Our foreign-policy objectives require more forethought as resources diminish.
The inspired and inventive foreign policy of the 1990s, which laid the foundations for our historic reintegration with the Western world, is one of the most important cornerstones of Estonia’s current success. Today’s challenges remain the same. The demand for a successful and effective foreign policy has once again taken centre stage, as smart and creative diplomacy is very much the battlefront of our security. Meanwhile, the questions of whether the area of policy crucial for ensuring the country’s independence is adequately resourced and whether our foreign policy itself is sufficiently targeted have remained relevant for several years.
In 2003, the then Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Priit Kolbre, concluded the year by stating that “the time of the current so-called project diplomacy, which had come to govern all our resources over the last ten years or so and provided a convenient framework for thought patterns, is past. The objectives set for the project of joining the EU and NATO have been fulfilled.”
However, looking ahead, Kolbre asked about the new strategy: “Where is it, then, and what does it include, you may ask. Firstly, the strategy has yet not been completed and secondly, it will never be truly finished, because this management model continues to change and evolve. Unfortunately, the general situation of inter-agency and national cooperation is nothing to be proud of. There is too much insularity and isolation.”
Shortly before Estonia joined the European Union and NATO, the late Kolbre highlighted some questions of great significance that have been asked repeatedly over the last 12 years, and in connection not only with foreign policy but also the general development of the country. The questions are justified because targeted and therefore measurable activity is a simple basis for implementing policies with limited resources.
About ten years ago, the Ministry of Finance introduced an updated budgetary policy in which the effective use of resources became one of the key components. This change raised many questions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time: How to measure the success of foreign policy, and is it possible to fit it into some sort of time frame?
The change has now been adopted but the continuing lack of resources and the government sector’s general austerity programme has forced the ministry’s management to face a very serious challenge. How do you make cuts and lay off staff without the basic direction of Estonia’s foreign policy suffering? In reality, this is not only a lay-off problem for one agency and the question is much broader. Is our current foreign policy sufficiently targeted and should the government not view the execution of foreign policy as a whole to ensure our security?
When speaking in parliament last October, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas did not exclude the possibility of “closing some Estonian embassies because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to reduce its staff by 55 people in the next five years”. During the annual foreign policy debate in February, foreign minister Marina Kaljurand admitted that “2016 is going to be a year of change for the Estonian foreign service. We must review our staff and structure to find the best balance in promoting and protecting Estonia’s foreign policy interests in conditions where we have to reduce our staff and close … embassies.”
The topic is not new. There have been lay-offs in the ministry before. A 2012 analysis by the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee indicated that Estonia might not be able to sustain its network of missions abroad with existing resources.1 At the time, we made a series of suggestions to the government, including pointers on how to optimise missions abroad.
Nevertheless, the current situation is unique. There is no doubt that we have entered a very complicated era in international relations, where Estonia’s ability to ensure no more or less than the viability of its independence while also supporting the growth of our international competitiveness becomes of critical importance.
Consequently, it is essential to analyse the current state of our foreign missions, the orientation of our foreign policy and its broader role in fulfilling the country’s constitutional duties from every angle before making fundamental decisions.
The current analysis conducted in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should make its way to the political decision-making level as well as parliament before its completion. Today’s decisions may have a long-lasting influence on us and should therefore have as much political support as possible. The following must be treated as an additional input to this discussion.
Targeting Foreign Policy
Let us begin with Estonia being and remaining a small border country of the free world for the foreseeable future. It is obvious that, in the years to come, our economic ability to boost the financing of foreign policy will remain limited—not to mention that, in the short term, we will be pressured into making funding cuts.
Decisions made in conditions of limited resources must naturally be based on our foreign-policy objectives and principal activities. Over the years, ensuring national security, successful economic diplomacy and the provision of consular services have undoubtedly remained most relevant in the foreign-policy debate.
Our current task is to target all those activities in a way that ensures the efficiency of missions abroad, increased professionalism and, most importantly, productivity.
For the first time, the current renewal of the basis of security policy highlights a need to compile a broader development plan or an operational strategy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This will provide a good opportunity to cast a critical eye on our activities up to this point, while also taking into account the rapidly changing international environment, and to concentrate on what is most important.
Ideally, this operational strategy would focus on both long-term objectives and short-term activities. Like the strategy documents of the Ministry of Defence, the short-term development plan for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could also cover the following four years.
