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Remarks by the President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid at the International Peace Institute "How small states can maximize their impact in global affairs"


Let me begin by thanking the International Peace Institute for hosting this discussion today. I am pleased to be here at such a critical time for the UN as well as for Estonia.

Indeed, this is an important month for us. Two weeks ago, on July 1st, we assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time ever. And another ‘first’ will take place later today when we officially launch our first ever candidature for a non-permanent seat of the United Nations Security Council.

In the next six months, we will do our best to provide leadership in Europe. And should we be elected to the Security Council, then we will, of course, do our best to make sure that the UN is able to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world. Doing our best is what we, as a small state, have to do in order to make an impact and survive in an ever more unstable world. Where rules are not only bent but broken. Where unpredictability has become the norm. Where peace and security is always under threat.

Small states are, of course, not the only ones affected by the overall increase in global tensions. The erosion of international rules and agreed principles could weaken the global order as we know it and impacts on large and small countries alike. And issues such as socio-economic development, migration and climate change are global challenges affecting all of us, big and small.

I agree with those who argue that small states are objectively more vulnerable to shifts – especially unexpected ones – in the international arena. In economic terms, small countries are generally more dependent on international trade. In political terms, small countries have less influence, not to mention military power.

Fortunately, however, there are ways to compensate for these vulnerabilities and to maximize one’s influence on the global arena. Small countries can and do punch above their weight. Indeed, of the more than 100 small states in world, there are many success stories to be told, many examples – for example Luxemburg – of small states that have accomplished prosperity and are considered global leaders in a particular field. As a small country ourselves, we have learned a lot from others with small populations. First is, that you can’t only consume, you have to contribute. You always have to take the contributing view. This is the only way for small country to be confidently present and influencing international community.

As most small states, Estonia champions multilateralism. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a platform to contribute. Indeed, we not only believe in multilateralism, we depend on it. We have an existential need for multilateral cooperation to keep developing and meeting the expectation of citizens and international community. Otherwise we are under direct risk. Big countries can take risky steps alone, small can’t.

Our foreign and security policy rests mainly on our membership in NATO and the EU, the two main organizations in the Euro-Atlantic area. But it is also significantly enhanced by our membership in the UN. The UN is the only truly global international organization responsible for and capable of enforcing international norms and principles. For Estonia, a small country, these norms and principles, together with international cooperation, are what I like to call our greatest weapon.

Reputation or image too is important, especially for small states. Difficult to build up but remarkably easy to damage. We rely on our allies and partners. We care about what they think about us. And so we continuously strive to act as a reliable and predictable partner to countries worldwide. Always being there if someone needs a hand to analyze the situation and find positive, future-oriented opportunities. We will never say: this doesn’t work, let’s withdraw from international cooperation. We will always be the ones most keenly supporting compromises so that we wouldn’t need to withdraw. Same applies for the EU, same applies here for the UN.

It is clear that we can not be everywhere. We need to prioritize, both on international scene and also back home. We need to choose carefully where we put our effort and what we can do best. And probably we have done something the best in the whole world – our digital society.

We started with it mainly for cost reasons. People were expecting from our government to provide services similarly than much better off countries were doing at that time. But we didn’t have resources so we had to do it more effectively. We did. Now we have a competitive advantage over any other state in the world.

We do not use this as a competitive edge for ourselves. We put this knowledge we have acquired available for all our partners. To demonstrate that transformation can happen really quickly if you embrace new technologies quickly. But there is also another pillar for quick transformations – respect for liberal values and liberal democratic rules. Freedom of speech and ideas, media freedom – all these are very important because otherwise you do not attract investments to your country. You do not build trust in international community. Transformation takes respect of generally respected human rights and freedoms. You can not do compromises and say: we are poor, we can not afford it. Yes you can! Democracy is not dependent on your GDP per capita. It’s available to everybody, to every country in the world.

This is a message what our country for 25 years has demonstrated. Becoming from country occupied by Soviet Union among those which IMF classifies as well-off countries. Actually it happened already in 2006, so it took us 15 years.
But coming back to digital aspects – we all know that people and businesses are already in cyber-sphere. Where are the governments? Mostly on analogue mode. There is Estonia, there is also Finland and Latvia, there is Luxemburg who on different degrees are digital. Estonia probably most comprehensively amongst them. And it’s the platform we share between private and public sector so it is inclusive to everybody.

This is not an option or matter of choice any more, this is happening. Governments have always had a responsibility for guaranteed identification of people. Usually it is called passport. But big proportion of transactions has moved to cyber sphere already and governments for some reason in most places have given up on their basic role of safe identification. Google provides it, Estonia provides it. Latvia and Luxemburg also and some more. But that is definitely a minority of states.

We need to talk about those things. I’m not sure governments actually want an can afford to be the last ones who follow people into the internet. And they also have an obligation to keep the internet safe and open for all of us. Similarly as they do on streets – we do not abandon our streets to crooks though some bad things happen there. Neither can we afford leaving internet. Governments have to be present, their footprints have to be on digital ground. Internet is a real space nowadays – it’s not something very abstract any more.

So this is what has brought us here. Transformation by liberal democratic value application combined with a little bit of good luck and open-minded attitude towards new technologies.

And now as we are launching our campaign for UN Security Council non-permanent member I insist it’s because we want to contribute. We want to contribute to understanding what humanity is in 21st century and what governments need to do to be still present for their people and businesses.

In addition, yes, we run for this seat first time and we believe UN is an inclusive structure wanting everybody to get their chance. And we understand general common problems of small states and the inevitability of making multinational networks stronger to survive. We need stronger UN to act because there is simply no alternative.