Estonia in NATO

Hermann Fortess, Narva, Estonia

A small country has its advantages, if it knows how to use them. With less bureaucracy and fewer actors, most of whom have known each other for years, a small country can sometimes be more nimble and strategic than a large one. Of course there can be disadvantages and vulnerabilities as well – but that’s where smart policy can help.

In the 1990’s, it was far-reaching economic reform that rapidly made Estonia a candidate for EU membership, and now sensible stewardship puts it at the head of the pack in seeking to join the Euro. Today, it is also a security policy that balances “home” and “away,” civilian and military, and Russia and the East, in a manner that anticipates what NATO itself must do.

NATO is in the midst of preparing a new strategic concept, and is itself grappling with the ideas of “home” and “away.” NATO needs to provide iron-clad Article 5 reassurance to all Allies concerning their territorial defense within the Euro-Atlantic area. Defending against a territorial attack within Europe may be among the least likely things NATO will ever have to do – and being prepared for such a contingency will keep it that way.

At the same time, NATO must deal with the most pressing security challenges that challenge our societies and civilization right now – and those are anchored outside the Euro-Atlantic area and have to do with building societies and overcoming violent extremism, most immediately in Afghanistan.

A NATO that deals only within the Euro-Atlantic area will swiftly lose the interest of America, which is most concerned with the immediate threats elsewhere in the world. But a NATO that does not spend adequate effort on its core Article 5 defense mission at home will lose both its credibility and the willingness of Europe to go along with missions like Afghanistan far from home. A sensible balance of the two – home and away – is necessary for the success of NATO for the long haul.

With its small size and armed forces, Estonia knows it cannot stand alone in its self-defense. It needs to be part of a security community that will join together in self-defense, should that ever be required. But to be valuable within this community, Estonia must contribute to the overall success of the Alliance, including in missions far afield. And it also knows – having suffered cyber attacks – that security is defined not only by military threats, but more diverse, 21st century threats as well.

And here, Estonia is leading on all fronts. Estonia is among those countries pushing NATO to do its most basic job: defense planning and exercising for the defense of all Alliance members. This is NATO’s bread and butter role – not some provocative new step. That it was ever controversial is shocking, and happily NATO Allies are now responding to the nudge given by Estonia and the other Baltic states to proceed with proper contingency planning and exercising.

At one point in 2009, Estonia had more troops per capita in Afghanistan than any other NATO Ally – demonstrating a commitment to NATO’s highest operational priority thousands of miles from Estonian territory.

And Estonia is home to a NATO Center of Excellence on cyber-security – putting into practice a focus on the new threats and challenges to security in the 21st century, not merely the traditional military ones.

So Estonia is in effect pointing the way ahead for NATO. If NATO is able to replicate in its strategic concept the same balance of “home” and “away,” and the integration of both civilian and military notions of security, that Estonia has managed in its contributions to NATO, the Alliance it will have taken a major step forward.

Looking ahead, Estonia can also be a catalyst for a well-balanced policy on Russia and the East. Today, there are at least three distinct views of Russia policy within NATO – a demand for protection from Russian assertion of a “sphere of influence.” An insistence on engagement and entanglement as a means of reducing tensions and improving prospects for cooperation with Russia. And a desire to focus on global, strategic issues with Russia – where we hope to make progress on issues such as Iran – while avoiding confrontation over European-based disagreements with Russia (such as support for Georgia and Ukraine.)

Again, a balanced policy is required – one that accepts as legitimate and integrates all three approaches to Russia: protection, engagement, and strategic partnership. And instead of sacrificing support to Ukraine, or Georgia, or other countries in Europe’s east because it may irritate Russia, seeing instead that a strong, united position with respect to Russia enables support to Europe’s Eastern neighbors as well.

Estonia already provides invaluable economic and political advice to Georgia, as well as others in Europe’s East. It is a strong advocate of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. And as one of the countries within NATO most worried about the “protection” side of the equation – by emphasizing the other dynamics of NATO policy, engagement and global strategic partnership, Estonia can again provide innovative, small country leadership to an Alliance in need of big ideas.

Kurt Volker is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO.  This essay previously appeared as "Small Country, Big Ideas" in the Estonian Foreign Ministry’s publication Glance in the Mirror.  Photo: Hermann Fortess, Narva, Estonia (Wikipedia).

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