The following is a speech delivered by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Europe Conference in Oslo on 2 September 2014. It is reprinted from the website of the president of Estonia. The “25 Years After” is a reference to anti-communist democratic revolutions that began in 1989 in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Your Majesty King Harald,
Your Majesty Queen Sonja,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is genuinely an honor and a pleasure to address you here at the Urbygningen, the Clock Building.
This truly is a year of very many “round” anniversaries, in both good and bad. You in Norway celebrated the 200th anniversary of signing your Eidsvoll constitution. We in our part of the world celebrate the 25th anniversary of our own annus mirabilis, 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall came down, and then the Communist world had its first almost democratic elections in Poland, but which were nonetheless solidly won by the non-communists, despite all the mechanisms used to keep out the non-communists; and the Baltic peoples demonstrated their quest of liberty and independence in the Baltic way, the human chain that reached through all three countries. That was when we dared to dream of a “Europe whole and free“, a reunited and democratic Europe.
I should also mention another anniversary we celebrated exactly two days ago [on August 31], which was the 20th anniversary of the final departure of Russian troops from our soil. It was no easy task to get them to do it, they wanted to stay there. Something that in my country was not sufficiently appreciated at the time, today when we see where Russian troops did not leave, who did not manage to push and persevere the diplomacy that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania pursued – there continue to be Russian troops in Moldova, they are in Georgia, they are in Ukraine, they are in Armenia – that shows us how important it is for us to be able to be free of foreign domination. So that was 20 years ago.
The world order that we’d known for 50 years in 1989, the status quo of the preceding near half century was shifting and about to collapse. The world up to then had been, at least from our perspective, bi-polar, consisting of liberal democracy with market economies, found mainly in the West, versus illiberal autocracy combined with collective ownership, also known as communism, mainly in the East. Of course, just to keep things in perspective, most of the world was too poor to be considered part of either, whence the now rarely used term “The Third World” that was neither liberal democratic nor communist.
This neat, simplistic order was beginning to crumble and would soon collapse. The first semi-democratic election in the communist world was a milestone in what we thought was, and for the time felt to be, an irreversible march to liberty.
Also in that year, in 1989, an American, then at the State Department’s Policy planning staff, Francis Fukuyama, published what must be considered one of the seminal essays of the late twentieth century, The End of History, later expanded into a book of the same name. There, Fukuyama argued that the ideological debate between liberal democracy and authoritarian communism was over, and liberal democracy had won.
The argument has caused a lot of debate since, which is why it is important to note that Fukuyama did not say liberal democracy had won in the real world or that everyone in the world had embraced or even would embrace democracy – a criticism often leveled at him that I think is actually a strawman criticism. Rather, he said that the contest for ideas was over, that no one could any longer make claims for the superiority of an authoritarian regime. I might add here parenthetically that even that turned out to be unfortunately wrong, since the last seven months we’ve seen actually claims, made even by a prime minister of a European country, that in fact liberal democracy was over.
But at that time, the Soviet Union had yet to collapse, but its days were numbered and when it did, we took it as proof of Fukuyama’s Hegelian view of history and the victory of liberal democracy.
For a while it indeed seemed that that was at least the direction toward which we were moving.
But when we look around in Europe today, we see that not only is Europe not whole and free, we see the ghosts from the painful 20th century returning to our midst. Ghosts that we thought we’d never see again, that we had buried deep in history’s trashbin.
Today, when we look around us, we see it all again. The annexation of territory, the violation of borders, religious conservativism pairing with political authoritarianism and imperialist bravado. 80% of Russians support annexation through military aggression in Crimea, where the Anschluss – and I use that term most seriously here – the Anschluss of territory was justified by the presence of co-ethnics. Moreover, there is widespread support for an anti-liberal attack against decadent Western “permissiveness,” be it in freedom of speech or choice of life-partners. Indeed, we see that liberal democracy has not only failed to win the battle of ideas against authoritarianism, it has failed even to prevent the resurrection of that once vanquished demon, fascism. The nationalist fervor east of us is expressed in arts in a way that makes Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will look like a liberal programme – I suggest you look at the video of the co-called “biker show” staged on August 8 this year in Sevastopol. It is on You Tube. It is a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk. Everything is there – music, art, ballet, motorcycle gangs, it’s all there.
