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Toomas Hendrik Ilves at Columbia University, 26 September 2014


Good morning,

Thank you very much for inviting me. I always come back to Columbia, this is where the ursprung of my life is from. It is always a pleasure for me to speak at my Alma Mater. Last year, I spoke here about cyber security. Estonia is a highly digitized society, we must take cyber threats seriously. But at that time, just a year ago, we had no idea how much the world around us would change within months. In the past seven months we have seen a complete sea change in the security environment of the transatlantic area, for which we were not prepared.

There had been warning signs. For example, Russia's aggression against Georgia in 2008 was a wake-up call, but everyone hit the snooze button, chose to ignore it. A month after president Sarkozy had announced his peace plan, the EU and Russia said they were not going to do anything about it, even though the peace plan provisions on removing the Russian troops were never met. So we knew beforehand that things were shifting, but we chose not to pay attention.

In November this year we'll celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. 1989 for us indeed was the Annus Mirabilis: The Cold War ended, the Iron Curtain crumbled and we had a continent-wide euphoria. Estonia, too, along with our Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, was soon to be liberated from the Soviet occupation that had lasted in our countries for half a century.

Looking back, we realize that a whole era ended at that time, after about half a century of status quo. In our part of the world things changed radically and permanently, we thought, for the better. 20 years ago, in August 1994, the last Soviet occupation troops left Estonia. That was the final sign that the Cold War, in at least our country, was over.

It could all be a reason to celebrate a Fukuyaman triumph of liberal democracy. Instead, we are now watching a new wave of authoritarianism rise throughout Europe and tensions grow in Europe and other areas. We also see a renewed battle of ideas where liberal democracy is no longer the obvious winner. We see a return of cynical geopolitics, of lies and propaganda at an altogether new level, and raw force has returned as a foreign policy tool in an area that had actually not seen that in 75 years.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The 50 years before 1989 the world had been 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. Then there was the so-called Third World that was too poor to be considered part of either camp. Indeed the division of the world into East and West that we would live through throughout all those years, didn't take into account much of the world, the world that lived in different conditions. But we do look at the Cold War as an East-West division, which it was – but let us just remember as a footnote that this division did not imply the entire world.

This neat, simplistic order was beginning to crumble and would soon collapse. The first semi-democratic election in the communist world was held in Poland, in summer 1989, and the non-communists won those elections, despite the fact that the elections were slanted in a way that would keep them from winning. That, too, we thought, was a milestone in an irreversible march toward liberty, one of many. There was the Velvet Revolution, and the Baltic Way, a chain of a million people in three countries holding hands to demonstrate their quest of freedom.

It was also in 1989 that Francis Fukuyama published "The End of History", one of the seminal essays of the late twentieth century, later expanded into a book of the same name. He argued that the ideological debate between liberal democracy and authoritarian communism was over, and that liberal democracy had won.

Fukuyama received a lot of criticism for his optimism, but much of the criticism actually hit a strawman because he never claimed that liberal democracy had won in the real world, or that all countries in the world had embraced or would embrace democracy. Rather, he said that the contest of ideas was over, that no one could any longer make claims for the superiority of an authoritarian regime.

Back in 1989 we took all those events I mentioned, the various revolutions, as proof of Fukuyama's Hegelian view of history and the ineluctable victory of liberal democracy.

For a while it indeed seemed that that was the direction toward which we were moving. We in Estonia knew what we wanted. We wanted to be part of the West, we quickly did the reforms that we needed to do and became members of NATO, EU, and all the other Western and international organisations. When I say quickly, it seems so in retrospect – actually it was a long, hard slug and it took fifteen years of hard work, both the EU negotiations and the NATO accession.

Many other countries of our region did the same. We expected, in a Fukuyaman spirit, that all of the post-Communist world would follow. But not nearly all of the post-Communist countries did the reforms we did. In fact, looking back at who reformed and who did not, we see rather low numbers – a while back I looked at the Freedom House ratings of democracies. When these ratings are compared to the countries that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were broadcast in before the revolutions, we see that 80 % of the populations of those countries today are either partially free or unfree. Or, the other way round, a fairly small number of those countries today can be considered liberal democracies. And almost all of them belong to the EU and to NATO.

In the countries that did not reform, corruption flourished and authoritarianism came back, or never left. And today we see ghosts from the 20th century that we thought we'd never see again, return to our midst. The annexation of territory. The violation of borders. Aggression. An anti-liberal ideology, combining religious conservativism with political authoritarianism and imperialist bravado promoted in opposition to our liberal democratic ideals. It's all back.

