March 12, 2019

Estonian Foreign Policy on a Darkening Landscape

U.S. President Donald Trump with U.S. first lady Melania Trump, Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas, right, and his wife Karin Ratas, left, walk in the Park of the Cinquantenaire, in Brussels on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump with U.S. first lady Melania Trump, Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas, right, and his wife Karin Ratas, left, walk in the Park of the Cinquantenaire, in Brussels on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

The elections are over and the main options of Estonian foreign policy seem to have been confirmed: membership of the EU and NATO, maintaining strong relations with our allies and investing in defence capability are the pillars that the next government is expected not to disturb.

Foreign policy wasn’t actually an election topic. However, the international situation is anything but peaceful. Estonia may want to stay on the same path, but it’s not impossible that it will crumble under our feet. The destructive forces are mainly external, but they are also within our society.

An experienced diplomat described international politics to me as a playground that is well lit when institutions are strong and the rules established. But the playground has darkened over the past years. A few decades ago, when Estonia was on its way to the EU and NATO, the path was clear: we only needed the strength to run and overcome a few obstacles placed in our way by our eastern neighbour.

The current foreign-policy debate is somewhat nostalgic for these times. We miss having great aims and clear goals. On a darkening and changing landscape, it is a challenge just to survive, to not get lost or lose our friends.

It is therefore understandable that the foreign-policy debate before the elections had a strong focus on defence. Russia was hardly mentioned, and there is hardly anything new to say in this context. In this respect, Estonia seems to have moved closer to Finland, which also takes its defence capability very seriously: it goes without saying where the threat comes from. In Estonia the discussion was about whether and by how much defence spending should be increased over the level set by NATO (2% of GDP).

Europe’s Anxious Uncertainty

Yet no amount of defence expenditure is sufficient to guarantee Estonia’s security. Two vital issues for Estonia were therefore repeated prior to the elections: first, the stability of relations with allies and Western institutions, especially the EU and NATO; and second, the future of the entire rules-based world order.

It isn’t easy to have an open political debate on these issues today. Europe has been struck by an anxious uncertainty over whether it can still rely on the United States. Estonia is among those allies where the need to maintain strong transatlantic relations has muffled any criticism.

Unfortunately, politicians’ assertions about strong transatlantic relations sound like wishful thinking, the alternative to which seems to be hopelessness. Nobody else can or wants to replace the security guarantee offered by the US in our region.

European countries have increased their defence capability in recent years and will continue to do so, partly in the framework of the EU, but progress is slow. The rise of populism across Europe threatens to thwart the EU’s ability to act.

Eurosceptic radical nationalists like the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) could win one-third of seats in elections to the European Parliament in May, which would give them considerable influence to block decisions and undermine the system, if nothing else. Trying to defend narrow national interests while turning one’s back on international cooperation has never turned out well in Europe, especially for small countries.

The internal weaknesses of Western societies, which are reflected and amplified by the rise of populism, make us vulnerable to Russian influence and benefit Russia. NATO and the EU have demonstrated in recent years that they can cope with the Russian threat—but only if the unity of these organisations remains intact.

The security of Estonia and Europe as a whole requires both a strong NATO and a strong EU, plus good cooperation between the two. The new government will face a considerable challenge to maintain that.

However, the EU and NATO, or even the wider Western community, do not constitute the entire world order. They are a major part of it, but the West’s leading position on the global stage is gradually weakening in military, economic, technological and ideological terms.

In view of this, Western unity should be all the more important: we might expect democratic Western countries with similar values and societies to defend their common interests when competing with autocracies, especially China and Russia.

A Crumbling World Order

However, the US and Europe are clashing over trade, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and many other issues. Moreover, European countries often fail to agree between themselves on major international issues.

The greatest source of uncertainty lies in US reluctance to maintain its leadership—not only remaining stronger than others, but also maintaining the structures and institutions underpinning the existing world order.

Estonia’s foreign policy traditionally stresses the importance of maintaining a world order based on rules and values. Estonia and all of Europe need a clearer understanding of what can be done to achieve this goal. Europe must adapt to the US no longer wanting to meet a number of its earlier commitments.

Of course, Estonia tries to avoid choosing between the US and Europe. There are cases, however, when this is impossible: for example, it is in Estonia’s interest to support a strong EU trade policy, which currently protects the European market from the US.

A discussion of the world order as such is a relatively new phenomenon in Estonia. Estonian foreign policy is in fact rather focused on the Western community and Western organisations. This is how it should be, but a changing world order creates a need to strengthen the global dimension of foreign policy.

Estonia has applied for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council; the result will be known in June. It has been questioned in the Estonian debate whether this exercise is worthwhile. Yet there is no doubt that the UN is the basis for the current world order. It’s neither efficient nor particularly effective as an organisation, but it is the framework that brings the countries of the world together to resolve conflicts and shared problems.

Perhaps the Security Council campaign will (regardless of the result) help Estonia gain a better picture of how the world is changing and work out what difference we can make and how. There may be places where we can improve the lighting.

This article is mostly based on a column that was first published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.