Sadly, these illiberal moods are resurgent not only in Russia, where a generation has grown up since the end of communist rule, but even in what we thought of as bastions of liberal democracy, in Western Europe, which should know all too well the demons of fascism and the ideologies of hatred. Not in Ukraine, where the two neo-fascist candidates in the elections of 25 May received about 1 percent each, as opposed to Western Europe, where we saw how countries voted in the European parliamentary elections – a number of neo-fascist, right-wing nationalist, often racist parties not only overcame the threshold for getting into the European parliament but did rather well, and were even among the most popular parties.
It is the likes of the French Front National, the British National Party, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary who currently support the actions of the Kremlin. They were the ones who went to observe the so-called referendum in Crimea, and they are the ones who currently arrange “international conferences” with Kremlin ideologists to share their imperialist and racist geopolitical fantasies.
So what went wrong? Why is it that the ideals of liberal democracy fall into disregard and disrepute even in the heart of Europe and aggressive, fiercely antiliberal doctrines have massive support beyond our eastern border? Why is it that today everything seems more insecure than even in the Cold War, when at least we had agreed upon rules of international behaviour regarding what countries may or may not do?
Part of the answer lies in another essay that later became a best-selling book as well, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, that appeared four years after Fukuyama’s essay. Huntington saw future conflicts in the post-ideological age to be ones between cultures and civilisations, that seemed to be also at the time unfortunately verified by the 9/11 attacks, motivated as they were by a religion-based antipathy toward modernity.
He also, of course, received a lot of criticism for that idea. But soon enough, we were indeed challenged on our own ground, in empirical reality, not political science theory. In New York, in Washington, in mass attacks in Madrid, London and Bombay. All those challenged the liberal order, attacking inter alia democratic elections, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, not men or God. Those attackers are the greatest Huntingtonians, just as the authoritarians who more and more boldly define themselves in opposition to our “decadent” democratic values.
Until recently it seemed that this was a revolt against modernity, against the disruptions of globalized capitalism. We still thought, though, that on our own continent the wars of the 20th century, the defeat of Nazism and the collapse of communism had settled, as Fukuyama maintained, once and for all the primacy and the Hegelian ineluctability of the triumph of liberal democracy. Indeed we thought then, as some former Chancellors still do, that democracy in Russia reigned supreme.
As we have seen, however, we were wrong. Ideas such as territorial annexation, based on co-ethnics abroad, which we saw last in 1938 with the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss of the Sudetenland and Austria – these were ideas we had believed were settled for good on May 8, 1945, but they have not been settled, they have been resurrected.
That was just one of the rules declared null and void. There is the prohibition of aggression that came into effect with the UN Charter, also from 1945, stating that Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state – that is the UN Charter, just to remind you, almost 70 years old.
When one party violates the rules, we all need to rethink what those rules mean and how they can be enforced or reinforced. What was agreed to and generally followed even at the height of the Cold War today lies shattered, because the leaders of one country decided that those rules do not apply to them.
Besides what we agreed to in 1945, the next fundamental foundation of security on our continent that was compromised were the Helsinki Accords from 1975. There, the trans-Atlantic countries – all the way from Vancouver to Vladivostok – agreed not to use force to change borders or challenge the political independence of any state. Recall, this was signed under Leonid Brezhnev; we agreed to regard one another’s frontiers as inviolable and to refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation. No such occupation or acquisition, according to these Accords, would be recognized as legal.
Then there’s the 1990 CSCE Charter of Paris for a new Europe, in which the signatories of all the then members, including newly free Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as Russia’s legal predecessor, the USSR, agreed to “fully recognize the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements”.
I quote that to recall the argument that has recently, or in the last six years, been offered to justify the attacks and invasions against both Georgia in 2008 and now against Ukraine. In both cases, the argument was that those countries wanted to join NATO, or recently, the argument was made that those countries wanted to have the Association Agreement with the EU. And frankly, Estonia signed its Association Agreement with the EU in 1995, almost ten years before we joined the European Union, and believe me, what you get out of the Association Agreement is not much – you agree to follow their rules but you have no influence over your being accepted. We did get exchange programmes – teachers could teach abroad and students could go and study abroad, but that’s about it with the Association Agreement, and that is now being used as an excuse to invade a country. And remember, it was just Ukraine’s desire to sign the Association Agreement, not even a “security arrangement”, that led to the country’s dismemberment and an open, if not declared, war against it.