So Fukuyama's optimism, even about the end of the battle of ideas, no longer seems so justified. The battle of ideas is back, as much as cynical geopolitics. In a way, we are in a harder place now in this battle than we were during the last decade of the Cold War, the 1980s. Back then it all had become kind of a joke. The alternative to liberal democracy was not credible, not to the populations that were living under authoritarian Communism. No one on either side of the Iron Curtain took Communist propaganda seriously, because it was simply so ridiculous.

The ideas we are fighting now are more dangerous. They have far greater appeal than autocratic Communism had. Now Russia has the world's largest and best PR firms doing their work for them. Today, more than 80% of Russians support annexation through military aggression in Crimea, where the Anschluss of territory was justified by the presence of co-ethnics, just as it was back in 1938 when Adolf Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. He used precisely the same argument.

Actually the argument is much older. It goes back to the Roman empire – ubi romani, ibi Roma; where there are Romans, there is Rome. But Adolf Hitler is best known for this argument in connection with the annexation of the Sudetenland as well as the Anschluss of Austria. In addition to that, we see widespread support for an anti-liberal attack against Western "decadent permissiveness", be it in freedom of speech, free choice of one's life partners or the empowerment of women. I could go on and on, but basically, what we see is a very revanchist anti-liberal democratic view in a number of countries.

So liberal democracy has not won the battle of ideas against authoritarianism. It has even failed to prevent the resurrection of that once vanquished demon, fascism. As a horrifying recent example, you can look at the video on You Tube of the co-called "biker show" which was staged in Sevastopol on August 8 this year. It is a genuine Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that makes Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will look mild and meek. There is rock-and-roll, hundreds of bikers, ballet dancers, light shows and hip hop bands, plus tanks, and calls to kill the Ukrainians.

If you know the name Carl Schmitt, he is considered to be the smartest philosopher of Nazi Germany who has presented the intellectually most coherent attack on liberal democracy in a book called The Concept of the Political, Der Begriff des Politischen, in which he said, to put it simply, that politics is not about liberal democracy, politics is about "us" versus "them". And I see this repeated now in the ideological debate on the authoritarian side. It is interesting that Alexander Dugin, a primary intellectual figure in Russia arguing against democracy and for fascism, is also a primary promoter of Carl Schmitt today, he has produced Russian translations of Carl Schmitt's works.

Looking at the wider picture, we are now dealing with an ideological mix that I already feared in 1994, hoping that it would never materialize – the "Milosevization" of Russia. I recall Slobodan Milosevic 20 years ago, the horrible scene of Orthodox priests blessing tanks and Kalashnikovs with holy water, sending them off to kill Bosnians. When I saw videos of the Crimea takeover, I saw videos of Orthodox priests blessing Russian tanks. Again, this is an odd mix that goes back to czar Nicholas I and his three part view of what Russia should be – autocracy, orthodoxy and derzhava, which would mean "great statehood". Just most recently, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, Kirill, was given a private jet fighter, SU-35, so categories are getting a little mixed here, from a democratic point of view, in terms of separation of church and state and military.

This combination of authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, illiberalism, nationalism and ethnic hatred was bad enough in Serbia, with a population of 7 million. Now we see it on the rise in Russia, a country of 140 million and nuclear weapons.

And unfortunately versions of this sinister ideological mix have appeal not only in Russia, but also in what we thought of as the bastion of liberal democracy – in Western Europe, which should remember all too well the demons of the ideologies of hatred. Last spring, Europe voted in the European parliamentary elections and a number of neo-fascist, nationalist parties not only overcame the threshold for getting into the European Parliament, where they now are, but in some countries they were among the most popular parties. Like Front National in France – I just read that were the French elections held today, then Marie Le Pen would win the elections. We see similar parties in a number of other countries that did very well. I mention this because in contrast, while Ukrainians are painted as "Nazis" by Russian propaganda, neither of the two neo-Fascist candidates in Ukrainian presidential elections held on the same day as the European Parliamentary elections, could even reach 1 percent of votes.

We see the same phenomenon, unfortunately, also in those parts of Europe which were, like us, liberated from Communism in 1989 and should know the value of freedom and democracy, which is the path they once chose. We see it even in the mostly very liberal and tolerant North of Europe – in Sweden's national elections less than two weeks ago, the far-right and racist Sweden Democrats party more than doubled its share of votes from 5,7 to 12,9 %. In parliamentary democracies that means they are a party that can make or break a government.

