A Baltic dilemma

  • 2002-08-22
  • Toomas Aarand Orav
Foreign policy is giving Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas fits lately. His foreign minister engaged in a much-publicized spat with her ministry's top bureaucrat, leading to the dismissal of the latter and bad karma in the diplomatic service as a whole. But Kallas wouldn't mind if that was all that he had to worry about. He is heading to Washington in September, and if the Estonian media are to be believed, he will be the bearer of bad news for the folks on Capitol Hill.

The hot topic is the American contention that U.S. peacekeepers should be exempted from the jurisdiction of the nascent International Criminal Court. The United States claims that as a superpower it has exceptional responsibilities in maintaining peace and security throughout the world, and a new international court could undermine its foreign policy-making flexibility. The European Union strongly disagrees with the American position and believes that all countries stand equal before the rule of international law.

This puts Estonia and other prospective members of NATO into a tight spot. Both the United States and Estonia say that Kallas' visit has nothing to do with the exemption proposal, but the conventional view is that Estonia will have to make a "tough choice" on whether to back America or not.

Both options have costs. In recent years, Estonian foreign policy has mirrored European opinion. Siding with America would invite anger from future EU partners, as Rumania discovered to its own detriment. But Estonia does not want to upset the Americans, given that diplomats have long argued that the United States is the (sole) guarantor of European peace and stability.

What is Kallas to do? He'd probably like the problem to go away, but that's improbable. The list of contentious trans-Atlantic issues is already long: climate change, steel duties, genetically modified organisms, Middle East, Iraq and so on. It's impossible to appease both Europe and the United States on all issues indefinitely.

The clear consensus is that Mr. Kallas should back Europe and disagree with America's exemption from prosecution.

The press wants to see Estonia reiterate support for the universality of law. Moreover, the Estonian daily Postimees finds that President George W. Bush is "illogical" to suggest that the International Criminal Court might be a politicized and anti-American forum. Estonia, for example, has ratified the founding treaty of the court in spite of political disputes it has with some members. In any case, the likelihood of American troops appearing before the court is "extremely unlikely since the United States is an established democratic country with its own functioning judicial system."

Setting aside rhetoric, the International Criminal Court illuminates two preferences of Estonian opinion-makers with respect to the country's emerging international voice:

First, when faced with a difficult choice between allies, Estonia should base its policies on principles and not on the relative power of the players. The implication is that the long-term benefits trump short-term considerations in foreign policy choices.

Second – and here I read between the lines – Estonia identifies more with the European understanding of the world than the American version. Euro-peans want to see a world order based on institutionalized norms and rules. Estonian opinion does not always prefer the invasive path. Estonians have chaffed under the OSCE's recommendations on citizenship policy that don't recognize the "special circumstances" of the country's history. But opinion on the court suggests that universal rules work for Estonia.

Has Estonian opinion embraced liberal internationalism? I don't think so. Henn Kaarik reflects the mainstream view for Postimees with the suggestion that rules apply for some more than others. But at least an international court gives the Estonias of the world some tools to use, and that's a start.