Estonia in the UN Security Council: A history in three crises

Richard Gowan.
Richard Gowan. Source: Diplomaatia

The crises in Afghanistan, Belarus and Iran, all of which Estonia had to face during its two-year stint on the most important UN decision-making body, 2020-2021, symbolizes the fragmenting of the post-Cold War world order, writes Richard Gowan, UN Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a paper originally published by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS).

When a journalist asked British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan what worried him most in politics, he famously replied: "Events, dear boy, events."

Diplomats who have served in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) know all about the power of events – unforeseen crises and geopolitical flare-ups – to upset their plans.

Elected members of the UNSC often begin their two-year terms with carefully-crafted and well-publicized plans for debates on big global topics.

Without exception, they admit that the day-to-day rush of responding to conflicts, coups and terrorist attacks takes them by surprise in the first months of their tenure.

UNSC members gain respect from their peers for their ability to stay cool under pressure.

There was no shortage of disruptive events during Estonia's time on the UNSC in 2020 and 2021. The Estonian team in New York began work with a modest but substantial agenda, with a focus on bringing cyber-security on the UNSC's agenda.

Yet in March 2020, the Covid pandemic brought in-person UNSC meetings to a halt, and sparked a fierce row between U.S. and Chinese diplomats in New York over the origins of the disease.

In the two years that followed, UNSC members argued over issues ranging from the Trump administration's drive to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal, to the electoral crisis in Belarus, the war in Ethiopia and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

In some cases, as over Belarus, Estonia was a prominent player in UN debates. On others, such as Ethiopia, it adopted a lower profile. Yet by the end of 2021, Estonia's diplomats were no strangers to multilateral crisis management.

After the fall of Kabul, Estonia and Norway had to direct UN diplomacy in a crisis that had hit their allies in America hard.

However, this article focuses on the Afghanistan, Belarus and Iran crises, because each symbolized broader shifts in geopolitics with troubling implications for the future of UN diplomacy.

The Trump administration's push to restore a past UN sanctions resolution on Iran marked the culmination of its broader attack on multilateral agreements – such as the Paris climate change deal – and threatened to exacerbate conflict in the Middle East.

The UNSC debates over Belarus were symptomatic of worsening relations between Russia and the West over the European security order, which would culminate in Moscow's war on Ukraine in 2022.

The U.S. decision to accept the Taliban takeover of Kabul signaled the Biden administration's willingness to step back from costly and long-running foreign interventions, raising questions about Washington's position on the world stage.

For many commentators, all these episodes – coupled with growing Sino-American tensions – signified the final fracturing of the post-1989 international order. Whether or not these gloomy analyses prove to be correct, it is certainly true that – as I have argued elsewhere – the UNSC's limitations as a channel for crisis diplomacy in an era of geopolitical uncertainty became increasingly clear during Estonia's membership.

2020 was not, therefore, a period in which Estonia (or any other actor) was well positioned to achieve dramatic diplomatic successes in the UNSC. It often had to settle for scoring small wins – such as focusing UN attention on Belarus through informal UNSC meetings – against significant opposition from some other UNSC members.

It is also worth noting that (as we will highlight at the end of this essay) this litany of crises did not derail Estonia's initial plans for its UNSC term, including persuading the body to focus on cyber security for the first time. If Estonia faced some serious storms at the UN, it navigated them adroitly and calmly.

1. The Iran 'snap-back' debate

From the outset of their term on the UNSC, Estonian officials worried that they might face a crisis over the Middle East that would divide their U.S. and European allies.

Policy-makers in Tallinn did not relish the prospect of choosing sides between Washington and its EU partners. Critics of Estonia's decision to run for a UNSC seat warned that it could do unnecessary damage to its relations with its main security partner, the U.S., for little gain at the UN.

The specific dangers of U.S. tensions with Iran spiraling out of control came into focus during Estonia's first week as a UNSC member when an American drone killed Iranian general Qassim Soleimani in Iraq.

Although the UNSC did not react publicly to this event, it was clear that Iranian-American tensions would resurface in the course of 2020.

