Jaak Aaviksoo: Where are your national interests Estonia?

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

There is an existential component to interests. Without interests of our own we will fade away into the background of the struggles of others. I believe we will soon learn the price we need to pay for the recent inability to defend our national interests, academician Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

We must praise the wisdom of those who put together the Estonian Constitution for their phrasing of our mission: to ensure the survival of the Estonian people, language and culture throughout the ages. This phrasing, which transcends eras and conditions, helps us maintain course and not lose sight of what really matters, while we also need concrete goals and positions in rising to external challenges at different times that help us cope as equals in a fiercely competitive world and fulfill our mission. There is reason to believe that we are falling short in the latter today.

This conclusion stems from increasingly frequent news of our obligations, what we must or cannot do. Whereas those who have been elected to represent the people are acting at best in the capacity of assistant administrators. We increasingly perceive them not as our representatives but rather as middlemen for an abstract higher power.

A closer look betrays an even sadder fact: more than a few of those external obligations we have agreed to and participated in ordering ourselves. Whether through joining international conventions or voting in EU decision-making bodies.

How do these things happen? In what process is sovereignty lost and one goes from a subject of international affairs to an object?

In the most general terms, it happens when one loses the ability to fend for one's interests. It is even worse when these interests cannot even be phrased, not to mention their shared understanding. And finally, when one loses the ability to understand what is happening.

Painting such a grotesque picture is, of course, an exaggeration, while we must also admit that it is impossible to miss signs of all of these elements.

The idea is not to criticize the government or accuse the officialdom of incompetence. Rather, it is an observation that requires a more in-depth debate in the context of Estonia's general development.

Our miraculous liberation from the Soviet/Russian occupation left us with the legacy of a simplified, black and white worldview where evil – ideological totalitarianism and national and economic slavery – was in direct contrapose to good – democracy, economic freedom and the rule of law.

The national goals phrased in the Singing Revolution – to shake off foreign rule and rejoin the family of free nations as a member of the EU and NATO – were achieved, which also seemed to signal the end of common national interests. It seemed that from here on out, personal pursuit of happiness and free self-realization were enough to ensure national survival.

That is how one might imagine life in a perfect world ruled by justice and harmony between individuals, countries and peoples. However, the real world is not a perfect harmony but rather an organism that develops in the natural collision of interests where the pursuit of happiness and cooperation exist alongside competition and conflict.

Even when there is fundamental common ground, one must fend for one's personal interests as the history and circumstances of partners can be so different to see formally equal conditions fail to ensure equal opportunity. At the same time, differing interests allow us to stand out, be unique and exist. Interests, therefore, have an existential component. Without interests of our own we will fade away into the background of the struggles of others. Go from a subject to an object.

The hate speech debate is a perfect illustration of the latter. Even the most outspoken proponents of the bill admit that they cannot give a single example from Estonia of why we should dial back free speech to this extent. But we still must or face mean infringement proceedings. Whereas it is quickly added that it is something we have already approved. Who, when and why decided to give up our right to be ourselves is unclear.

The incoming Climate Law seems to be going down the same path. It is quite probable that the Riigikogu will refrain from debates over Estonia's interests and a resulting strategy for coping with climate change and that the law will rather seek to enforce obligations someone else has placed on Estonia and its people.

Let it be said that Estonia phrased for itself (following pressure from the EU and as an example of casualness) so-called smart specialization fields, sectors with potential for growth the development of and innovation in which should merit additional national and EU resources. They were food, timber and natural resources. Based on what we know today, all are rather looking at being dialed back by quite some margin. It is difficult to understand how that might be in Estonia's interests.

Whence this trend of failing to understand, being ashamed of or even denial of national interests? Allow me to point to four undercurrents.

First, there is the idea that proceeding from values is enough to survive. Even more that interests and the realpolitik that is associated with them, the bitter fruits that ripened in Yalta of which we really have tasted, are malicious by nature. This is a deeply misguided view, because without interests, values are nothing but an abstraction.

In order to survive, one needs an idea of one's goals and dreams striving towards which gives life meaning. Of course, national interests that grow out of that idea need to be based on our values, while the latter cannot replace the former. The complicated part is not the ideal of being value-based but rather how to sensibly balance different values. We know that equality can mean the end of freedom and vice versa, as well as that dedicating oneself wholly to a single value is fundamentalism.

Secondly, I would point to the notion that going after national interests amounts to fascism and is, therefore, reprehensible. Such a construct would have been unthinkable a mere decade ago but as well-known public figures have even described the tradition of Song Festivals as a manifestation of fascism since, the treatment has been making headway and not just in a few academic circles. National interests need to be rubbed out alongside those who represent them.

The third undercurrent that sees no place for national interests is a radical interpretation of liberalism. By prioritizing personal interests, phrasing all manner of collective interests – whether on the level of companies, communities or the country – is seen as an attempt to limit personal freedoms and discrimination. According to this idea, the role of the state would be limited to laying down a level playing field without the possibility of making future-oriented policy choices. This malady seems to have befallen Estonia's energy policy of late.

Two psychological mechanisms can be perceived on the backdrop of such apologetics of indecisiveness. It is a way to avoid the hard work of making and explaining decisions and – what is paramount – no decisions means no responsibility. Things just happen.

The most fateful aspect of this is when people who sport this mindset participate in negotiations with the EU on various levels, because running away from having and defending positions results in decisions where Estonia's interests are not just overlooked, they are used to facilitate those of others.

Last but definitely not least we can mention the very human desire to be liked. Important things are being discussed in which situation anyone would like to fit in. Supporting and praising initiatives is a much better tool than criticism or making demands when it comes to the latter – it is simpler and more human, not to mention a lot less labor intensive. And in a situation where one has not been provided with clear and well-reasoned talking points from home, it is quite understandable.

I believe that we will soon learn the price we will need to pay for our recent inability to fend for our national interests. Payment is due both for the people of Estonia and our companies. We will have to wait and see how and when the bill will reach those elected to represent our interests.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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