Our biggest security threat lies within our borders.
“With unwavering faith and a steadfast will to strengthen and develop the state …
which shall protect internal and external peace. …
Everyone has the right to the protection of the state and of the law.” (Constitution of the Republic of Estonia; Preamble and Section 13)
One of the main functions of the state is to ensure the security of the population. In order to be an internationally acknowledged sovereign entity, the state must bear responsibility for its subjects, and maintain peaceful relations with other nations. This is an unambiguous norm of international law, which is also reflected in the constitutions of all countries. With the freedom of a country comes responsibility.
Hence the people need the state mainly in order to have the courage to exist, to be brave, to be free from fear. Being able to feel secure is the foundation for everything else—building a home, raising children, doing business.1 Security is thus first and foremost a feeling—a reality, which is perceived subjectively by every individual—and for the state the key issue is how to guarantee that feeling. The logical answer seems to be: by creating objective security and communicating it to the people as well as possible. Objective security consists of many elements: internal and external national defence, the economy, education, culture, environment, states, people, their relations. For small countries, the dimension of external relations is more relevant than it is for bigger countries because they are more likely to become objects of international relations than subjects—they have less influence on the surrounding environment. Building external security is day-to-day work for a small country. For Estonia, this is not something that reappeared on 20 August 1991 and partly disappeared again in 2014 with the war in Ukraine or in 2015 with the influx of refugees to Europe. It is not merely “boots” and other “stuff”. It is being awake, noticing and being aware. It is the constant creation and renewal of something. It is communication and maintaining relationships. It is taking responsibility.
Pärnu beach, the afternoon of 17 July 2014. My phone rings. “They shot down that plane!” The anxiety in the voice on the other end of the line carries a wordless message about the importance placed on the event by the caller. I contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitoring centre. After a while, news starts coming in about a Malaysian passenger plane shot down over eastern Ukraine. The caller was right. This was a turning point in the ongoing crisis. The shooting down of a passenger aircraft by separatists supported by Russia became the basis for Western countries to permanently change their attitude towards Russia and to implement more quickly the economic sanctions approved the previous day at the European Council.
The first day of Christmas 2015. The e-mail notification on my phone beeps a few times. One of the messages contains the news that there have been cyber-attacks in Turkey. The sender wonders whether we can help them somehow, or have something to learn from them. Rapid reaction gives us a good opportunity to strengthen our alliance.
When an e-mail arrives at 2 am or 8 am, there is usually no need to guess who it is from. In the March 2006 issue of Diplomaatia, six months before being elected President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote that “Lennart [Meri] operated under the assumption that a diplomat must at all times be cognisant of current events” and that Meri assumed that people around him had read the same things, so that they could discuss them together.2 Today, the situation is no different. It is like a dry run. Knowing the same things and thinking the same way (sometimes also knowing how other people perceive things differently) can be invaluable in moments of crisis.
The President of Estonia is the supreme commander of national defence and represents the Republic of Estonia in its international relations. Nowhere is it written that the person in this position should follow world events in real time, 24/7. At the same time, no country is held together by its constitution and job descriptions alone; this is done by people who give thought and meaning to their actions themselves, who know and sense their actual responsibility.
“Ilves has always woven a net of people,” says a colleague of mine, who has known the president for almost 35 years. In the 1980s, those people who could do something for Estonia were either abroad, at “Välis-Eesti” or at home. Today it is exactly the same. At international conferences, Ilves is always surrounded by a swarm of people, old and new acquaintances. The president himself does not shy away from establishing new relationships when someone’s way of thinking and work interest him. That is why he has, for example, held meetings in New York with talented young Russia analysts from the US every autumn for the last three years. Before the first dinner invitation, Ilves did not know them and they did not know him. Perhaps the most visible example of weaving a net is “Eesti sõbrad” (“Estonia’s Friends International Meeting”), which has now been held for the last five years in July. Its goal is to create a stronger bond between Estonia and its new or potential friends. During the three-day programme, Estonia is introduced in detail to journalists, businessmen, politicians and international experts. Friendship does not always have to be measured in money, but it is likely that such actions also have a considerable economic effect.
Similarly, it is probably impossible to calculate to the last euro the actual profit that Estonia has made from “selling” its IT solutions to the rest of the world. Experts assess that it comes to millions of euros. The president has without doubt been the No. 1 salesman for Estonia’s image as an “e-state” in recent years. It comes as a complete surprise to most people to find the combination of extensive expert knowledge and the passion of a specialist in this area in a party politician. President Ilves has the ability to arouse interest in like-minded people and to unite two worlds—the IT guys and the decision-makers—by speaking the language of both. Estonia has experience it can share. Security is, for the most part, made of not just guns and boots, but also the reputation and the visibility of the state, of the values that we represent, of our contribution to the peace and well-being of the rest of the world. “If something should happen to you, we will come. Because you were with us in Afghanistan. You did a good job there. And you do your 2%,”3 a British security analyst told me privately.