Using strategies that have already been laid down is not common in the tradition of shaping foreign policy in Estonia. Connecting strategies to specific goals seems even more unusual. It is true that, in the 1990s, the objectives were already clear—to accede to NATO and the European Union.
Today, the strategic approach would make it possible to ensure the better targeting of foreign policy and the necessary resources. This would in turn create an opportunity for better adjustment of the focus of the foreign service, the network of missions abroad and the targeting of funds distributed as development assistance.
Estonian foreign policy has reached the point where our international communication must concentrate primarily on exercising existential national interests, and the existing resources must be applied accordingly. The core of our foreign policy must constitute a consistent security policy protecting our common welfare, and professional economic diplomacy that enhances it. It is significant that the topics should be agency-wide in both cases.
First, security. The international security environment has been deteriorating constantly over the past few years. The cracks emerging in cooperation between the Western allies are of critical importance to us. The forthcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU and the threats of the popular US presidential hopeful Donald Trump to dismantle NATO are perhaps the most apt examples of this.2
Regardless of the nature of the threat to Estonia, we would be the most vulnerable if NATO and the EU were dissolved. Unfortunately, today this scenario cannot be altogether excluded.3 Hence, maintaining and reinforcing the unity of the Western allies should be one of the central axes of our security policy. We must be able to carry and develop the idea of a free and united Europe, which is currently under the greatest pressure in its history.
Estonia must belong to the notional centre of the Western allies. At the same time, we have to muster improved lobbying skills when solving problems and discussing security questions that are important to us, whether this involves shaping a common policy for the Western allies’ relationship with Russia or influencing the root causes of the migration crisis, ranging from the creation of the EU’s shared border control to using billions of euros of financial aid more purposefully.
Estonian diplomacy should above all be concerned with influencing decision-makers and public opinion in our Western European partners in a way that excludes the issue of whether the Baltic States are worth defending—a vision that could threaten NATO’s viability in the future.
Unfortunately, the latter continues to be relevant and there is no use denying that the forces that wish to see NATO crumble could make a fatal misjudgement with that particular weakness in mind.
As may be recalled, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 revealed that only 38% of respondents in Germany supported the use of military force if Russia attacked a NATO ally. Fifty-eight per cent opposed it. Respondents in other large EU countries were more supportive of a military response, but the proportion still remained below 50%.
The misguided and dangerous opinion that NATO’s “hasty” expansion to the east is one of the reasons for the deteriorating relationship with Russia is still doing the rounds in the West.
A recent BBC dramatised war-game film, which was also shown in Estonia, tackled the question of whether British soldiers should die for the freedom of two million Latvians. In addition, when discussing nuclear security, National Interest (published in Washington, DC) wrote in March 2016 that, “No one seriously believes that NATO would risk a nuclear attack on a Western city in order to defend Daugavpils”. At the end of the same sentence there is a rider in brackets: “If you don’t know where that is, that proves the point”.4
This points to a question that continues to be relevant—how to raise awareness of Estonia (and the whole region, in cooperation with our Baltic colleagues) in a way that would drain the life-force out of the still-persistent Yalta mentality.
Estonia’s approaching 100th anniversary is another great opportunity to spread a positive and memorable message among our friends. When devising an investment plan for the celebration year, the Government Office should keep in mind that, among other things, it is crucial to emphasise the message of our historical narrative—Estonia is not a former Soviet republic or a new democracy (as the general impression tends to be), but one of the oldest independent small countries with a long tradition of free democracy.
Along with a consistent security policy, boosting Estonian economic diplomacy is essential—especially at a time when the security downturn threatens our overall economic attractiveness and our closest export markets are under similar pressure.
Estonia’s international competitiveness should be one of the most important gauges of our growth policy. Estonia is aiming to be among the top 20 countries in the international competitiveness rankings by 2020. The rise will need to be quite steep, as the World Economic Forum placed us at No. 30 last year.
Diplomacy is admittedly only one of the many activities that help to boost a country’s competitiveness. At the same time, the work of our missions and honorary consuls abroad, along with improved strategic planning of foreign visits by business delegations accompanied by government leaders, are extremely important supporting activities for attracting foreign investment and creating new export opportunities.
Despite being discussed for years, the government still does not have a targeted plan for foreign trade. Having assessed different experiences, it would be more reasonable to combine the government departments that deal with foreign trade with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, when state reforms are carried out. Instead of the current Minister of Entrepreneurship, whose duties are not clearly defined, there should be a Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Assistance. There are several examples, but perhaps it would be wise to learn a thing or two from the Netherlands, with its long tradition of trade.
