I am an ardent follower of international relations, but quite often some basic, bread and butter concepts pass me by. It's not that I don't grasp their meaning, it's that I question their underlying logic and I find overwhelming evidence that challenge their primacy in the way we think about the world.
One of the most questionable concepts is that of great powers having spheres of influence [mõjupiirkonnad]. Russia has a right to intervene in the domestic political affairs of Georgian life because it falls within its centuries-old "sphere of influence."
The concept of "spheres of influence" seems to be embraced by President Dmitri Medvedev who claims that Russia has regions of "privileged interest" that others are presumably not permitted to engage on a bilateral basis without Moscow's approval. Moscow should speak on behalf of Tbilisi before Tbilisi does, according to this way of thinking. Russian national interest trumps the interests of all its smaller neighbors.
The Americans are credited with the foundation for this manner of carving of the world. Experts cite the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 as forming some kind of precedent for Russian intervention in its "near abroad." But has the Monroe Doctrine ever really been respected? And how can one really argue that the United States has cultural or political domination over countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Bolivia? Have European powers ever really stopped meddling in the Western Hemisphere? No.
The very concept of spheres of influence seems to be dead on arrival. It may serve as a convenient excuse for military action in an adjacent country, but it doesn't pass muster upon inspection. And yet, in the year 2008 it seems to have been reanimated to defend Russian interests in its region of privileged interest, the former Soviet Union.
The concept of the the former USSR also baffles me. Huge meaning is ascribed to membership in this Communist superstate that was formed at the end of World War I and fell apart in the summer of 1991. Could you imagine, some analysts state, that NATO has expanded not only to include Warsaw Pact countries but countries that were once constituent parts of the USSR itself!
Why do we ascribe such tremendous significance to this factor when we make decisions about our future? People are intoxicated by the idea of cycles and are convinced that just as Russian influence has contracted it will once again expand. And yet, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania once held land to the Black Sea. Does anyone really envision the gold, green, and red flying over Odessa anytime soon?
From an Estonian perspective, I would actually think the Germans to have the greatest "sphere of influence" claim to Estonian soil. From the 13th century through the 20th century, Estonia was under Teutonic cultural influence. And look how little Soviet Russian claims to primacy in the country have manifested themselves. Estonia is part of the European Union and NATO. So much for the importance of former USSR status.
At the same time, I am at a loss at when membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization became such a contentious issue. Russia's greatest issue with Ukraine and Georgia, as it has been argued, is those countries' aspirations to join the alliance.
So what? So the Ukrainians can modernize their army and go hunt the Taliban in Afghanistan? Oh wait, they're already there. Too late, Putin!
The Ukraine-in-NATO lobby though has a one-track mind. Kiev will have a seat at future NATO summits. There can be no alternative. Ukraine will join NATO because ... Ukraine should be in NATO. Even if most Ukrainians don't want to join NATO. Even if the domestic political situation is a mess. The NATO expansion express will continue heading in that direction because the driver said so.
That's what is truly worrying: that we have now gotten to a point that a Ukraine sans NATO membership is viewed as a state without a future by some in the West. How did this come to be? How is it that membership in a security alliance founded in 1949 is seen as the only way a state bordering the Russian Federation can survive? Except Ukraine has existed for 17 years and not been a member of NATO. What happens if NATO ceases to exist at some point in the future as an organization? Does that mean that every state tied to NATO goes down the drain with the command? That's not a very comforting thought.
Meantime, NATO is seen as the archenemy in Russian discourse. And yet, most of Russia's most reliable partners in Europe -- all of them actually -- come from states that are members of NATO. Germany is in NATO, in fact the Baltic countries joined NATO while the one and only Gerhard Schröder held the chancellorship. NATO membership has not stopped the Germans from pursuing the Nord Stream project. NATO members France and Germany did not support the US-led action in Iraq. And this is an "alliance"? Oh really?
Baltic positions on NATO are driven by principles of universality. Any country that speaks the language of democracy, even if it is not yet fluent in that language, should be welcomed, eventually, into the NATO family, say its leaders. But based on this principle, shouldn't Tunisia or Turkmenistan have a "European perspective"? Do the Estonians only really support the Georgians because they are fond of their Christianity, fine wines, and friendly disposition?
The Estonian perspective differs from the Finnish position, which stresses Nordic exceptionalism -- independence from the goings-on in the former tsarist empire. Yet Finnish statesmen, like Martti Ahtisaari, are too glad to lead international conflict resolution missions, so long as they are far from home.
Nordic exceptionalism is another concept that continues to resurface these days. Why should Georgia and Ukraine join NATO when they can just adopt the Finnish model vis a vis Russia? Why should those pesky Estonians continue to poke the Russians in the eye, when they can just be good boys like Pekka up north? "I cannot understand why Estonian politicians believe they are smarter than Finnish politicians who have for decades maintained good relations with Russia," thundered former Estonian PM Tiit Vähi in a recent interview.
Yet, according to Estonian foreign policy thinkers, Finland is not to be emulated. Nordic exceptionalism is just that -- exceptional in the case of Finland, unable to be copied or arranged for Ukraine or Georgia. Is that really the case? Is any of this really the case?
While some in Ukraine and Georgia look west to the "lighthouse" of NATO, I fumble for my own lighthouses when it comes to current international affairs. And so I will continue to read books written by men named Kissinger and McNamara and wind up even more confused at the end than I was at the beginning.