“OMG, we have such a cool president! He actually says what he thinks,” enthuses the university-age daughter of an employee who has been observing the president at work for a day. The world listens to people who have something to say, defying the opinions of others. No less important is how to do it. Ilves is a foreign-policy man through and through. Sincerity sells. Ilves ends his thought-piece in Diplomaatia, “Truly, Lennart Meri led us to Europe,”describing Meri’s actions in defining Estonia as an equal partner in Europe. Today, it could be said that Meri opened the door to the West, which Ilves stepped through, to sit down and keep talking.
Continuing the theme of security as a feeling or sense in a more theoretical key, in his book The Geopolitics of Emotions, Dominique Moïsi places Estonia among the countries whose thinking is shaped by the culture of “hope”. This category also includes most Asian countries, but not the rest of Eastern Europe or most of the Western World.4 The author thinks that Estonia is a small, creative and dynamic (IT-) state with a positive image on the world stage, whose economy has grown faster than those of its neighbours for most of recent decades.
According to Moïsi, “fear” defines thinking in the US and Europe, “humiliation” in the larger part of the Arab world, while in Russia these feelings are mixed together with “hope”. He thinks that globalisation makes self-identification more difficult, both for people and for states. The fragility of identity in turn influences the sense of security through self-esteem. I cannot appreciate myself if I do not know who I am, which is why I feel that others will do the same. Achieving self-definition is easiest through comparison and contrast, and when there are no clear points of reference available to allow identification, this is what mostly happens. The identity of Europeans and Americans has suffered the most because of globalisation. It has been replaced by fear of people who are different, whose existence jeopardises the comfort zone. Only 15 years ago, the free movement of workers from Eastern Europe was considered unthinkable in Western Europe.
Another important keyword is, of course, “terrorism”. In the US, fear is the means by which the country’s policies achieve better control over its people, believes Corey Robin in his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, without excluding the possibility that better control in such a country might actually add to people’s security.5 Michael Moore handles the “history of fear” in the US in the 2002 movie “Bowling for Columbine”, asking, inter alia, why Americans own more guns than people in any other country. Is the country really safer as a result?
In most of the Arab world, identity is based on strong religious identification, which in its dogma is fragile in another way, and poverty creates a sense of inferiority, which in turn can develop into hatred. In Asia, economies are growing and individual identity is not threatened by religious dogma, while cultural self-identification is strong. And it is the same with Estonians.
Still, we probably should be aware that we live on the border of hope and fear. We have a historical existential fear of the unfamiliar in our bones, and the ingredients of fear are very much apparent in our thinking. The state must also take that into account. But the goal of the state is definitely not to make the bogeymen look bigger in order to achieve more control; quite the opposite—it is trying to create security by encouraging people. Less stringent state control means more freedom of the individual. While in the US, for example, the state is seen as something big, anonymous and awe-inspiring, for Estonians the state is closer to the skin. It is something a lot more personal, through either the national sense of ownership or personal contacts. It could even be said that, in a small state, individuals rather than society as a whole are subjects instead of objects, to a much greater extent than in large countries. “Connections” are shorter; public space is more compact. Does this go together with greater responsibility? Different philosophical approaches are definitely possible.6 I would still rather agree with those who say yes. The smaller the country, the greater the influence and role of the individual.
Estonia’s constitution states: “Everyone has the right to the protection … of the law” (§13) and “No one’s honour or good name may be defamed” (§17). Our public space, on the other hand, keeps sending the message: “Everyone has the right and duty to criticise. If you see something, hit it!” The power of words has the potential to both create and destroy. Criticism directed in the right way and administered in the right dose is certainly necessary. But criticism based on too little information, on prejudice or on inferior analysis has a powerful capacity to destroy. This kind of “freedom” should bring with it a sense of responsibility. I would even go one step further and say that sometimes an unexpressed thought and an unspoken word have the same power. This kind of responsibility belongs with the unthinking following of other speakers’ mindlessness, unwillingness to understand, and linear explanations. Collective mindless speaking tends to become uncontrolled public justice, which at times is even stronger than the official law.
This in turn leads to the thought that the biggest security threat to Estonia today is not located outside its borders. Our internal security consists of human honour and respect, and the ability to cooperate and to consider others; the ability to see and understand how others think, even if you do not always agree with them. As long as we search for contrasts between ourselves, we will never be fully independent or free from fear.
This article reflects the personal opinions of the author.
1 Freedom from something and freedom for something—the original thought: Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958.
2 http://www.diplomaatia.ee/artikkel/lennart-meri-eesti-valispoliitikas/ 3 The agreed target of NATO members to spend 2% of their GDP on defence.
4 Dominique Moïsi, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope Are Reshaping the World, 2009.
5 Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, 2004.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.