Launching the Team Estonia plan and creating a Foreign Trade Committee similar to the government’s Security Committee would also contribute to the better coordination of diverse activities. Foreign-trade policy must be one of the priorities of our growth policy and its strategic coordination should be in the prime minister’s competence.
Looking again at resources and the difficult choices facing foreign minister Marina Kaljurand, given the tasks confronting Estonia and the role of the foreign service, the minister should fight for a relative increase in foreign-policy funding rather than making cuts.
However, this does not mean that the better adjustment of the focus, updates to personnel policy and critical evaluation of the network of missions abroad should be abandoned when considering foreign-policy priorities.
Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. The total operating costs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 2016 are in same order of magnitude as the increase in this year’s budget for the Ministry of Defence—40 million euros. Finland, meanwhile, has allocated 226 million euros to cover the operating costs of its foreign ministry this year.
In the past six years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ share of the overall state budget has fallen from 0.65% to 0.43%. In 2003, before Estonia’s membership of the EU and NATO, the ministry’s share was still more comparable with the international scale—approximately 0.9%. The fact that the number of diplomats has not changed significantly in the last 13 years also speaks volumes.
At first glance, saving money by closing an embassy would be easiest. There is no point denying that the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted this option as long ago as February 2012.
Estonia currently has 46 missions abroad in total, consisting of 35 embassies, seven representations to international organisations, three consulates-general and one chancellery. Enterprise Estonia has representatives in 13 countries. It is important to add that some 40% of the annual budget of Enterprise Estonia’s foreign activities comes from EU funds.
Closing five missions would provide the ministry with 1.5 million euros, but only if the staff working there were dismissed. In order to settle real-estate issues, additional annual investment amounting to about one million euros would be needed. The total sum would be comparable to the annual depreciation.
Closing an embassy is always more difficult than opening one. The worst example from our recent history was our embassy in Hungary. In a mere moment of heightened emotion and without a second thought, we put an end to the mission in the land of our fellow tribesmen simply as a reaction to Budapest’s decision to close its embassy in Tallinn.
Today, we find ourselves in a situation where Hungary is allegedly reopening its embassy in Tallinn and one of our most glorious embassy buildings remains unsold in Budapest. We could actually retract our decision, reopen our embassy in Budapest and use it to deal with neighbouring countries in the Balkans.
However, if we are reviewing our network of embassies with a view to closing some, the most fundamental questions remain—why and which ones? Let us start from the reality that the age of one-man embassies is over. New and existing embassies should be productive Estonian representations able to perform their role to the full extent possible in the context of both personnel and support services. The main focus will remain on our allies, but it is very important to maintain and strengthen our embassies in the world’s emerging centres of influence, such as Asia.
The basic criteria for establishing, maintaining or strengthening missions abroad should be their relationship with our primary foreign-policy objectives—ensuring security and international competitiveness.
In conclusion, the next two years will be really challenging for our foreign policy. Regardless of the decisions made in today’s atmosphere of cuts and redundancies, one must bear in mind that the number of challenges will not diminish. So it is necessary to understand that the well-motivated and smart work of diplomats is of critical importance on the battlefront of ensuring our security and well-being.
1 www.riigikogu.ee/v/failide_arhiiv/Riigikogu/Valisk… 2 blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/04/02/donald-trump-def… 3 www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2016/02/08/a-bruxell… 4 nationalinterest.org/feature/nato-russia-return-th…
Marina Kaljurand, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Diplomacy has a very significant role in ensuring Estonia’s security. Security is more than just military defence. Diplomacy is a crucial part of guaranteeing security and deserves constant attention and support.
2016 is going to be a year of change for the Estonian foreign service. We will review our staffing and structure as well as our foreign-policy activities, which will probably lead to the end of some functions. At the same time, this could mean highlighting and emphasising the role of some current activities. I believe it is essential to strengthen our strategically important missions. I agree that the age of the so-called one-man embassies is over. The main thing is to ensure that our fundamental goals do not suffer.