As early as January 2020 (and by some accounts even earlier), UNSC members were predicting a crisis involving the Trump administration over UN sanctions against Tehran. In endorsing the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), the UNSC had agreed that previous UN sanctions on Iran would gradually end over the following decade.

These "sunsets" included the October 2020 end of the UN embargo on the sale and purchase of conventional weapons by the Iranians.

Having formally quit the JCPOA in 2018, however, the Trump administration insisted that the embargo should stay in place.

Through the first half of 2020, the European signatories of the agreement – Britain, France and Germany – looked to see if some compromise on the embargo was feasible. But it was clear that neither Tehran nor Washington was willing to compromise on this question.

By the middle of the year, therefore, the Trump administration was gearing up to push for the UNSC to pass a new stand-alone arms embargo against the Iranians. It argued that if the UNSC did not cooperate, it would activate a process called "snap-back", by which any of the parties to the 2015 deal could resurrect past UN sanctions resolutions on Iran that had been terminated as part of the JCPOA.

This would include the conventional arms embargo. Yet this threat raised knotty legal questions about whether the US, having exited the JCPOA, still had the standing to initiate snap-back at all. UN diplomats, officials and lawyers spent many hours reading and rereading the text of the relevant UN resolution (UNSCR 2231) and hunting down obscure precedents from the UNSC's history on this issue.

This process became increasingly uncomfortable for Estonia.

France, the U.K. and Germany (an elected UNSC member in 2019-20) all signaled opposition to the U.S. approach, fearing that it would ultimately lead to the collapse of the JCPOA.

The Trump administration identified Estonia as the one European member of the UNSC that might support its stance, to avoid damaging relations with its closest ally. As diplomacy around the arms embargo gathered pace, Brian Hook – the senior State Department point person working on Iran – visited Estonia to discuss the matter.

While we do not know exactly what Hook said to his counterparts in Tallinn, there were rumors in New York that the U.S. could persuade Estonia and/or Tunisia (also facing U.S. lobbying) to introduce a resolution calling for a new arms embargo.

This was precisely the type of rift between Washington and the EU that Estonia had hoped to avoid at the UN, and that domestic critics of the UNSC seat had warned could harm the country's security ties.

Complicating matters further, Estonia had pledged to be a defender of international law during its UNSC campaign, but the snap-back debate involved genuinely complex discussions about the legal interpretation of the body's resolutions, which Tallinn had no authority to resolve.

The Trump administration tried to stoke panic in private and public about the fallout of the UNSC's failure to renew the arms embargo on Iran. Then-U..S Ambassador [to the UN] Kelly Craft warned that China and Russia would "revel in this council's dysfunction and failure".

Estonia was in the middle of a worsening diplomatic debacle. Nonetheless, the Estonians held their ground and refused to be sucked into arguments that could only hurt them. With firm backing from the E3, both Estonia and Tunisia refused to introduce a new arms embargo resolution.

When the U.S. proposed a resolution in its own right, they joined the majority of UNSC members in abstaining on the issue. And when the U.S. then tried to initiate snap-back, Tallinn joined its European allies – and all but one of the 14 other UNSC members – in rejecting the Americans' claim to have the right to do so.

The U.S. effort to enact snap-back hobbled on until the end of the Trump administration (with Washington claiming that it had in fact succeeded in doing so), but ambassador Craft and other U.S. officials quietly dropped their previous dire warnings of a UNSC breakdown. The snap-back issue went from being a crisis to an afterthought at the UN in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps precisely because it fizzled out so unremarkably, there have been few commentaries on Estonia's role in the Iran saga.

Yet, by refusing to give even token support to the U.S. arms embargo drive, Estonia played a small part in pushing back against U.S. efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal completely.

The fact that the other European members of the UNSC were united in opposing the U.S. on this problem certainly gave Tallinn some political cover. But it does appear that Washington underestimated Estonia's willingness to resist concerted U.S. lobbying. The fact that the Trump administration was fairly clearly heading for electoral defeat in late 2020 made it easier to demur.

