Opinion: Lithuanian foreign policy – loud, but narrow and negative

Lithuanian foreign minister, president and ambassador at UN Security Council
lrp.lt nuotr.

Several days ago, the minister of foreign affairs [Linas Linkevičius] reviewed the activities undertaken by himself and the ministry last year, stressing active engagement with the Eastern Partnership programme, participation in the UN Security Council and economic diplomacy. He expressed pride in Lithuania’s input towards creating a stable Europe and, just as any other country’s foreign minister, expressed confidence that even a small country can make a difference in an effort towards peace and security in the world.

Consciously or not, the minister did not boast much, but simply listed bureucratically what bigger or smaller tasks had been completed. He numbered the trees, but left to everyone else to see and evaluate the forest. Therefore let us take a little more general look at Lithuania’s foreign policy in 2014.

I believe there are three points to note.

First, Lithuania’s foreign policy was audible and categorical, albeit narrow. From the minister’s appearances in foreign news media, to the president’s statements about Russia being a “terrorist state”, everything was directed toward the events in Ukraine and commentary on Russian actions. There is little else to say about Lithuania’s foreign policy last year, even the membership in the UN Security Council revolved mostly around Ukraine, while on the economic diplomacy front there is still much to do towards learning to formulate more concrete goals, with 27 different countries being highlighted as priorities.

Having a specific goal and actively working toward it is a commendable approach. A state needs secure environment. It is great that the state leadership understands this. It is great they do not hide this.

It is less great when a clear-cut position turns into a knee-jerk and unreflective process; when scandalous headline-grabbing statements are just that – attempts to make headlines. They may help earn points in the domestic scene, where a more militant rhetoric is acceptable, but there is little sense of actual strategy and direction behind this. Congratulations, we’ve found even more vivid phrases to criticize Russia, what’s next?

Second, fear-mongering has become a widely used tool to justify foreign policy. How does one mobilise the society and make it pay attention? How does one control political debate and its agenda? The answer is an old and time-tested one – by creating fear. This was something well-known in the Soviet Union, in the Cold-War United States, it was a strategy well used by George W. Bush and taken to a new level by Vladimir Putin.

In Lithuania, too, we are being frightened and frighten ourselves. We join the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, organise conferences about wars, host seminars on civil resistance, some of us are probably already hoarding food. Just look at the debate that unraveled in the op-ed section of DELFI this November on the possibility of an invasion into the Baltic states.

And it does not matter here how realistic or not it is; everything is equally unreal and real at the same time until something actually happens. The more important aspect to consider is what this kind of rhetoric does to us. Let’s admit, all the strategies of Russian deterrence we discuss in Lithuania are not intended for Russia. Russia will not be deterred by civil defence units that have seen their membership grow by several hundred. This rhetoric is intended for us – it is easier to live in a world of black and white, where you can build walls and safeguards. At the same time, this rhetoric makes us part of the body of the state rather than people for whom the state is merely a means to an end of living our lives.

And this leads to the third point about Lithuania’s foreign policy last year – it did not have a positive vision. Our policymakers have been very good at responding to foreign policy events, the here and the now. For example, even the UN Security Council membership was used very successfully because we had Ukraine. But was there any vision for our term in the Security Council beyond that? What sort of relations do we really seek with our neighbours? What is Lithuania doing in the EU?

Foreign policy should be more than just day-to-day reaction to current events. As part of a state policy, it should display what sort of a state we want to build. Will it be a state defined by its fear of Russia? And will such a negative definition suffice for meaningful foreign policy?

Obviously, these questions are not new, they have been raised throughout the entire decade of our European integration. But they need to be raised time and time again, especially now that we have far less comfortable circumstances under which to find answers.

For what will happen when we have to protect ourselves, but find that we no longer know from what or why?

Dovilė Jakniūnaitė is docent at the International Relations and Political Science Institute of Vilnius University.

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