And it is the far right parties of Europe, the likes of the French Front National, the British National Party, the Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary who support the actions of the Kremlin. They went to observe the illegal so-called referendum in annexed Crimea; they arrange "international conferences" with Kremlin ultranationalist leaders like Alexander Dugin whom I already mentioned, to share their imperialist and racist geopolitical fantasies. And here in the US, according to Buzzfeed, Richard Spencer, the president of US white nationalist "think tank", National Policy Institute, is just about to publish a book on the philosophy of Dugin and Heidegger.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Why is it that the ideals of liberal democracy have fallen into disrepute even in the heart of Europe, and aggressive, fiercely antiliberal doctrines have massive support, in Russia and increasingly also in the West? Why is it that from our perspective today, everything seems more insecure than even in the Cold War, when at least some rules of international behaviour were followed and we had some sense of moral clarity?

I have argued that we can find part of the answer in another essay that also became a best-selling book, Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilisations". It was published four years after Fukuyama's essay. Huntington saw future conflicts in the post-ideological age to be conflicts between cultures and civilisations. Which seemed to be unfortunately verified by the 9/11 attacks.

Huntington's ideas were also heavily criticized, but soon enough we were challenged on our own ground, in New York, Washington, Madrid, London and Bombay. All of these attacks challenged the liberal order, attacking democratic elections, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state and the rule of law, not men or God.

Those attackers were the greatest Huntingtonians; they were the ones who claimed that some cultures are not compatible with democracy. Like the people attempting to create a theocracy in the Middle East today, and like the authoritarians who more and more boldly define themselves in opposition to our "decadent" democratic values. They seem to use Huntington as a prescriptive source rather than as a descriptive model, which was how Huntington tried to present it – they seem to be reading the book as a manual, trying to create a world in which their societies reject democracy, appealing instead to their "culture" or "civilisation".

For a while this looked like a revolt against modernity from the outside, and in the Middle East one could still claim that. But until recently we had thought that on our own continent the defeat of Nazism and the collapse of communism had settled once and for all the Hegelian ineluctability of the triumph of liberal democracy – just as Fukuyama had predicted. We hoped that democracy in Russia would also reign supreme; as some European politicians still seem to do.

We had also come to believe that certain tenets of international law were so self-evident that they would never be broken. We had believed that territorial annexation based on co-ethnics abroad, which, as I mentioned, we saw in 1938, was settled for good on May 8th 1945, the day when the Nazis were defeated.

We thought that after the 2008 aggression in Georgia, people would wake up and notice that things had changed. But what we've seen in the past seven months is that all the rules and agreements of any importance that had defined the world after the Cold War – in fact, I would even argue, after World War II – have been declared in practice null and void. We see that the basic tenets that we had all trusted not just in the past 20 years but really going back to 1945, in practice have been thrown out of the window.

First, there was a prohibition of aggression that came into effect with the UN Charter, 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. This was in 1945, and this was one of the key ideas people came up with because they did not want a repeat of WW II.

Then during the Cold War, in 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was signed, in which all trans-Atlantic countries agreed not to use force to change borders or challenge the political independence of any state. This is not the UN, not the whole world, but all transatlantic countries, all of the Northern hemisphere agreed to regard one another's frontiers inviolable and to refrain from making each other's territory the object of military occupation, and we explicitly had in that Charter a statement that no occupation or acquisition of this type would be recognized as legal.

Then when we go on to the euphoria of the end of the Cold War, there is the 1990 CSCE Paris Charter for a new Europe, in which, again, all of the OSCE, then CSCE countries, 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". Already in 2008, after the war in Georgia, the then president Medvedev and then Prime Minister Putin said that the reason to invade Georgia was that Georgia was to be prevented from joining NATO. So already then the Paris Charter had lost its meaning.

To bring this into a larger perspective, all of these agreements, signed before, during and after the Cold War, were concluded in the liberal spirit of Immanuel Kant's essay Perpetual Peace from 1795. The intellectual foundations of the European Union as well of NATO ultimately rest on that essay, in which Kant argued two centuries ago what would become our dominant foreign policy mantra, which is that republics – today that would mean democratic states based on the rule of law – that form a federation do not wage war on each other. So democratic countries in an organisation, treaty-bound, will not fight one another.

That is NATO, that is the EU today. The European Union and NATO have proved Kant's theoretical conception to be right. But we were wrong in believing that this extended to those countries that are outside the federation of liberal democracies; that it might also work with countries that are not republics, or liberal democratic rule-based societies. That is one of the fundamental problems we face: how do you keep peace in a world with those countries that are outside the federation of democracies?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today we find ourselves in a completely new and unforeseen security environment. I would not call it a "New Cold War", because even during the Cold War basic agreements were followed. Yes, the Cold War was terrible, but at least the agreements signed with the Soviet Union were adhered to. After the Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975, they did not violate territories, at least not those of CSCE member states. If you recall, they invaded Afghanistan, but Afghanistan was not part of the CSCE. Now we're back in an age better described by Thomas Hobbes. We are living now, in 2014, in a Hobbesian state of nature, where one cannot count on agreements and life is a war of all against all.

