March 16, 2018

Values-based Foreign Policy: Swimming Against the Tide

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd R) reaches out to shake hands with Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser (L), watched by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics (C) and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius (R) ahead of a meeting at the State Department in Washington, DC on March 28, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd R) reaches out to shake hands with Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser (L), watched by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics (C) and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius (R) ahead of a meeting at the State Department in Washington, DC on March 28, 2017.

Estonia still has some like-minded friends in the world, but global trends are worrying

Estonia still has some like-minded friends in the world, but global trends are worrying

Small states must be great at adapting to international policy. Their ability to influence global developments is limited. The century-old Estonia is currently keeping an eye on geopolitical earthquakes, the aftershocks of which are reaching it from the Donbass and Syria, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. The world is at a crucial phase. How to survive this, adapting but still remaining true to oneself? What opportunities does this upheaval have in store for Estonia? The centenary celebrations are over, and the time has come to take a sober look at the future.
There are currently several trends in global policy that are negative for Estonia. Tensions between large states are growing and new power centres, especially China, are weakening the leading role of the US. Common rules of the game, and even the possibility of their existence, are doubtful. Russia is standing up to the West and is trying to force a reordering of Europe’s security situation. The underlying foundations of the EU and transatlantic unity have become more fragile.
All these trends are intensified by another negative development: the global downfall of democracy and liberal values that began in 2006.1 The tide of democratisation that also took hold in Estonia in the 1990s has turned. The model of liberal democracy, which then seemed victorious and globally tempting, is in danger even in its cradles—Europe and the US. Estonia’s values-based policy is swimming against the tide.

A Success That Was No Windfall

After the end of the Cold War, Estonia made good use of the opportunities that emerged in that unusually favourable international environment. Western hegemony and the leading role of the US in the world were unshakable, and there wasn’t much competition. At the same time, the reunification of Europe was the strategic aim of the US and the EU. The way the Baltic states should fit into the process initially caused disagreements in Europe. Discussion of recent European history often overlooked the fact that the Baltics’ accession to the EU and NATO was neither a given nor a windfall—and especially not a solution they were pressured into choosing from the outside. It was a time that confirmed that personal efforts and determination are of crucial importance to a small state.
Nevertheless, the matter was simplified by Estonia attaching itself to wider trends that were positive from its perspective. The foreign policy of the newly independent Estonia was oriented towards the West and based on liberal values. This choice was influenced by something bigger than idealism, identity or the feeling of belonging to the West. The liberal order both inside the country and in international relations became the foundation of Estonia’s security, offering a safety net upon which to rebuild the country. Just like Immanuel Kant’s perpetual peace theory stated long ago, democratic states generally do not go to war against one another.
A transatlantic alliance based on common values and European integration is a choice made by most small European states in the hope that it is the best solution for their security and development. Alliances formed on similar models of social organisation have proved to be the most successful in the history of international relations.2
Values-based foreign policy was a natural choice in the 1990s, going with the flow. The West was hoping that Russia would be democratised, too. New East-West relations were based on the assumption that the states freed from communism, including Russia, would share the democratic values of the West. Most Western nations clung to that hope even in the 2000s, as Russia moved towards an authoritarian regime. The Baltic states, who vocally pointed this out, were labelled Russophobic.
When Estonia became a member of the EU and NATO, the wave of democratisation seemed to move towards the EU’s new eastern neighbours. Estonia began to support attempts at reform in Georgia and Ukraine enthusiastically. At the same time, authoritarianism was gathering strength in the east. Nowadays, baseless idealism has long been abandoned in the West’s Russia policy. However, no new strategy has come along to replace it.

