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President Kersti Kaljulaid: Estonia focuses on cyber security

President Kersti Kaljulaid in an interview to Life in Estonia magazine: "Our story is an inspiration to many others." The president tells how Estonia remains an unstoppable innovator and keeps standing relentlessly for cyber and international law in the United Nations Security Council.

Estonia is an elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020 and 2021.

President Kersti Kaljulaid, who spearheaded the campaign for the membership, considers Estonia ready to answer the question “What can we do for the world?”.  She talked to Life in Estonia about the tools a small country can use to navigate a complicated era of international relations. 

Reputation means security

Estonia worked hard for its membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and you yourself made a significant contribution of your time and effort. Eight months into the membership – can we say it has been worthwhile?

The UNSC membership campaign in itself was of great benefit for Estonia. For a small country to become known among the international community is already a great gain in security. Reputation means security. Let me give you an example – we know that many species in the world go extinct every day but it never crosses the news threshold because no one has ever heard of those species. If something happens to a cute and well-known animal, the whole world speaks about it. In order to be well-protected, you also need to be well known. This also applies to countries. With the UNSC campaign, we significantly expanded the circle of our friends, increased Estonia’s visibility, and explained to people how we have managed to achieve such economic success in 30 years. It resonated with so many countries because it created an opportunity to identify. 30 years ago, Estonia was below the official IMF poverty line as a country, now we are a rich country. Our story is an inspiration to many others and, while telling it during the campaign, we created many new business opportunities for Estonian companies. At the same time, the campaign also established friendships that will be there for us when needed, even in the event of a natural disaster.

I was the leader of this campaign; I was responsible for giving Estonia this opportunity. Today, our work and activities in the UNSC, as we promised, are being carried out by our mission in New York based on a framework approved by the government, stemming from the principles of international law, our own previous positions, the position of the European Union.


Digital diplomacy – Estonia set a new benchmark

The pandemic has imposed new forms of diplomacy. During the first round of the UNSC presidency in May, Estonia organised virtual sessions at a very high technical level and may have already set a new benchmark on the working process. But can diplomacy be done without meeting face to face?

The rapid digitisation, also in diplomacy, is indeed associated with our country. I think it’s fair to admit that through digital channels it’s very easy to maintain the existing relationships. If you already know the people, it’s not difficult, but in the long run it can be complicated. Because of this UNSC campaign, I happened to get a very large circle of friends among foreign heads of states and diplomats, which is very useful when you can’t have usual face-to-face meetings. When it comes to building new relationships, even my own generation is not used to doing it virtually. But I think in the 10-year span, the younger generation doesn’t understand at all what the difference is between virtual and real interaction. In fact, even now, the coordination of the UNSC work takes place on WhatsApp. Be it the UN South-South gathering somewhere in Argentina or the CARICOM meeting or the African Union, advisers from all countries are coordinating the meetings via WhatsApp group. This is a large international online community. By the time the heads of states shake hands, the WhatsApp group has done the job in the background. So, in that sense, it’s not as sharp a transition as it seems.

The current era is characterised by a fierce confrontation between the permanent members of the UNSC that is even paralysing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What can a small country as a non-permanent member of the UNSC do in that situation?

As we promised in our campaign – we act based on international law and previous agreements, not interests. You cannot support someone’s position because they are your partner or ally. As soon as you climb off the platform of international law once, you have lost that opportunity forever, because it is no longer possible to refuse to choose sides. That is why small countries are favoured as UNSC members, because it is known that ‘international law is their nuclear weapon’ (as put by the former president of Estonia Lennart Meri). There is no point or reason for us to abandon this continuity. It was known in advance to everyone who voted for us.

The big topics of the signature events during the Estonian UNSC presidency were World War II and cyber security. It is not noticeable though that the positions of the great powers on these issues have shifted closer to each other. Is that even possible?

The aim of the sessions was to talk about security in this century, not to formulate a common position about history. We understand that there are many new challenges here that we are not used to dealing with, plus all the old ones are still here as well. For me, the precedent-setting of attributing an actual cyber-attack was even more valuable than the great debates. It has been undeservedly overlooked when Estonia raised the issue of cyber-attacks against Georgia in the UNSC together with the UK and the USA in August. This was the first time that a cyber-attack had been raised in the UNSC and attributed to someone. Russia was responsible for the attack. Unbelievable, but in 2020 it was a precedent. It was the promise of our campaign that we would seize the opportunity to get the UNSC to deal with cyber issues, so that was expected of us. We promised to raise digital issues in the UNSC and we have already helped to raise awareness that today’s war is largely digital. I hope that the understanding that we do not need to create an additional legal space, but that everything that applies in analogue also applies in the digital world will take root quietly through practice.


Same rules for the analogue world and cyber space

Cyber ​​security has been at the heart of Estonia and here we have both experience and expertise. What role should the United Nations play in this area? What are the prospects that we will get some results in the near future, while technology clearly develops at a faster pace than policy and legislation?