But Estonia had faced its greatest fear in the UNSC – a transatlantic rift over the Middle East – and came out largely unscathed.

2. Shining a spotlight on Belarus and Crimea

While the snap-back mess put Estonia temporarily on the same side as Russia in a UN debate, it was locked in a dispute with Moscow over events in Belarus by mid-2020.

If Tallinn fretted about offending the U.S. on the security council, it was bound to disagree with Russia on issues including Ukraine and Syria.

Less foreseeable was the crisis in Belarus that escalated in August 2020, as huge crowds took to the streets to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's claim to have won a landslide victory in national elections, and state forces cracked down forcefully against civilians.

This episode presented Estonia with two major problems at the UN. The first was that Russia, Lukashenko's ally, would inevitably veto any UNSC statement or resolution on the crisis. The second was that some non-western UNSC members questioned whether the protests – ostensibly an internal political affair – warranted the UNSC's attention as a threat to international peace and security.

Even some other European members of the UNSC, notably including France and Germany, seem to have signaled some discomfort with challenging Russia at the UN on Belarus, rather than working through bodies like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Nonetheless, as the UNSC's sole eastern European member, Estonia could hardly ignore the events in Belarus.

Rather than make a futile push for formal UNSC action on the situation, the Estonian mission in New York chose to organize two informal "Arria formula meetings" in September 2020 and January 2021, involving speakers from Belarusian civil society and opposition parties, with then-foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu in the chair.

The second event featured Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition presidential candidate that many observers believed had won the election.

While these events had no formal standing, they at least contributed to efforts to maintain international public attention on the crisis. As Ashish Pradhan and I have argued, the UNSC is sometimes only useful as a "platform for public diplomacy" over crises where its divisions preclude serious UN engagement.

Estonia used it effectively in this fashion (it also requested a number of closed-door sessions on the crisis, including the migrant situation on the Belarusian-Polish border).

Nonetheless, some non-western UNSC members continued to cast doubt on whether the UNSC should engage on Belarus, especially after the number of protests declined in late 2020.

Estonia also convened two Arria formula meetings on the human rights situation in Crimea during its term. The Russian mission to the UN seems to have noted these efforts and wanted to emulate them.

In 2021, Russia organized three Arria formula meetings of its own on Ukraine – variously promoting its version of the situation in Crimea and the events of the 2014 Maidan revolution – and in December it arranged a fourth event on the treatment of minorities in the Black Sea and Baltic regions.

While Russia used this as a further opportunity to criticize Ukrainian policies, it also used this occasion to accuse Estonia of pursuing "devastating" policies aimed at limiting education for Russian-speaking children.

Although most diplomats dismissed this event as a stunt, Russia seems to have imitated – and aimed to counter – the way Estonia and other UNSC members used Arria formula meetings to shape political narratives about crises like those in Belarus and Ukraine.

In its own way, this may have been a tribute to Estonia's efforts, as it suggests that Russia does not want to let its critics dominate the narrative at the UN (the Russians, of course, have continued to spread their distorted narratives about the situation in Ukraine at the UN during the war this year).

3. The Afghan collapse

Estonia found itself at the center of UNSC diplomacy over the Afghanistan crisis in August 2021, as one of the two "pen-holders" (diplomatic coordinators) on Afghanistan alongside Norway.

The Estonian team only took on this role at the start of 2021, as a sign of growing confidence after their first year on the UNSC. Even at that point, it was clear that the UN would likely play a larger role in Afghan affairs as the U.S. reduced its military footprint in the country. The Estonian mission looked for expert advice on likely scenarios – including rapid Taliban gains – in the summer, but the collapse of the Kabul government still shocked all UNSC members.

During the immediate crisis surrounding the fall of Kabul, Estonia and Norway quickly discovered the limits of their room for maneuver during a crisis involving direct U.S. interests.

Prior to the capture of the Afghan capital, the two pen-holders introduced a UNSC statement expressing alarm at the level of violence and human rights abuses, and threatening the Taliban with unspecified "additional measures" in response to "actions that threaten the peace, security or stability of Afghanistan".