Liberal Ideals Slipping Away

In recent years, values-based foreign policy has stood on shaky ground, not only for external reasons but also arising from Western societies themselves. Populist extremist political forces, which attack not only the ruling elite but the entire system, are at their most popular in Europe since the end of World War II. Most Europeans still support a liberal-democratic society, but future trends make grim reading.
This inevitably brings to mind the 1930s, when many Europeans saw democracy as a doomed attempt and supported the rise of authoritarianism as a more viable system. Even Estonia went along with this, in a way. Today, we have not gone back to the 1930s but, as historian Timothy Snyder warns, we may be no wiser than the Europeans who accepted the rise of Nazism and Communism or were even enthused about it.3
There has been lots of talk recently about the liberal world order, but defining it has been tricky. One of its pillars is the functioning of political freedoms, human rights and the rule of law within states, but in that respect, too, the world during the Cold War was far from liberal. Nevertheless, people speak of a liberal world order created after World War II, mostly referring to rules applying to relations between states and their supporting institutions, starting with the UN. The current spread of authoritarianism contributes to the weakening of this international order, but these processes can also be viewed as two separate phenomena. The third (also crumbling) pillar of liberal world order could be the global market economy and free trade, together with the norms and institutions that maintain it.4
These three elements are connected by communication based on agreements and common norms, and a desire to build institutions that help prevent conflicts and resolve them peacefully. A liberal vision of the world also includes believing in the possibility of win-win games in international politics—one side’s victory does not mean the defeat of the other.
A closer look at the three pillars of liberal order quickly shows that they are ideals that have in practice never become a reality. There is no such thing as an ideal democracy, let alone international communication that always follows common rules. Yet people always strive for ideals. If the West were to forsake its liberal ideals, this would doubtless have a significant impact on world policy.

Is the EU a Champion of Democracy?

Since Donald Trump became president, the leading role of the US as a maintainer of the liberal world order has become significantly more doubtful. The growing US contribution to European security is reassuring for Estonia, but the new US security strategy brings worrying changes. It focuses on competition between great powers, and the previous attempt to achieve a win-win situation and maintain a global order has been replaced with a much narrower vision of national interests. The importance of shared values as the glue that holds alliances together has also come into question.
Europe has tried to establish itself at a morally higher position and appear a champion of liberal world order and democracy. At the same time, the EU’s foreign policy has shifted more towards geopolitical realism, or, in the EU’s words, principled pragmatism.5 This direction has been visible in the EU’s relations with Turkey and many African countries, for example.
Liberal values and the rule of law are no longer the self-evident pillars of the EU. Poland’s and Hungary’s development in recent years casts a long shadow over Europe’s values-based integration and foreign policy. In these countries, the rule of law and freedom of the press are in systemic danger, which must not be confused with problems connected to the implementation of the system present elsewhere in the EU. This is not a passing cold, rather a cancerous tumour that is hard to contain.
The EU has tried to support the development of democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine for years, setting progress in that area as the precondition for closer integration. Poland’s and Hungary’s turn to “illiberalism” damages Ukraine’s relations with the EU at least as much as Ukraine’s inability to strengthen its rule of law and demolish its corrupt system.
Other member states have avoided criticising Poland and Hungary so as not to strengthen these countries’ opposition to the EU. People have feared that this path might lead to these two countries leaving the EU, which is something nobody wants.
But what will become of values-based foreign policy and security if people turn a blind eye to Poland and Hungary, if they cannot bother to be more demanding towards Ukraine, if Turkey keeps its status as a candidate for EU membership despite growing authoritarianism in the country? How certain is the security safeguard provided by the US, if it is not based on common values and a similar view of the world order?
When is the time for Estonia to swim against the tide and when should it follow the growing trends? A lone small state cannot stop the global democratic collapse and the rise of geopolitical realism. At the same time, supporters of democracy are still in the majority, in both Europe and the wider world—let us not forget that democracy does not belong to the West alone.6
At the same time, Estonia is far from the only country that believes international relations based on common rules of the game are still possible and useful. Estonia has like-minded friends, mostly in Europe, and there are bound to be some in the US. Global trends are currently not favourable, but going against them is not a hopeless endeavour. Perhaps it is Estonia’s main hope and opportunity, until the tide turns again.


Raivo Vare, observer
I don’t need the allocated 1,500 characters to evaluate this article, since I agree with everything it says. I can just add a lesson learned from history: at a time when the ruling international order is geopolitical, based purely on the balance of power, small states have a hard time. Unfortunately, the author is right and we are once again slipping into that situation. The choices of small states will therefore be tied to realpolitik one way or the other.
The question is whether to choose a more suitable environment with which to identify based on values or perhaps a more comfortable (at first glance) area of influence in the short run. Our choice in this area (when we cast aside all the formal mantras) is always the same: whether to accept the ambitions of our bigger neighbour and cast ourselves in that sphere of influence or stick with the previous decision we made for many reasons—to remain among Western liberal democracies. At the same time, we must realise that, even within the framework of this choice, it is not certain that our most important allies will manage to hold on to the values-based approach completely. Would it suffice here, as the author suggests, simply topersevere, or should we make a more intensive effort to maintain values-based international policy? This is a question for our political and administrative elite; but also for every one of us. However, this will need determination, wisdom and great effort—as well as honesty, which is a prerequisite for reacting appropriately to various difficult situations that are emerging now or may do in the future.

