Approaching Estonia’s 10th anniversary of NATO membership

Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, Undersecretary of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia

This year Estonia celebrates 10 years since joining two international organizations – the European Union and NATO.

At the end of next month, on 29 March, Estonia will celebrate 10 years since joining NATO. Many members of the Alliance are planning rather large-scale events to mark this historic milestone. Here in Estonia we have decided to take a somewhat more low-key, forward-looking approach. The story of our accession, with all of its ups and downs, certainly deserves to be properly told and recorded. But dwelling on the past has never been part of our approach to foreign policy. Wherever possible, we have tried to focus our attention on the future and on meeting any potential challenges that lie ahead. And so, we plan to focus on being in NATO, rather than on how we got into this organization in the first place.

That being said, ten years on, I can still vividly remember what it was like to be knocking on NATO’s door. Perhaps the most difficult time was when we were officially both a NATO aspirant as well as an EU candidate country. We had to do and be many things at once: we had to strengthen our security, reform our economy, struggle to overturn our post-Soviet image, demonstrate that we were as good as the Central Europeans (who were considered clear frontrunners for both organizations) and convince skeptics (of which there were many) that taking us into NATO would not hurt its integrity, but was actually a good idea.

NATO today is obviously quite different from the organization that we joined ten years ago. But its core principles remain the same. And it is still the world’s most powerful military organization. The fact that we belong to this organization is in and of itself a monumental achievement for our country, especially when we take into account where we started from and the depth of skepticism that surrounded Baltic NATO membership at the time. There is no doubt that we worked hard to make it happen but as one of the key diplomats behind our accession Ambassador Jüri Luik has pointed out, we were also blessed with a fair amount of luck. Events such as 9-11 and a brief warming of relations between the United States and Russia that ensued provided us with a rare window of opportunity to make the case for NATO expansion.

NATO membership has always enjoyed high public support among the Estonian people. But as we all know, public support should not be taken for granted. And so we see the upcoming anniversary as a good opportunity to, once again, highlight the benefits of NATO membership. The most obvious benefit for Estonia has been an increase in our security. As we all know, there is no such thing as 100% security. But NATO membership has certainly brought all of us much closer to the magical 100% mark. Our leaders often like to point out that never before in history has Estonia been as secure as it is today. And while this statement may seem obvious – even banal to some – it could not be more true.

While the security environment in Europe is stable, security still matters, despite what some analysts may claim. It matters to large states as well as to small ones such as Estonia. From a security perspective, we continue to face what the analyst Paul Goble has described as some impossible challenges such a small territory and a difficult geographic neighborhood. But thanks to membership in NATO, these challenges no longer threaten our security situation to the extent that they once did. The all-important NATO principle of collective defense as stated in Article V of the Washington Treaty and the deterrence that it offers act as a strong shield against possible outside aggressors who might be foolish enough to consider taking the risk of attacking us.

As we celebrate 10 years of NATO membership, we should also take time to consider what we as ‘relatively new members’ have managed to bring to NATO. I use the term ‘relatively new members’ because in the larges scheme of things, our accession to NATO did not take place that long ago even though, by today, the accession itself seems like a distant memory. Here I believe that we should put aside our modesty and acknowledge that we have made a positive difference in shaping NATO’s agenda.

When we joined NATO ten years ago, there was a lot of idealism and euphoria but also a fair amount of apprehension as to what the future would bring. The main issues on NATO’s agenda – aside from enlargement, of course – included providing training to Iraqi security forces, terminating the SFOR mission in Bosnia, enhancing partnerships and implementing military transformation. Over the past years, thanks to our encouragement, the Alliance has not only taken on board new issues such as cyber defense and energy security but has also adopted a more active approach to core issues such as Article V, defense planning and joint exercises. Indeed, since our accession, some underlining principles such as the need to plan for all contingencies so as to be ready to deal with threats, wherever they may come from, have been reiterated in both a conceptual and practical form. The recent Article V exercise Steadfast Jazz that took place in our region is also good example of the change in approach within NATO.

Finally, the upcoming anniversary is a good opportunity to address a lingering question related to our membership in the Alliance that seems to come up again and again in domestic debates: will NATO actually come to our defense should something happen? It seems that ten years of membership have not done much to alleviate people’s insecurities. Paradoxically, the main concern is not that Estonia will actually be attacked but that we will be left on our own. The answer, of course, is that our allies will come but that this guarantee does not absolve us of the responsibility to maintain our own independent defense forces. An Article V scenario arising in the near future is considered unlikely and yet, as allies we must still prepare for one.

Clearly changes are ahead for NATO and, consequently, for Estonia as a NATO member. NATO has been active in Afghanistan the entire time that Estonia has been a member and the Alliance’s internal dynamic will certainly change once combat operations in Afghanistan end next year. But it will not necessarily be as dramatic as some have predicted. From the interoperability point of view, ten years of working together in Afghanistan have left the Alliance stronger than before. The key question now is how to maintain and build on the current position, how to ensure that NATO is able to fulfill its main tasks in the years to come – both Article V and non-Article V, both on NATO soil and beyond.

Today, the commitment to a strong Alliance is there. But what will be the situation in 10 years time? Will NATO be able to meet its commitments and maintain credibility and relevance as allies spend less and less on defense? In discussions on defense spending it is often pointed out that it is not only important how much you spend on defense but what you spend the money on. While this is true and there are many smart ways that allies can cooperate and save money, one cannot overlook the fact that you simply cannot do less with less. Today, the commonly agreed 2% benchmark is being met by but a few allies and this is an issue of concern for us.

When we joined the Alliance, we set ourselves some simple goals. Our aim was to be viewed as an ally that is militarily capable, willing to contribute to joint operations – including those further afield – and ready to use force if necessary. We also set ourselves the overarching goal of becoming a responsible ally that does not simply consume security but also contributes to it. And so, since 2004, we have participated in all NATO operations except for the Libya operation in 2011. We have brought our defense spending up to 2% of GDP. And we have participated actively in exercises. None of these steps were easy. We should be proud of them as well as of our membership in NATO.