As the legal process is much slower than the technological, it does not make sense to try to reach an agreement for each generation of technology. Agreements must be valid for all sectors and simply include the statement that what applies in the analogue world also applies in cyberspace. The more widespread this opinion is, the closer we will be to clarity. One of the things that Estonia has called on everyone to do is for each country to describe how it thinks international law and its own law apply in cyberspace. Estonia has adopted this declaration in government, we also invite other countries to describe their understanding.

We know that there are countries and people who see cyber-attacks every day, not just in warring countries. The question is, if you are attacked, how can you legally respond? What to do if you identify where the attack is coming from and the other state says it is not going to do anything about it? Do you have the right to go and retaliate? Is this right digital or also physical? Legal clarity is needed.

Big countries are dealing with the attribution of the attacks – the US and France have attributed attacks to Russia. After all, one of the first tough international political objections came surprisingly from France when Emmanuel Macron told Vladimir Putin on the stairs of the Élysée palace that Russia interfered in France’s democratic process. This is a high level of attribution. That is the only effective option today – at a very high level and highly visible. Smaller countries do not have this capability. A large number of countries do not deal with attribution. Even if they see attacks happening, there is no place to go with a complaint. Hopefully, the UN Security Council will become this place.


It’s time to contribute

UNSC membership has forced Estonia to deal with problems in countries that seem distant and insignificant to us. Why are these issues important for us as well and what can Estonia do? 

We have been involved in international missions with our defence forces for 27 years since the conflict in former Yugoslavia, where we took part in peacekeeping missions – this means taking responsibility for global security. We are doing exactly the same now in the UN Security Council. Estonia is a developed country, a prosperous country. It’s time to contribute. It is time to take that responsibility when we see that we have the skills to do it: we are quick responders, good negotiators, a small cyber savvy country that everyone trusts, because we have every reason to respect international law. Of course, we could always say that it’s none of our business, let’s close the windows and doors and not listen to the fact that there is drought or thunder outside, or the climate is warming. But it would not be fair to ignore our responsibility, as we have benefitted from the international community a great deal in the last 30 years. Actually, even in the 50 years before that, because the policy of non-recognition of the Soviet occupation was something someone had to pursue. This way we were able to restore our independence based on international law. The international community has given us so much. Now that we have the capacity and the strength, we need to do our share.

We are used to contributing through our military missions, but diplomatic missions are just as important, especially since, ideally, this way we will be able to avoid the military missions.

How to measure the success of the UNSC membership? Is it enough that all member states of the UN now know that Estonia exists at all?

First of all, we must keep our election promises and keep a focus on cyber issues. This ‘European Spring’ – the French, German and Estonian presidencies of the UNSC for three months in a row – certainly intensified our contacts with French and German diplomats, which may be very important at a critical time. This is certainly a value that is difficult to measure, but which must be considered a positive result. We still have a long way to go, as the second round of UNSC presidency is still ahead. We can already be proud of what we have done, but we must seize every opportunity that history has to offer.

Talking about access to great powers of the world that Estonia gets in the daily dealings at the UNSC – I have always thought that the fact that we do not see the world in a similar way to Russia is not a reason not to communicate. In fact, I would like us to have a much closer relationship just because you have to know the counterpart in order to argue with him. This is our neighbouring country, and our European allies and partners are relying on our expertise in dealing with the region. If we build a wall between us and do not communicate, then we do not have that expertise. In fact, we have had high-level contacts with both China and Russia before joining the UN Security Council, myself included, but I admit that our diplomats certainly have a better idea now of ​​how their diplomats operate and also of the UN Security Council’s own working methods. It is of great value to understand the work of diplomats from large countries as well.

The UN will turn 75-years-old – will the lessons of 2020 lead to a new era for the UN? In Estonia, you aspire to solidarity and a seamless society – can this ideal be translated into international relations as well?

We are seeing more regional solidarity worldwide. For example, in Africa the democratic process at the national level has not been very successful, but when we look at the supranational process – the African Union – everyone there understands very well that if the rules are not followed, there can be no economic cooperation. They are working for the free movement of people in Africa, ending human trafficking within Africa, because human trafficking cannot exist if you can work freely everywhere else. This will allow better resource allocation and create jobs. When it all works, we will see a kind of reverse process in Africa – top-down democracy. We also see similar regional cooperation – precisely the readiness of diplomats to work on behalf of the whole region – in the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands. Such regional cooperation brings together a somewhat more coherent world policy at the UN level.

If the United Nations takes advantage of modern diplomacy, which is more personal, faster, more direct, it has a great chance of remaining the most important international organisation in the world.

You are welcome to read  more about the opportunities Estonia has to offer in the areas of cyber security. And  if you want to do business in Estonia, feel free to use our quick and complementary e-Consulting service to receive more information. 

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