Estonia should not choose sides in Europe

Kaitseminister Jüri Luik koos NATO peasekretäri Jens Stoltenbergi ja Euroopa Komisjoni presidendi Ursula von der Leyeniga.

PHOTO: OLIVIER HOSLET/EPA

A dialogue of mutes over whether Estonia’s reputation has already been (irreversibly) damaged or not gets us nowhere, columnist Kalev Stoicescu writes

Estonia was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021 by secret ballot during the June 7 UN General Assembly. We got 132 votes to competitor Romania’s 56 in the second round of voting. Our diplomats did good work as did the president and several politicians who supported them.

That said, Romania is by no means a less-known country; rather it is more familiar for many (developing) countries, courtesy of longstanding relations and diplomatic presence (13 embassies in Africa, nine in South and Central America and 29 in Asia against Estonia’s seven embassies in the three continents). It is also doubtful the skill of Romanian diplomats somehow falls short of that of their Estonian counterparts.

How well a country is known is no doubt very important (and is likely something Romania considered a strength), but at the end of the day, one’s image and reputation are more important still. Estonia’s undoubtedly better reputation won the day at the UN, even though other factors were at play; for instance, Romania’s decision to follow the example of US President Donald Trump in moving their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem that likely cost them the votes of more than a few Islamic states.

Therefore, being well-known works if a country has a good reputation. If the competition is more or less free and equal, the one with the nicer, more interesting and reputable “product” wins. All counties are competing with each other on some level or other that cannot be helped as countries need to protect their vital interests.

Estonia has 34 allies in the European Union and NATO, including our closest friends and allies in Scandinavia and the other Baltic states. We are pursuing political and security and defense cooperation with these countries as it is in the common interests of EU and NATO members that inhabit the shores of the Baltic Sea. While we are often competitors when it comes to the economy, which is only natural.

Estonia managed to paint itself as the most successful Baltic country that gave us an edge not only over Latvia and Lithuania but also other Central and Eastern European states. Our starting position was dismal back in 1991. Even a lot of Swedes had heard next to nothing about Estonia. We carried the stigma of a “former Soviet republic” for an unbelievably long time – Estonia was still referred to as such in international news years after we joined NATO and the EU.

It shows how persistent a negative image can be before a new and better reputation can take its place. Estonia had to create its positive (Western) European face quickly and forcefully by shedding the mantra of a “former Soviet republic”. This was rendered possible through Estonians’ will and ability to change themselves and their country in almost everything, from removal of Soviet symbols (even before independence was restored) to leaps in IT development.

Moscow was less than thrilled to see Estonia’s success that served as a “bad” example for other “formers” in that independence from Russia was not only possible but better (and therefore necessary). That is why we have been a target of propaganda attacks from the Kremlin since the early 1990s. Estonia is accused of human rights violations and glorification of fascism to soil our reputation.

Estonia is a small country than can remain independent only as part of Europe, beyond Russia’s stifling grasp. The survival of our country depends wholly on NATO and EU membership (the interest of our allies and partners to work with us and support us). It is not politically correct bureaucratic jargon – it is our geopolitical reality.

While people are sometimes reminded to take a look in the mirror or in their passport, a look at a map of Europe and Estonian history books is enough in this case. After all, countries are abstract and complicated formations that are made up of people wielding tools and power, opportunities and skills. We can compare states to people who differ in terms of appearance, size, age, culture, character, interests and hobbies.

People tend to say in Estonia that no one will help us should something go wrong. That is only something people who have reason to believe their father, mother, relatives and friends would not support them because they are – for whatever reasons – not worth it could think.

Estonia is worth protecting, and our allies agree, especially the ones we have supported (US and UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, France in Africa). This understanding is based on the good reputation of our country and people that needs to be created and maintained daily as it also has direct economic benefits.

A positive image is very fragile, especially in the modern world where fake news, influence operations and trolling can wound or bring down even the strongest players. Having thick skin can deliver individual politicians or parties, but it cannot save Estonia as a whole.

Charging like a bull (also toward your allies and friends) is a luxury enjoyed by major world powers, and even they must look after their reputation and image that forms the foundation of their soft power. Major countries’ decaying or already poor reputation places in jeopardy their influence but not their independence or existence. What a statesman can afford in Washington or London cannot be compared to what is said and done in Tallinn in terms of consequences for the country.

A dialogue of mutes over whether Estonia’s reputation has already been (irreversibly) damaged or not gets us nowhere. Instead, we could try and use common sense to accept the most important aspects in all this.

A country’s reputation is its credibility, both in the eyes of citizens and other countries. A decaying reputation breeds unreliability, and consistently damaging a country’s reputation in the service of whatever domestic goals undermines the state.

Reliability is the glue holding together Estonia’s relationship with its allies and friends that can dry and crumble away quickly if our state conducts itself provocatively and incompetently on the international arena.

No member state in the EU wants to find itself alone in whatever matter, especially small countries. Estonia has now sampled it – let us hope for the last time. Estonia must not choose sides and contribute to splitting Europe. Therefore, we need not prefer Poland over Germany or Sweden because we need all of them.

Finally, let us imagine ourselves as a 28-year-old man or woman who is handsome, polite, friendly, hardworking and intelligent. Do we really want them to have an angry face, a foul mouth and a fist in their pocket?

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