Holger Mölder, Associate Professor of International Relations, Tallinn University of Technology
The realist school of international relations ruled during the Cold War and explained the influence of countries based on their military might, forming the thought patterns of entire generations of politicians and analysts. However, there is no need to take a fatalistic approach to small states’ ability to influence global politics because of realist dogmas. I certainly do not agree with the opinion that the only opportunity for a small state is to become a client state with no independent foreign policy, and to remain dependent on the will of great powers. Instead, I concur with the explanation of Dutch researcher Anders Wivel that small statehood is not static and may vary in different contexts.1 Wise and flexible foreign policy can compensate for many weaknesses caused by material resources.
The golden age of values-based policy could now be placed in the last decade of the 20th century, when Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history.2 The new century saw a rise of national interests and an emphasis on the sovereignty of states, the architects of which I believe were the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush and his administration, whose “neoconservative revolution” laid the foundation for a change of direction in foreign policy, which found wider support elsewhere as well. The changing trend in foreign policy doubtless inspired Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, who started promoting a national-conservative concept of Russia as a great power that stands up to the US.
Nowadays, “liberalism” is becoming a dirty word in Eastern Europe, and the fight against liberal values is picking up speed in the West as well. Eastern European societies’ susceptibility to populist ideologies shows that they did not understand the world in which they ended up after a long captivity. The West, on the other hand, had no Marshall Plan after the Cold War to integrate Eastern Europe, which was interested in the West’s military and economic aid but was not ready to accept its liberal and democratic values. However, when we view social trends in layers, the susceptibility to national-populist ideologies is more common in the older and middle-aged generation, who were born and raised during the Cold War, and I am much more optimistic about the younger generation.
1 See Robert Steinmetz and Anders Wivel, Small States in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities. Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.
2 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.

Ahto Lobjakas, analyst
Kristi Raik’s article on Estonian foreign policy is the clearest piece on this subject in recent years. Without attempting to add to its substance I would still like to play Devil’s advocate for a bit.
First, Estonia’s values-based foreign policy has always been more of a reality than an ideal. The dominant (anti-)guiding factor has been Russia and this formed Estonia’s attitude towards the OSCE in the past. During its long time in power, the Estonian Reform Party formed a sort of a nanocontainment policy in the former Soviet space that was largely based on similar foundations, under which the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union tried to involve Georgia and Andrus Ansip went for Central Asia. Since the middle of this decade, Ukraine has overshadowed the outlook. In all of these cases, the matter of values—the quality of democracy and the rule of law—have been second-rate, and maintaining the sovereignty of the objects of interest at any cost has been the primary concern.
Second, developments in the US, as a guarantor of security, no matter how necessary, should give cause for concern—we should (even in some small way) consider the unpredictability of US policy and compensating for America’s distance from us in the long run.
Third, the narrative of “goody-two-shoes” little Estonia is inspiring, but it is still a fact that after the War of Independence exactly the same blows have hit Latvia and Lithuania, and the same rapid success has followed them too. The moral here seems to be that in a hundred years Estonia has not managed to separate its fate from that of its southern neighbours.
Finally, Raik’s diagnosis of cancer to describe the current policies of Poland and Hungary is a welcome dose of realism. The fact remains, however, that Estonia is military oriented towards Poland, which means a compromise with cancer. If a values-based foreign policy is a course that preserves Estonia, the EU is a mechanism that separates the wheat from the chaff and shows whose institutions are lasting and whose are not.
1 Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2018”,
2 See Charles A. Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends, 2012.
3 Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, 2017.
4 See Hans Kundnani, “What is the Liberal International Order?” The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2017,
5 Nathalie Tocci, Framing the EU Global Strategy: A Stronger Europe in a Fragile World, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
6 Richard Youngs, The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy, 2015.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.