On Friday 7 June, emotions ran high among Estonian foreign-policy makers in Tallinn and in New York, where Estonia was elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Years of preparation and active campaigning brought a result that is worth celebrating. Estonia beat its rival Romania in the second round of voting by 132 votes to 58. Of course, now the hard work really begins to ensure that Estonia can actually use this position to make an active contribution to strengthening international law and security.
What makes the victory remarkable is that Estonia is a small state by any measure and has been a member of the UN only since 1991, when it regained independence after half a century of Soviet occupation. Since then, the main focus of Estonian foreign policy has been on ensuring that the country is firmly anchored to the West and on keeping the transatlantic community strong and united. The broader, global dimension has been weaker, and still remains secondary to the importance of Western organisations such as the EU and NATO. Precisely for these reasons—the country’s smallness, which means very limited resources, and the primary importance of the Western community—the decision to pursue UNSC membership was controversial among Tallinn’s foreign-policy establishment. One of the worries is that Estonia will be forced to visibly take sides on issues over which its Western allies, notably the US and European nations, are divided, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and climate change.
The UNSC campaign forced the country to develop a more global profile, and this work must now be continued. The priorities are, quite naturally, Estonia’s trademark digital society and the importance of international law. In particular, Estonia pursues the strengthening of international law in cyberspace and wants to use its UNSC membership to advance this agenda. Other priorities include conflict prevention and climate change.
As a small state, a rules-based global order based on international law and multilateral institutions is of course vital for Estonia. The gradual erosion of the order that was created after World War II (but was surely never perfect) has been a growing concern in recent years, resulting from global changes such as the weakening of US hegemony, the changing balance of power and tightening competition between the great powers. The UN system is under pressure to adjust to these changes and remain relevant.
These changes arguably make it all the more necessary for actors that have an interest in preserving the rules-based order to be active now. Adam Lupel and Lauri Mälksoo argue in a recent policy paper by the International Peace Institute that small states are actually well placed to work through the UNSC to “remind all member states of their obligations under international law, reaffirm normative commitments to compliance, and advocate for a recommitment to a multilateral, rule-based international order”. The paper describes recent cases of small states actually making a difference, such as passing resolutions on humanitarian access in Syria in 2014 and a resolution on the protection of medical care in situations of armed conflict in 2016.
As the authors note, international law alone does not save small states from existential threats. However, a rules-based order does help to protect them against power politics and secure the sovereignty of all countries.