March 11, 2013

The Melian Dialogue 2.0: A Value-Based Pragmatism

We cannot allow ourselves to think that small states, though they would perhaps also like to be pragmatists, cannot possibly afford to do so and must settle for second-rate values instead.

On 27 March, Estonia’s current stretch of independence will have lasted de facto just as long as the first time around. It is therefore a fitting time to ask ourselves how to proceed, which – take note – is not the same as ‘where do we go now?’ I shall try to answer from the viewpoint of both values and pragmatism.
A journalist once stated that the Melian dialogue was for first year students. As opposed to the literature that is fashionable today and out of date tomorrow, classical texts are timeless and need revisiting. It may be that the journalist who attacked President Ilves on this issue did not actually talk about the text’s content because he had not read any Thucydides other than what was on the required reading list.
In that fabled story the Melians have a choice – either they surrender to the Athenians unconditionally or fight back and face certain doom. The Athenians on the other hand approach the issue not ethically, but in a so-called realist or Machiavellian manner. The strong seemingly do what they want and the small will have to accept it. Further pages that most people never read, however, reveal that the Athenians had been wrong. Drunk with hubris, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC and their empire with it. The Melians managed to escape and returned home. What the Athenians had considered useful was simultaneously morally wrong and pragmatically detrimental. The moral of the story is that values are also beneficial, and what is really beneficial is also based on values. This applies to the big and the small alike.
We cannot allow ourselves to think that small states, though they would perhaps also like to be pragmatists, cannot possibly afford to do so and must settle for second-rate values instead. This is also refuted in Plato’s story about Gyges’ ring of invisibility – a precursor to ‘The Lord of the Rings’. The moral of both Plato’s and Tolkien’s story is the lord without his ring. Unaccountable power is neither right nor beneficial. What is useful is to do what is right. (Which does not mean that nothing unfair ever happens if you follow that rule.)
The government’s current report on foreign policy also touched upon the question of values vis-à-vis pragmatism. The foreign minister spoke about how the government protects the people by standing up for liberty and rights. Various military missions interconnect value-based security and economic interests and strengthen solidarity with our allies. We lent our support to the correct diagnosis and cure for the debt crisis, thus supporting the free market economy as a moral imperative. This also saved Estonians’ money (we have the lowest state debt) and enabled us to successfully defend our interests at the EU budget negotiations. There are more examples than would fit into a single speech or article. I shall only discuss a few of them, first from the European and then, narrowing down, from the Estonian viewpoint.
I begin with the European Union, in the shaping of whose future Estonia will also have to participate. It is possible that the solution lies in a common domestic policy, which is missing today. There are conflicting forces at work within the Union, such as social democracy vs. free market economy, social liberalism vs. conservatism, and centripetal vs. centrifugal tendencies. Some advertise solidarity, growth, and ever-closer integration and enlargement as value-based politics. However, solidarity and growth at someone else’s expense, central power at the expense of sovereignty and liberty, and enlargement with the aim of importing work force and energy is not value-based, but short-sighted or selfish.
While we are on the topic of enlargement, we could ask whether the states that support it should continue to be so pro-enlargement. Objectively speaking it is clear that the 2004 enlargement round was an exception and will not be repeated, and that a larger union will be less efficient. It is not very fair to support the accession of states that in all likelihood will never be admitted because they do not fulfil the requirements or simply do not belong to the European cultural area. To appeal to the exporting of ‘values’ when the outcome is impractical is to forget about pragmatism. There is no moral obligation to support enlargement as such. By focusing only on the enlargement of the market we forget about values. As Nicolas Sarkozy has said, a Europe without borders is a Europe without values.
In the present union, the value-based and pragmatic, morally right and materially beneficial thing to do is to support a free market economy, less bureaucracy, decentralisation, social reforms and defence expenditure at a minimum of 2% of GDP. When this has been achieved, we can also do and decide some things together, for example using the intergovernmental model that maintains the sovereignty of states and does not delegate it to Brussels. Instead of a opting for a core like that, some states can opt only for a large and loosely connected common market. The solution therefore does not have to be a federal or a unitary state. It certainly cannot be, as long as the above-mentioned contradictions are not solved. The solution is not simple Kantian republicanism or democracy. However large and democratic the European Union is, war and poverty are a possibility if we make mistakes, if our will is uncertain and irrational.
Domestic conflicts also reflect in foreign policy. The European Union is a larger economic power than the United States and provides over 50% of the world’s development aid, yet is unable to assert itself and achieve results that would be in its own interests or in the interests of those who are reliant on its aid. Moreover, many member states prefer not to use or even to maintain a military force. This seems value-based to them. It is definitely not pragmatic. It is quite peculiar to consider something that goes no further than with words as value-based. We need to aspire to a real result. A quasi-Kantian unconditional support to ‘democracy’ just adds to the confusion. Supporting the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring instead of the authoritarian leaders who kept the situation under control ostensibly put values ahead of pragmatism. However, when Islamists and radicals take power and the area becomes more dangerous, it is not democracy we are dealing with, it is ochlocracy. The reader can find for himself or herself more examples like this.
Estonian foreign policy has for the past twenty years successfully amalgamated pragmatism and values. It would be wise to continue along that path. Otherwise, there is a danger that Estonia will become aimless and will start looking for the next union or format to aspire to, the so-called next big goal. The goal will have to be material, in other words value-based and pragmatic politics in interaction with states that are important to us and also within NATO and the European Union. The diffuse UN with its endless and ineffective bodies and councils is not the next big goal. We do not need such ‘Soviet Estonian politics’ – to borrow a phrase from a colleague. Besides, it is nuclear deterrence that is keeping World War Three from starting, not the UN. This is a paradoxical, yet real example of value-based pragmatism.
The goal is also not the dated concept of becoming a Nordic state. First, it was never an objective; President Ilves has explained time and again that by ‘a boring Nordic country’ he meant peace, stability and prosperity. Second, we can see that both the Swedes and the Finns increasingly perceive security threats and that real protection comes from NATO, not the UN. They also know that the welfare society model is well past its ‘best before’ date. It would be fatal for Estonia to start swimming against the current. Our security is not on a firm enough footing nor is our wealth sufficiently large – and there is no way it could be – for us to engage in substitute activities. Estonia is a free Rechtsstaat. We need not prove anything to anyone. Our constitution compels us to protect Estonia, not pervert our domestic policy to fit the whims of the UN’s agenda.
At the same time, it can appear that we are super-pragmatic at home. A free market economy, the cost effectiveness of the state and a defence budget that one can take seriously – those things are practical and value-based at the same time, as is the fact that the government has guaranteed us extensive freedoms and rights. However, society has to be able to act morally in current conditions. It has not always succeeded in doing so. In addition to being at the top in all kinds of rankings of political and economic liberties and human rights, we also rank among the first in regards to alcoholism, drug addiction, HIV infection, atheism and broken families. Fundamentally good liberties have at times been misused like Gyges’ ring.
In short, it pays to bring domestic and foreign policy into agreement, and make Estonia an even better place. In regards to foreign policy, an even bolder, more focused and socially moral phase could begin on 27 March.

