By Matthew Crandall
Donald Trump continues to remind us that the post-World War II world order is in a state of transition. This transition has been ongoing for a decade, or two, but Trump has accelerated the process. This is best seen in transatlantic relations. At the recent NATO summit he called for states to double defence spending, while shaming Germany and others for not spending 2% of their GDP on defence. He met with President Putin in Helsinki on the 16th of July which also highlighted the growing rift within the alliance. Though, many of Trump’s policies seem to be aimed at large states, it is small states that perhaps have the most to lose from Trump’s policies.
Western dominated international institutions have had a legitimacy crisis for some time now. What is different now, is that the legitimacy of key institutions is now being called into question by core Western countries themselves, not non-Western countries like China or Russia. Small European countries in particular are dependent on open rules based trade regimes, and institutions like the EU, and NATO. Trump’s protectionist, America First foreign policy is a problem because it amplifies the populist rise already prevalent in Europe. Many small states have taken a minimalist approach towards foreign policy, preferring to go along with large powers in the name of alliance solidarity. The changing world order will usher in a competition of new ideas and norms. This has already encouraged to a certain extent a new era of great power politics which will present both challenges for small states. Of course not all small states are created equal. The best way to understand small states is as “the weak part of an asymmetrical relationship” . When institutions and rules break down the observations from the Melian dialogue become more relevant; the strong tend to do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The impact of the changing world order on small states will depend on which specific relationship is being influenced and the imbalance within that relationship.
For European small states one challenge will be with increasing tensions and diverging interests between the United States and Europe. The worst case scenario for small NATO countries is being forced to choose between Europe and the United States. This happened over a UN General Assembly resolution that took issue with the United States’ decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. In this situation the small states did not side with the United States. After the NATO summit Trump made a comment about an aggressive Montenegro possibly starting World War III. It is this type of comment that gives small states concern when making tough foreign policy choices. This is particularly true for super atlanticists like Estonia and Denmark who have placed solidarity with the United States at the very foundation of their foreign policy. Given the direction of Trump’s foreign policy it is likely that there will be more tough choices for small states in the future.
Multi-vector foreign policy options for small states
Small states will need to be proactive to ensure that their voice is heard in international politics. This will mean small states will need to invest in multi-vector foreign policies and move away from America first or America only foreign policies. A multi-vector foreign policy will mean developing relationships outside of the transatlantic region as well as deepening relationships within the transatlantic region. This will also demand strategic thinking which small states have up to this point outsourced to larger states. Small states have significant budget and human capital restraints which make a traditional multi-vector foreign policy difficult to implement. This means that small states will have to be strategic with the allocation of resources.
Trump recently suggested that NATO states double spending. In the past it has also been suggested by some that small states radically boost military spending, thus taking the Israel approach to self defence. Directing the vast amount of available funding towards military defense would be unwise. One of the key deterrents of modern warfare comes from within. For example if we look at Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics, a significant focus is creating chaos domestically then using that chaos to justify further aggression. While Russia has played a role in creating the domestic chaos, the lesson is clear: maintain the legitimacy of key democratic institutions as well as the resilience of key social and economic systems and hybrid warfare becomes more difficult.
The primary focus of small state resources should be on maintaining the legitimacy of international institutions (EU, NATO, WTO). Thus spending at least 2% on defence is a welcome move, that not only helps to maintain some level of territorial defence, but also maintains NATO solidarity. When clear cut options of maintaining institutional legitimacy are not available, small states need to invest in networks and niche strategies.
Acting large in a cyber world: lessons from Estonia
Developments in Estonia can demonstrate many lessons for small states. Estonia has developed a niche strategy as a cyber expert. Estonia actively promotes e-governance, an open internet, and cyber security. This has enabled Estonia to make significant contributions in promoting cyber security within NATO circles. Estonia has also seen success in exporting e-governance practices to development cooperation countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. It has also had a significant voice in promoting the open internet as well as forward thinking ideas such as e-residency and data embassies.
Estonia is known for placing solidarity with the United States as the pillar of its national security doctrine. Participating in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, spending 2% of its GDP on defence, and agreeing to take a Guantanamo Bay prisoner are some of the well-known examples. As stated earlier, there is a growing risk of placing all of the eggs in one basket. Estonia has quietly been pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy within the EU and NATO by building up political capital with France and Germany. Estonia has sent troops to several French led missions in Africa (Mali, and the Central African Republic). This year Estonia also supported France’s initiative to create a “common strategic culture and intervention mechanisms” . With Germany, Estonia has strived to be a model EU member. It pursued fiscal responsibility and austerity during the financial crisis, also joining the Euro zone in 2011. More recently it willingly agreed to take quota refugees in the name of EU solidarity.
Given the gravity of the global changes and the tensions within transatlantic relations more efforts need to be placed on a multi-vector foreign policy globally. It has been said that the changing world order is really a transfer of power from the transatlantic region to the Indo-China region. Estonia is largely missing a grand strategy towards Asia and China in particular. Given the significance of Russia as a potential threat it would also be wise to invest in key global relationships. Regarding tensions between Russia and the West there is a key aspect that many in Europe have overlooked. The tensions remain between the West and Russia. Other countries have not followed Europe’s lead. One key organization for Russia is BRICS. For Estonia developing ties with the democratic members of BRICS (India and Brazil) could potentially pay dividends down the road in efforts to secure global support. Estonia closed its embassy to Brazil in 2017 and runs a bare bone office in India. Beefing up the diplomatic presence would certainly be a start but that alone would not result in change. Two strategies could yield some results. The first would be to team up with other Baltic states to increase political clout. Having a joint Baltic embassy could be an option. The other would be to focus on areas of interest that fit Estonia’s niche. E-governance and cyber security could be avenues that enable Estonia to make some inroads.
No matter how turbulent the world may become there will always remain a need to cooperate. Despite the rise in nationalism and protectionism the level of interdependence between countries and regions is past the point of no return. This will mean that there will always remain a need to cooperate on certain issues. Developing niche capabilities will ensure that on at least some issues, small states will be taken seriously by larger states. This also will enable small states to be more effective in coalition building, both within international organizations and ad hoc coalitions outside of organizations. By investing in networks small states will be able to ensure that key national interests are represented with others who share those common interests.
In an era of change, transition and confusion the stakes are high for small states. With great power politics returning to international relations small states need more strategy and smart allocations of resources. While the world turns its focus on big states, what the world needs is for small states to start thinking big.
Matthew Crandall is an associate professor of International Relations at Tallinn University.
Opinions expressed in View articles do not reflect those of euronews.