When it comes to an operational strategy for the next four or five years, I am not convinced that we can use this as a basis for planning all our activities. It is of foremost importance to maintain flexibility and creativity, because the last two years have shown that the world has become more unpredictable. New issues can emerge almost overnight, such as Russia’s conflict with Georgia or Ukraine and the case of the Estonian ship guards in India. These are a few examples of issues that drain the resources of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, yet cannot be foreseen in the development plan. I believe that devising operational strategies with questionable expediency and validity increases the amount of bureaucracy even further and forces diplomats to abandon their main tasks in favour of substitute activities for long periods of time.
I agree that Estonia’s foreign policy must first and foremost concentrate on exercising existential national interests such as security and economic welfare. I also agree that unity and solidarity are crucial in today’s difficult times. The first priority of Estonian foreign policy in 2016 is therefore to maintain the unity and solidarity of Western and other similar-minded countries. Among other things, this means transatlantic cooperation and supporting projects that promote unity, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), maintaining a constructive line in complicated trans-European questions, and avoiding new problems and opposition.
I cannot agree that there is a widespread belief within NATO countries that the Baltic States are not worth defending, or that our NATO allies would not help us in the event of an attack. The decisions made by NATO in the last two years prove otherwise—we are being supported and we will never be left alone. We have no reason to doubt NATO’s Article 5. The words of US President Barack Obama in Tallinn have more weight than a film produced by the BBC that had little to do with reality.
However, it is clear that, due to the changes in Europe’s security environment, one must be more active in explaining Estonia’s security situation. The better our allies understand us, our needs and the reasons behind them, the easier it will be for us to reach our goal—the expanded military presence of the allies in our region. Countries further away from us may not automatically understand the situation on NATO’s eastern flank. It is our duty to explain it to them.
Jaak Jõerüüt, Ambassador
I have no objections to Marko Mihkelson’s article. It is correct in both its key points and its detail. It is also important in principle. Yes, the majority of Estonian foreign-policy expertise and fine-tuning capacity is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but to me it is very important for experts from outside the ministry to contribute regularly to the shaping of foreign-policy developments. An external eye has the potential to notice what remains obscured for insiders by human nature or is cast aside for official reasons.
I wish to stress the most important of Mihkelson’s key points: in the foreseeable future, the core of foreign policy must be dominated by security policy, and economic diplomacy should be secondary. I agree with Mihkelson that the closing of our embassy in Budapest remains a negative example. The eternal issue of opening and closing embassies should be flexibly added to the discussion of their relative importance. To repeat one of my earlier thoughts: the role of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee should not be limited to hearings on the process of opening and closing embassies. This would be consistent with the operating principles of a parliamentary state.
I would like to add a couple more keywords in connection with operational strategies: flexibility and speed. Global developments in recent years show that, in addition to maintaining the designated strategic course, we will also have to face unexpected foreign-policy situations that require us to be flexible and decisive. The parliamentary aspect must be kept in mind, even in this context.
Andres Kasekamp, Member of the Board of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
The budgets of foreign ministries are under attack everywhere in the Western world. It is always easier for governments to make cuts in areas where the voters are not going to feel the impact. Limiting the availability of social services will always result in a public outcry, but reducing diplomatic representation in another country will not have a direct effect on citizens’ wallets and thus they are not going to feel it.
Even though it is predicted that traditional embassies will die out,i in reality nothing can replace the presence of diplomats—not even enthusiastic tweeting. The closest possible ties to the world have been the cornerstone of Estonian security since Lennart Meri’s tenure. We have learned from history not to face troubles alone. In short, the better known Estonia is, the better its prospects of survival. It is important to focus on increasing citizens’ interest in and knowledge of world affairs to enhance the value of foreign policy. Think tanks, media and opinion-leaders have an important role to play in this.
Thankfully, Marko Mihkelson draws attention to significant challenges and makes several constructive proposals, including the creation of a position of Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Assistance and formulating a foreign-policy strategy. Almost all Estonian diplomats I have met have taken Estonia’s interests to their hearts and have to tackle the workload of several analogues of some larger country. They understand their long-term objectives perfectly without needing a strategy document. There are plenty of Estonian government strategy documents that have no practical use and have received nothing more than passing attention. Producing more of these might not be the best idea at the moment. Estonian foreign policy is based on the National Security Concept, a framework document whose compilation was coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is also the case with the US, where the government presents its National Security Strategy and no separate strategy for foreign policy is needed.
i Alex Oliver, “The Irrelevant Diplomat”, Foreign Affairs, 14 March 2016 www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2016-03-14/i…
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.