kolmapäev, oktoober 15, 2008


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.

16 kommentaari:

Jim Hass ütles ...

Most of those concepts seem to be baggage from 18th and 19th military realities, reflecting the difficulties of logistics of mass armies then. ICBM's seem to make this kind of quaint.
Finns can boast with confidence the survival of two wars with the soviets. Estonia has had no such luck. Size and geography have cursed them. Any help keeping the dream of independence alive should be welcome.
Ukraine? No Ukraine?

Giustino ütles ...

Estonia won the only war it ever fought collectively -- its war of independence in 1918-1920. In 1940, the country caved into a military ultimatum.

I would add that in the same month in 1940, both Poland and France were under military occupation and Germany was preparing for its blitz of Britain.

In fact, the only times that Estonia has ever been engaged in military conflict occured during a general collapse of security infrastructure in Europe as a whole.

Estonian security is just a small piece of the larger patchwork known as European security. This is perhaps the strongest argument for its inclusion in NATO.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Estonia has had no such luck. Size and geography have cursed them.

Yet I recall something about how Estonians outfoxed and outgunned a bunch of Bolsheviks in 1918-1920. Something about Estonian armoured trains, was it...?

Of course there were relatively few Bolsheviks (was it 35,000) and they were pretty ragged, but then again, Russian conscripts are still probably starving today.

As to geography going head-to-head with Finland, Estonia is pretty blessed when it comes to the Peipsi, while on the other hand Finland has a huge land border with Russia.

I believe the conventional wisdom of many is that Estonia had lousy quisling leaders in the late 1930s.

Another aspect is the "white ship", i.e. assistance from the West. Better not to believe in it.

Wahur ütles ...

Gavin, as for geography you are pretty much wrong. Especially in 39 huge Finnish land border north of Ladoga was mostly roadless forest, with only 3-4 more or less decent attack vectors available. Which is exactly why Finnish war ended like it did.
On the contrary, even if Narva river with its surrounding bogs was well defendable, Estonian south-east border had the edge of Haanja hills as the only natural obstacle to defend, plus, in case of simultaneous attack against all Baltic countries weak Latvian army being probably knocked out of our right flank (in Civil War Latvian eastern border was actually defended by Estonians and Polish for a while).

Today Peipsi and Narva river cannot be considered much of an obstacle from military point of view.

Wahur ütles ...

It seems to me that Ukraine creates a kind of a misunderstanding for many people in the West. What is this Ukraine? Isn't it something like part of Russia? Don't they speak Russian there, or at least dialect? If so then why don't they ally with Russia? Could it be actually trusted? Etc.

Yes, they are similar, but contrary to the popular opinion it is Ukraine, where this culture was born, while Moscow and other northern territories were nothing but "colonies" in what was then wild taiga populated with different Finnish peoples. Maybe little bit like UK and USA, except that in Slavic interpretation there could be no other relationship but total submission.

As a result, in much of Western Ukraine general feelings toward Russians are such that they make our Jüri Liim look like a raving Russophile. Sure, the fact that liberating Red Army in 1945 commited enough atrocities to create quite bit of a nostalgy for "civilized" Germans did not exactly help to forge a firm friendship between Slavic brothers.

Ukraine is a split country. East of Dnepr is pretty much Russian. West of Dnepr, especially ex-Polish territories are only relatively recent additions to Russian empire and very much a different story. Unfortunately this makes it all to easy for Russians to keep them off-balance, constantly quarrelling internally. Most probably West will have no patience to work that mess. No optimism from my part.

Martin-Éric ütles ...

Many other political buzzwords fail to hold waters, too. At the end of the day, international politics is all about maintaining the face of brotherly collaboration on items of common interests, while discretely defending items on which there is a difference of opinion in the wings of power or, if you're one of the bigger powers, to blatantly do as you damn well please in everyone's face while still showing up at meetings of international organizations. If someone protests, you bring buzzwords like "sphere of influence" out of your magic hat to confuse everyone while you shamelessly move ahead with your grandiose plans and chirp "Try to stop me if you can! Na! Na! Na!"

antyx ütles ...

"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?"

Because NATO is a codification of the military component of a Western alliance. The world is no longer separated into the spheres of superpowers, but it certainly is separated into spheres of value systems, and for all the differences that Provence might have with Alabama, the democratic West (involving Australia and Japan) would far rather stick together than take their chances with China, Russia or Iran. As the US continues its misguided imperialist adventures, Europe continues its 60-year policy of avoiding war at all costs, bar the surrender of its values (which is why there are German troops in Afghanistan and Swedish troops in Kosovo). Global diplomacy is a dance around the elephant of war, not talking about it outright, but letting the other guys know you're carrying a ten-gauge. In this situation, NATO is not so much an alliance as a statement of intent. NATO membership is an indication that the country has chosen a side, should an all-out conflict erupt. History may not be completely cyclical, but the war in Georgia has proven empirically that Russia is willing and able to attack, with military force, a country within its imagined sphere of influence. That the country in question poses no credible threat to Russia is irrelevant.

"Why should those pesky Estonians continue to poke the Russians in the eye, when they can just be good boys like Pekka up north?"

