizations while a rules and value-based world order has survived through many changes brought on by various crises.

At the same time, we must admit to ourselves that liberal democracy based on individual liberty is no longer an obvious choice; in various places the growth of inequality as a side-product of globalization has created isolationist tensions even in affluent societies. Estonia's foreign relations, including EU policy as well as its security policy are increasingly influenced by considerations of domestic expediency, at times by incompetence or simply by lack of understanding of the importance of foreign relations for a small nation.

The tendencies described above are part of democracy, which in turn have brought a widening of debate in society. In addition, Estonia's openness to the world and its deep international integration have given a voice to a large number of people with the personal experience, interest and ability to participate in debates in these fields, even when their everyday work is in other fields.

The founders of the Estonian Council on Foreign Relations have set as their goal the broader advancement of discussions of foreign policy in a changing world, discussions that take into account Estonia's perspectives. Policymakers, diplomats and other active citizens acutely need additional input for Estonia's foreign policy thinking. We see our mission to play the role of a convener and amplifier, to bring together professionals from government, think tanks, academia, private enterprise, journalism and a wider range of interested citizens, to bring to Estonia a better understanding of the currents and ideas in the policy world, and to help strengthen our expert and intellectually competent understanding of strategic reality.

We are convinced that a rules-based, and especially a world order based on international law, is in Estonia's interest, where we believe in rational imperatives that derive from the Enlightenment, in human rights and freedoms, democracy, rule of law, a liberal market economy and respect for minorities. It is in Estonia's interest to defend these values in cooperation with other nations that also share them. We believe too that the continued existence of Estonia is guaranteed by strong ties with allies and partners, for which Estonia must strive for each and every day. We invite active citizens who share our convictions and wish to participate in serious foreign policy discussions to join the Council.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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