The U.S., then in direct negotiations with the Taliban on the withdrawal process, blocked this initiative stone dead. Washington would not back a UNSC resolution until the very end of August, as the withdrawal wound up. U.S. officials insisted on leading the drafting process on this text, which laid out general expectations for the Taliban's behavior, requiring tricky negotiations with China and Russia.

Having defied the Trump administration over Iran, Estonian diplomats thus found themselves having to follow the Biden administration's lead on Afghanistan. The UNSC moved tentatively on Afghan-related issues through much of the second half of 2021. In September, it extended the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), without substantive alterations, to March 2022. In December, after further difficult negotiations, the U.S. pushed through a resolution confirming sanctions exemptions on humanitarian assistance to Afghan recipients.

While Norway and Estonia facilitated these processes – and had to see off efforts by China and Russia to cut back UNAMA's political and human rights mandates – the U.S. remained the decisive actor in UN diplomacy on this file. Having taken a stand over snap-back and driven UNSC discussions on Belarus, Estonia found itself contending – through no fault of its own – with the limitations of being an elected member.


All elected members leave the UNSC with unfinished business. Estonian diplomats who worked on Afghanistan, eastern Europe and Iran know that the diplomatic processes that they contributed to in 2020–21 remain incomplete.

At the time of writing in February 2022, the UNSC is still discussing what to do with UNAMA. While there have been no council talks on Belarus to date this year, there have been a flood of meetings on Ukraine.

The Biden administration and its European allies have meanwhile dangled the threat of a new and more credible "snap-back" of UN sanctions against Iran if talks in Vienna on revitalizing the JCPOA fail to reach a successful outcome Because most conflicts and crises extend beyond the term of an elected member – and as we have noted, there are few openings for truly decisive diplomatic successes in the UNSC these days – it can be hard to assess a member's performance.

Nonetheless, this review of Estonia's handling of the Afghanistan, Belarus and Iran crises does lead to some working conclusions. The first is that Tallinn and the Estonian mission in New York showed sound judgment when necessary – especially over snap-back – in a way that avoided alienating any of the country's major international partners. Those who worried that a term on the UNSC would actually harm Estonia's interests were proved wrong.

Second, in its use of Arria formula meetings and public diplomacy on Belarus and Crimea, Estonia made intelligent use of the limited options available to it to address tensions with Russia through the UN.

Lastly, Estonia appears to have enjoyed a reasonable degree of trust among other UNSC members, especially after its first year in the body.

The elected and permanent members would not have agreed to let Estonia "hold the pen" on Afghanistan if they had doubted its capabilities. It is also worth highlighting that, in parallel, Estonia made progress – and indeed greater advances than initially seemed possible – in bringing cyber security on the UNSC's agenda in parallel with all the crisis diplomacy described here.

In the space of two years, and despite skepticism from some of the permanent UNSC members, Estonia went from organizing an Arria formula meeting on the topic in May 2020 to presiding over the body's first formal meeting on cyber issues in June 2021.

Estonia had hoped to go further and secure a formal presidential statement on cyber security, but this proved impossible to agree (such statements require consensus). Nonetheless, Estonia had pushed the discussion further than many observers – this author included – had thought likely at the start of 2020, and inspired other UNSC members, including Indonesia, Kenya, China and the U.K., to host related events, although it is not clear that any UNSC members will treat the issue as a priority in 2022.

Estonia's two-year UNSC term, 2020-2021, was not, therefore, solely defined by the crises accounted for here. Yet, its time on the UNSC was, inevitably, shaped by unforeseen and unfortunate events – and these shocks highlighted and exacerbated geopolitical tensions within the UNSC.

It is to Estonia's credit that it handled such events professionally and sometimes even courageously.

Richard Gowan is UN Director of the International Crisis Group. He has worked with the European Council on Foreign Relations, the New York University Center on International Cooperation and the Foreign Policy Centre (London). He has taught at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and at Stanford University in New York and also worked as a consultant for a number of organizations including the UN Department of Political Affairs, the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on International Migration and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


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