All these agreements were concluded in the liberal spirit of Immanuel Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace from 1795. Aside from the internal market, the intellectual foundations of the European Union as well of NATO ultimately actually rest on Immanuel Kant’s essay. Kant believed in what has two centuries later become our dominant foreign policy mantra: republics – he said, but today that would mean for us democratic states based on the rule of law – who form a federation, do not wage war on each other. The European Union has, since its origins in the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, amply proved Kant’s thinking to be correct. Where we went wrong, though, was that we believed that the agreements of 1945 to the present, the ones I just enumerated, also constituted a Kantian federation. Alas, they did not. And the communities of liberal democracies had not solved what to do with countries outside a federation of democracies.
By and large, we have extrapolated from Kant and the experiences of the EU and NATO to come to believe that, tied to a latticework of agreements, countries will not engage in aggression, forgetting that in the case of the the UN, the CSCE, the OSCE, and numerous lesser treaties, that Kant was right but offered no solutions on how to get along with despotisms and tyrannies.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thus today we find ourselves in a completely new security environment. It is not a “New Cold War”, because during the Cold War all of those agreements were followed. Yes, the Cold War was terrible, we were full of fear, but indeed and in fact, the agreements signed with the Soviet Union, the agreements to which the Soviet Union was party, worked. They were followed. We could trust them. When in 1975, almost 40 years ago, the Helsinki Final Act was signed, we had reason to believe and it turned out to be true that in fact they did not violate territories. Well, here we are today. Now, we’re back in an age described by a predecessor of Immanuel Kant a hundred years earlier, Thomas Hobbes. We are living now, in Europe, in a Hobbesian state of nature, in which, whether the bullets are flying or not, agreements don’t count and life is a war of all against all. And on top of that we are also abandoning the prospect of economic progress and enrichment, which has also been one of the strengths of liberal democracies – that you can make more money in liberal democracies (unless you get paid by Gazprom).
In this radically new situation, the liberal democratic West is still confused about what to do. Just watch what will happen the day after tomorrow and the day after that [September 5-6] in Wales. We have come up with sanctions, but the situation keeps escalating. We are still far from having a consensus about what to do next. What we all must realize, however, is that once the rules, the Helsinki accords and others, no longer hold in relation to one signatory, then the situation has changed for all of us.
One of the great triumphs after the Bosnian war is that those countries that were at war with each other have actually signed the CSCE Paris Charter. What do we do when various countries decide that the CSCE accords do not mean anything any more and they can violate them – I don’t even want to speculate but frankly, the possibilities seem rather dire to me. If one of them can get away with it, then there will also be others who will want to get away with it, and I am not even talking about countries outside the CSCE space. Once we go beyond those countries that are today in the OSCE – they have not been bound by much anyway, but if they see the success of the policies we have seen, then I think it only adds to the instability of the world. So we have to realize that the situation is far more serious than we are often led to believe, and that we have to come up with a solution.
Another problem we also have to face is a view I have encountered over several decades that “this is just an East European issue”. Ukraine, however, is not a “faraway country we know nothing about” – to quote British Foreign Secretary Neville Chamberlain when he agreed to allow Adolf Hitler dismember Czechoslovakia in Munich in 1938. No aggression should be dismissed by such arguments ever again. Just yesterday – September 1 – was another “anniversary”. On August 23, in addition to the anniversary of the Baltic Way where we all held hands 25 years ago, it was 75 years since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – that was a reason why we had the Baltic way on the 23rd of August – and yesterday we recognised that it was 75 years since Hitler invaded Poland, which was a week after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union was signed.
It is now in Ukraine that Europe’s meaning and identity is fought over. If some part of Europe is not free, no part of Europe is actually secure. Will Europe and the world understand this time around that Eastern Europe is Europe too – that Europe extends beyond the borders of the so-called old members of the European Union – those that were members before 2004? Will they recognize that Ukraine and each European country is entitled to respect for their sovereignty and for their territorial integrity, granted to them by international law that has been signed on to also by countries that are currently engaged in aggression, and by agreements that we have all signed?
I speak of these conundra because the liberal order is being challenged by authoritarian, illiberal, yet often successful market economies in ways we did not foresee when the Berlin Wall was torn down and history was supposed to end.
