Latvia’s sovereignty and the superpowers

21. November, 2001


Andris Spruds

Foto: AFI

The fragmentation of the international environment is not favorable for small countries, and Latvia can avoid negative consequences only by becoming more closely integrated into regional structures. That will mean giving up some elements of sovereignty. For a small country, absolute sovereignty is an illusion anyway.

Latvia is a small country. Changes in its status during the 20th century were all closely linked to the transformation of the international system and to the policies of the world’s superpowers. Global and regional processes allowed Latvia to become independent, led it to lose its independence and then permitted it to restore it. The 21st century has brought along a globalized structure of the world, while small countries continue to uphold the same priorities – ensuring irreversible sovereignty and becoming fully vested and influential subjects of international politics. The events of 11 September only served to enhance questions about Latvia’s role and its ability to influence international processes. As a small country to begin with, hasn’t Latvia become even smaller in global politics? Despite the idea that “the world will never be the same as it was yesterday”, is it not true that the trends of the past, when the emphasis was on conflicts between major power interests and the reaching of agreement on those interests, are once again becoming decisive in the trajectory of a small country’s sovereignty?

When the Republic of Latvia established and strengthened its independence between 1918 and 1920, this required the desire of the people to achieve these things, as well as a dedication to fight for their goals. Not least important were favorable international circumstances. When the American President Woodrow Wilson declared that nations have the right to self-determination, this was a statement of idealism which provided the Baltic peoples with all of the moral and legal justification that they needed to set up independent countries. The true cornerstone for Baltic independence, however, was made up of the collapse of the Russian Empire and the subsequent conflict of interests among the world’s remaining powers. It may be a paradox, but it was precisely the collision of these strategic interests in a certain vacuum of power which enabled the independence of the Baltic States, despite the fact that this independence wasn’t really in the interests of any of the world’s major powers. In 1919, Bolshevik forces came up against the German army at the Venta river in Latvia and were held there. This was part of the far-reaching German plan to break the “Versailles circle” through the Baltic States. It didn’t happen. The Western powers didn’t want Germany to have an increased influence in the region, and so they put pressure on Germany, which had already lost the war, and they also provided military support to the Baltic armies. The goal of the allies, especially America and France, to renew a “unified and indivisible Russia” went up in smoke as a result of the Russian civil war. The efforts of Soviet Russia to restore the boundaries of the old Russian Empire were put to a rest by the “miracle of the Visla” in August 1920, when the Polish army defeated the Bolsheviks at the gates of Warsaw. Poland’s independence led to the situation in which Russia recognized Baltic independence “for all times”, which is to say – for 20 years. Of course, Russia managed to restore most of its pre-1914 boundaries (the big exception was Finland) after 1939, when Poland’s independence was destroyed, when the Soviet Union and Germany reached a behind-the-scenes agreement, and when the Western democracies declined to become involved. This created a status quo ante. The Baltic States hoped that they would receive the support of the Western democracies after World War II, but in this they were heavily disappointed. It was only the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 which allowed the Baltic nations to regain their sovereignty once more.

Since the end of the Cold War, a “uni-multilateral” world has emerged with America playing the dominant role. At the same time, however, there has been an emphasis on mechanisms that allow countries to harmonize their interests, and there have also been very clear statements in opposition to any violent changes in the world’s structure. This has been advantageous to small countries, and especially to the Baltic States. The enlargement of NATO, albeit unquestionably related to certain strategic and economic interests, has been underpinned by the goal of spreading the values and ideals of democracy – the same values and ideals which are one of the driving forces behind American foreign and domestic policy. The events of September 11 remind of something that Sir Halford John Mackinder wrote in the early 20th century under the title “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. He argued that democracies refuse to think strategically until they are forced to do so in the interests of defense. One can find justification for claims that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington forced America to return to “reality” and to think strategically. This has first and foremost promoted cooperation among major powers – America and Russia in particular. National interests are being observed among various countries in the interest of fighting against terrorism. The mutual support which Bush and Putin have demonstrated toward one another reminds us of the detente which Henry Kissinger sought to develop between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s under the umbrella of realpolitik. Putin’s diplomacy is aimed at cooperation, and his Kremlin has given up the aggressive tone and inconsistencies of the Yeltsin period. The West has accordingly perceived Russia as a normal power and a potential ally. Some have also seen Russia as a factor which should make the Baltic States a bit more cautious when it comes to their optimism about early admission to NATO.

Despite all of this, it is far too early to make categorical claims about the way in which the world’s superpowers will harmonize their interests in the future, not least with respect to the world’s smaller states. Making such claims would mean ignoring the trends and principles which America has been upholding in a way which has underpinned that power’s global influence and legitimacy.

The consequences of the events of September 11 for the international system are still developing. Processes of fragmentation and integration that have been continuing since the end of the Cold War may become more intensive. In the context of global fragmentation, there will be countries that are “more equal” than the rest, and they will have more to say in the shaping of “grand politics”. Small countries, especially those which are in the geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic zones of interest of the world’s major powers, will not be well served by a fragmented international environment. Latvia can avoid the negative consequences of this process of fragmentation only by becoming more closely integrated into international structures. Integration must be pursued not only at the formal and institutional level, but also through a greater understanding of the multi-faceted nature of international trends today. There must be changes in the way that threats are perceived and partners are chosen. The depth of integration and the ongoing development of the country will be dictated by its ability to accept and adapt to the changing manifestations of the concept of integration. Some elements of sovereignty will have to be given up, but the fact is that the possibility of absolute sovereignty for a small country – and especially for Latvia – is nothing more than an illusion anyway. raksts

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