One of the triumphs after the Bosnian war was that the countries that were at war have 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 be violated? If one country can get away with it, there will be others who will also want to get away with it, and I am not even talking about countries outside the OSCE. If they see the success of the policies that we have seen pursued in the last seven months, it will all add to the instability of the world. So I would argue that the situation is far more serious than we realize.

We only talk about Ukraine, we talk about the MH-17, but the point is that the agreements that have kept the world more or less safe have been abandoned and we have a much larger problem. Because it is not just a matter of our own neighbourhood. What is happening in Ukraine is not an "East European issue", just as totalitarianism was not just an East European issue 75 years ago when Stalin and Hitler divided Europe among themselves.

This time the world must realize that this is not about one or another "faraway country no one knows anything about" – to quote Neville Chamberlain before the Munich agreement to dismember Czechoslovakia. We cannot, and will not, accept dividing free countries into "spheres of influence" any more. We in Estonia are very glad for the support we are getting from our NATO allies. We are grateful to president Obama who visited Tallinn three weeks ago, before the NATO Wales summit, confirming that spheres of influence do not exist on the NATO side.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

we are confused today, because the liberal democratic order is being challenged in ways we did not foresee when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Instead of a "New Cold War" which we hear plenty about, this confusion to me looks more like the time before the "old" Cold War, the years right after WW II when people didn't know what to do. The United States and the Soviet Union had been allies who fought against Nazism, but then the US found that their erstwhile ally no longer acted like an ally. They didn't know what to do when they saw the governments in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and Hungary being toppled one by one and the civil war start in Greece.

That is where we are today. We are looking at things happening and people scratch their heads, different people have different conceptions of what is happening but the idea is that we cannot really fathom what is going on in the world, why things are going this way, why the old agreements no longer work.

We still want to hang on to the grand old coalitions we have; but we don't have them any more. Just as in 1942-46 the West had its grand coalition with the Soviets, we want to figure out what is going on, we want everyone's dreams to come true and we want to go back to the status quo ante. We hope 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 in Russia and our financial institutions and our lucrative trade.

Here I can't resist and not quote Lenin, who immortally said, "the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them". We know that things are going awry, but maybe we can still make one more deal, build one more pipeline, maybe we can sell one more bit of military hardware before we have to stop. We see right now this thinking: "Let us just sell this one 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 come around to their senses and realise that democracy is a good thing.

And maybe we can convince Russia that homophobia, censorship and repressions at home, and little green men, and lies and propaganda, the disdainful mocking of prisoners of war, and sending uninvited "humanitarian convoys" and Russian troops to 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 we cannot go on just hoping that the bad dream will go away. We'll have to wake up and make it to go away. We have to find a way out of this new situation and we need to do it together. And things are changing. 20 years ago Richard Lugar wrote about NATO that it had to go "out of area or out of business", saying that NATO had lost its purpose, that we'd have to send it elsewhere. Now NATO is "back in area and back in business".

The European Union and the United States have introduced sanctions to stop Russia. NATO presence on Eastern European allies' territories has significantly increased. But we do not know whether that is enough for increased security of our region.

Every conflict has implications that reach wider than the geographical region fought over. Each aggression is also about scare tactics. Russian aggression in Ukraine has been followed by attempts at intimidation and destabilisation elsewhere. Also in the Baltic states. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have been punished for their turn toward Europe. We, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, returned to Europe as soon as the collapse of the Soviet Union made it possible, and therefore, it is now harder to "punish" us, because we are "in" again. The other countries that have been slower, face an uphill battle against serious attempts to destabilize them.

On top of that there is an information war going on, in which all kinds of weapons are being used. There is this concept of the "Russkii mir", Russian world, which basically says that Russia is not about territory, it is about the "Russian world". Meaning "where there is a Russian, there is Russia", which probably makes life worryome not only for countries like mine, but also for Brighton Beach. We see airspace constantly being violated, not just in our countries but also in neutral Sweden and neutral Finland, where we see exercises planning massive attack on their countries. So we are in a mess, and I am not going to offer an answer here today.

Milan Kundera wrote in 1984 that in 1956, Europe was fought for in Budapest, not in London. Now Europe's meaning, identity and future is fought for in Ukraine. All of Eastern Europe that wants to live in liberal democracy is threatened, and it is up to us to do something about it. We are on the right side of the divide that is being created against our will, but at least we are liberal democracies, and we understand that in places like Ukraine today we see rising a pseudophilosophical approach to geopolitics that could be very threatening to all of us in the future. With that wonderful, appealing note I close. Thank you.