Because Pekka was in bed with Adolph. Yes, anyone who's studied history understands that it was a forced measure after the West abandoned Finland in the Winter War, and yes, the Finnish section of the siege of Leningrad was the one that let vital supplies through. But the independence of Finland is no proof whatsoever of Russia's ability to play nice with its neighbours. The Soviet Union did invade Finland, and it did win that war, albeit with a massive loss of life and resource! After the peace treaty, the Finns were under no illusion whatsoever that Stalin had a continued intention to fold Finland back into the Russian Empire, and only delayed this project because he had bigger problems to deal with, down south. Which is why they turned for assistance to the only force that seemed capable of stopping Russia - no matter how evil that force was. Just because Finland broke her alliance with the Third Reich at the first sign of Allied competence, early enough to be claimed by the West in return for abandoning most of the Austro-Hungarian empire, does not excuse the exceptional Norsemen's behaviour.

So we can either deny the Finnish model, and throw our lot in with America and Britain, and hope that there will be an Admiral Cowan around for the next blowout; or we can adopt the Finnish model, and open up a class at the Tartu Flight College dedicated to plowing Sukhoi Superjets into the Gazprom tower.

Unknown ütles ...

It's interesting how Ukraine is always portraited as a vastly split country, where one half of it is made up of Russians and one half of Ukrainians. While in reality Wikipedia informs us that "ethnic Ukrainians make up 77.8% of the population. Other significant ethnic groups are Russians (17.3%), Belarusians (0.6%),". Remember, in Estonia the percentages are 68,8 and 25,6 respectively. So where's the division? Mindsets?

AndresS ütles ...

The split in Ukraine is mostly geographic. The east and Crimean and mostly devoid of ethnic Ukrainians and heavily Russian. I remember visiting Sevastopol a couple of years back where the Russian (and Ukrainian) fleets are based. There were some visiting Turkish ships in port and protesters carrying signs saying "Nato Go Home" on them.

LPR ütles ...

News from kodukant. Makes me homesick. Not!



Unknown ütles ...

Moscow should speak on behalf of Tbilisi before Tbilisi does, according to this way of thinking.

Moscow should have "the last word", that is, should be able to say "yea" or "nay" in any Georgia's relationships that matter to Russia. They don't question Georgia's independence, but they definitely want to have a lot of influence in the region.

Giustino ütles ...

Perhaps in Moscow's own mind it should have the last word, but I don't think most countries see it in their interest to regress to that kind of arrangement.

I actually am not sure if such an arrangement has ever held up. Great powers are always pushing at each others frontiers. Austria-Hungary and Russia never had a real agreement about "spheres of interest" in the Balkans.

Unknown ütles ...

There you go, a conflict of interests, just what you need... for a war?

Well, I don't remember any "special zone of interest" that has ever been formalized on paper besides Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but all zones of interest that have been there so far since the time of European colonial expansion have been just a matter of political will of a country and in order to maintain its "zone of interest" in a region, the country should just have had enough political, economical or military influence there. It has rarely been a matter of formal mutual agreements, unless these zones formed as a result of a war, wasn't it?

Giustino ütles ...

The idea of real multipolarity in Europe has not existed since 1914, and emerged from the Napoleonic wars.

But here I would note the behavior of Germany. Germany is not playing for any bloc, east or west. It is playing the role of the balancer, a role that the UK used to play in the 19th century.

Sometimes Germany seems more pro-West. Other times it appears to be pro-Moscow. So its behavior is indicative that Europe has again reverted to a balance of powers model.

I would assume that the Baltic countries would therefore fall under its influence, and one could see Germany, or the wider EU, as the emergence of a Franco-German dominated "great" power.

External powers, like the US or Russia, therefore compete to influence the center of this new power by concocting ad-hoc alliances with countries.

The US, for example, would create an alliance with the UK, Sweden, and Poland -- depending on the governments. Russia would have one with Germany, Italy, and Hungary. And so on, each using different constellations of countries to negate the sway the European power to act in the US or Russia's interests.

Georgia is indeed far removed from this game. The Georgians would be wise to look not only to the US but to other regional powers, like Turkey and, gulp, Iran, to help them realize their interests. Who says small states can't have their own realpolitik?

Unknown ütles ...

Last time Great Britain tried to act as balancer, it resulted in World War I. I doubt today's Germany alone can do any better.

Remember that France is trying to act as a "balancer" as well -- who did come to Moscow first to act as a peace negotiator about South-Ossetian conflict? Which countries in Europe were against military invasion to Iraq back in 2001? France, among others, which was a big scandal back then, since France was also a member of NATO.

As for Georgia... Well, their current political power has no much choice here -- USA, Israel and Turkey are their only good allies.

Not Iran, no. Allying with Iran for any country that has any hope to have good relations with Europe would be a suicide for any politician now. Not that I support that position myself personally, but that's the reality. The fear of a coming war with Iran was pretty real some time ago -- so much anti-Ahmadinejad propaganda has been around last few years, it was almost like an Iraq scenario.

And it has to be noted, that in that case Russia was acting as a "balancer" there. They initially opposed Western actions against Iran and thus hampered their attempts to gain international support. Otherwise, I think, the war would be inevitable. Right now simply it won't happen for at least 4-5 years to come, I think.

Giustino ütles ...

Well, things are certainly interesting in Europe right now. I wonder if Iceland will really join the EU in the end, and I wonder what will become of Britain's government, and I wonder what will become of Merkel's government. We'll see over the next few years how Europe adjusts to all these factors.