The Melian Dialogue 1.0

In October 2008 President Toomas Hendrik Ilves published a lengthy essay in Diplomaatia entitled ‘In Remembrance of the Melians’, in which he analysed the ideational foundations of Estonian foreign policy and how the security situation had transformed after the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008.
The central symbol of President Ilves’ essay was the dilemma between power and justice in international relations as described in the well-known chapter from Thucydides’ ‘Peloponnesian Wars’ known as ‘The Melian Dialogue’.
Among other things, President Ilves wrote the following:
‘The primary goal of Estonian version 2.0 foreign policy – joining the European Union – has given one possible solution to the dilemma of all small states: how to survive among the strong. The aim of Estonian as well as EU foreign policy is to achieve a Kantian perpetual peace between representative democracies tied together by mutual treaties and the rule of law. /…/ [I]f you are not bound by the rule of law and so forth, then the Kantian solution simply does not work. When we deal with countries that recognise neither the rules nor the norms of international behaviour, then if they are tied to a system, /…/ then the framework simply no longer operates. Then all that counts is force. /…/
There is nothing new in this dilemma. To the contrary, throughout history and long before it, this has been the norm. The second history book known to our culture, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars (431 B.C.) in the chapter familiar to us as the Melian Dialogues, describes what happens to the weak and small when the rules don’t apply.
Melos, a small island that had declared its neutrality in the Peloponnesian War was approached by the Athenians, who wanted the Melians to submit to them. The Melians asked for negotiations to maintain its neutrality. The Athenians answered they had a right to rule simply due to their superior force.
The Athenians inform the Melians that the question of right applies only when both sides have equal power to enforce it, that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak do what they must.’
In other words, in the absence of an agreed upon system of rules, when there is an imbalance of force, all that counts is might. We see the same today in Darfur and Georgia.
The Melians appeal that the supremacy of might could someday come to haunt the Athenians when faced with an even greater power, but the Athenians answer that not to use force would expose their weakness and thus decrease the Athenians’ own security.
In the end the Athenians offer the Melians a choice faced by too many small nations of Europe: submitting you will avoid the worst and remain alive. The Melians decide not to give in to pressure, the Athenians kill all the Melian men and enslave all the Melian women and children.’
In his essay, President Ilves asserted the role of values in Estonian foreign policy, emphasising, ‘Yet from our point of view, and based on our history, Estonian value-based foreign policy – support for democracy, market economy, the rule of law, etc. – is as much a pragmatic and ineluctable approach as some other country’s studied silence in its relations with a stronger neighbour.
Estonia’s experience, its isolation as a result of imperfect democracy in the 1930s and its abandonment more generally makes it extremely difficult, even impossible to abandon solidarity with those countries where those same values and the underpinnings of our existence as a state, have come under threat. /…/
[P]ragmatism for Estonia is not the antithesis of a value-based foreign policy. /…/ [T]he antithesis of a value-based foreign policy is realism, Realpolitik, that defines the limits to which we can appeal to values, international law and justice. The differing paths and responses that follow from Realpolitik vs. values create the tensions that exist in the national foreign policy of a country like Estonia, as well as in the European Union. When do we stand up for values, /…/ and when do we understand that nothing more can be done or that doing something begins to harm our own interests?
This is precisely the tension between remaining true to one’s ideals and true to the fundamental task of the Republic of Estonia – defending the Estonian nation – that defines the framework in which foreign policy-makers must work day to day, from event to event. For like it or not, we still live in a world where not all share the fundamental values of Europe.

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