I would argue that if we are to look for an analagous era, we can find it in the pre-Cold War period, in the confusion of the period of, say, 1946 or 1947, feeling around to figure out what we should do. We didn’t know what we were doing in those days, we observed the step-by-step toppling of governments in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland… This finally led the British foreign minister Bevin to actually propose the idea for NATO to the United States. It was a British socialist’s idea, just in case you forgot – sometimes people forget that, especially some of our neighbours who are not members of NATO, think it is a kind of a right-wing American thing, but in fact, NATO was proposed by a British socialist. And as I understand from the history of Norway, so, too, here it was in fact a left wing government that decided and understood. Perhaps the socialists actually get it better, because they know – I used to be one, we know – that the idea of social democracy does not have just the “social” part but also the “democracy” part. The people who were taking over in various countries in Eastern Europe, they might have been social enough, but they were not democratic.
So, we feel instinctively, as we did then, or as the previous generation did, that we are in a new era. We want desperately to believe in the old coalitions; the old coalitions of 1944-45-46 of course included the Soviet Union and the Western allies. We want to hang on to them in the hope that all this will go away. That Crimea will be restored to Ukraine, that Eastern Ukraine will calm down, that we don’t have to go on with sanctions, that we don’t have to raise defense expenditures. That we can go on making money with our deals and our financial institutions and our lucrative trade. Some of us still are like the plaintive teen-ager who asks, Why can’t we all just get along?
I can’t resist here and not quote Lenin, who immortally said, “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”. Not being stupid, we know that things are going awry, but maybe we can still make one more deal, build one more pipeline, sell one more bit of military hardware before we have to stop. Which we see right now. “Let us just sell this ship, after that we won’t sell them any more, right?”
And maybe within Europe, the right-wing populists, the Jobbiks, the National Fronts and others will eventually become reasonable and endorse liberal democratic values.
And maybe we can convince Russia that homophobia, censorship and repressions at home, and little green men, and accusations of fascism in Ukraine, and the disdainful mocking of prisoners of war that we have seen on video in East Ukrainian towns, and sending uninvited “humanitarian convoys” and Russian troops “on a vacation” to Ukraine – that it was all a big mistake. That we still can wake up from a bad dream and restore the status quo ante at the end of history.
But ladies and gentlemen, Peace, Love and Woodstock is over. We’ve just had our Altamont. And if you got that reference to Altamont, you’re about to enter, if not already have entered, retirement. To those who don’t know, it was a massive concert in the US a year after Woodstock, during which a man was stabbed to death – that’s what the Altamont was known for, but it signalled the end of the good feelings of Woodstock, and I think we are in the same moment right now. So 25 years after the hope of a whole and free Europe seemed to be almost possible to realise, we are further from it today than we might have imagined just a year ago.
So we must realise the we find ourselves in a Hobbesian world again – in Anno Domini 2014. I do hope, however, that together we will find a way out of this mess. More and more people understand how serious the situation is, and we rely on our strong alliances, and we are grateful to the US and our other NATO allies who have shown their strong support and dedication to our mutual commitments, and even more so than to the simple legal commitments, to the liberal democratic values that really form the basis of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The key to restoring stability in Europe is a sound transatlantic relationship – the US engagement and leadership and a Europe willing to assume more of the burden of providing collective security. The unity of the liberal democratic world, within Europe and between Europe and the US, is more important than ever. Of course, no stability can be achieved unless Russia stops its intervention and aggression in Ukraine and until Ukraine regains full control over its territory and its borders. We all would like to see a longstanding, diplomatic solution to the crisis. But we cannot speak seriously of a diplomatic process or of ceasefire negotiations as long as the intervention or aggression continues and its perpetrator will not even admit its role in that process. In this situation it is crucial what the heads of states and governments of Europe and transatlantic allies will decide within the next few days at the NATO Summit in Wales.
No one in Europe, in the West, can now get back to their daily business, or as we say, business as usual, and forget that the occupation and annexation of Crimea is illegal and violates international law. We must keep up pressure to prevent further aggression by Russia against its neighbours. If we don’t make it clear to Russia that it has behaved in a manner that is both illegal and unacceptable, we could end up with even more serious conflicts in the future.
We know our values, and we cannot allow Europe to ever again be divided into “spheres of influence”.