Briefs

Pence’s visit to Estonia ‘an episode of Game of Thrones’

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  • Pence’i Eesti-visiit kui “Troonide mängu” episood  Artiklit saab lugeda ka eesti keeles

The reaction by pro-Kremlin media to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 31 July visit to Estonia was clear: Estonia must stop provoking Russia and trusting the United States because, as with Game of Thrones, every party acts only for its own benefit. Both messages rely on assumptions that may be true in the context of the Hobbesian “war of all against all,” but they are not valid in societies that honor laws and agreements.

While Pence was in Estonia, Kremlin-linked Baltnews.ee published an article containing five false or questionable narratives.

First, Estonia should not put its trust in the United States, the article argued, because the United States sees international relations as depicted in Game of Thrones—a book written by an American author, and a fantasy drama TV series made by Americans—and acts accordingly. For the United States, agreements have no meaning, and every party stands alone, fighting for its own interests only.

Second, the article claimed Pence’s visit shows there is no real solidarity between the United States and its allies, since real solidarity doesn’t require constant reassurances. It said Washington treats Estonia like a “child who needs convincing that daddy will not leave him.” That kind of “solidarity” does not and cannot have a future, it said.

Third, the article claimed that Estonia does not contribute enough to NATO defense and therefore has good reason to fear being abandoned by the United States.

Fourth, it says Estonia has every reason to be concerned, since for many years Estonia has “spit on Russia,” provoking Russia with its behavior. The article gave no examples to support this claim.

Finally, Estonia—believing Russia to be a threat—suffers from “psychological disorder.” Pence’s visit, therefore, was nothing more than “collective psychotherapy.”

Even though all five narratives are either false or misleading, they are worth analyzing because they offer insight to the Kremlin-liked media’s worldview.

Comparing the visit to a Game of Thrones episode is a prime example. According to this narrative, U.S. allies cannot trust Washington because, as in Game of Thrones—written by an American author—the United States follows an “every man for himself” policy. Estonia should therefore put no trust in the United States.

Three aspects of this narrative are particularly worthy of mention.

First, seeing Game of Thrones—or any other book or film—as a representative of a country’s official policy is too simplistic. We do not measure British foreign politics by Golding’s Lord of the Flies or French foreign policy by de Sade’s Justine.

Second, even more interesting is to look how the narrative on the United States as not trustworthy regarding laws and agreements reflects in Russian juridical discourse and in Russian foreign policy. As Estonian scholar Lauri Mälksoo shows in his book Russian Approaches to International Law, for Russia, the United States and NATO have been systematically violating international law since the end of the Cold War. According to Mälksoo, almost all recent Russian textbooks of international law refer to NATO’s 1999 intervention against Yugoslavia (in favor of Kosovar Albanians) and the 2003 U.S. and British-led invasion of Iraq as crimes of aggression. Moreover, the Russians use this narrative of the United States not being trustworthy to justify Moscow’s deeds. As Mälksoo’s book shows, the Kremlin believes that if NATO can violate international law or make new rules and exceptions for itself, Russia has no choice but to follow its example. Hence, the United States can be forced to take multilateral measures only if Russia first copies the U.S. unilateralist “pattern of behavior.”

And third, “trust no one” hardly describes a worldview common to Western societies. Rather it is characteristic of partial or non-democratic countries, where the benefits of civil society and social contract may not yet be a part of common understanding.

A social contract is a first step in replacing the rule of the strongest with the rule of law. Civil society prevents the rule of law from being turned into the law of the strongest. In political philosophy, this dichotomy between the rule of law and the rule of power is illustrated by the dichotomy between John Locke’s idea of a social contract between citizens and governments—one based on commonly acceptable law or an agreement made by political equals, such as the North Atlantic Treaty—and Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or agreements made by more powerful parties over all others (for example, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).

As noted above, these five false narratives may not be useful in analyzing the actual state of U.S. relations with its allies. But they do offer a glimpse into the Kremlin’s worldview. Unlike Western societies and their social contracts, laws and agreements that are kept for benefit of every party, the pro-Kremlin media represent a Hobbesian world of “state of nature” and “war of all against all” where there is no equality, no trust, no allies, no contracts and no laws.

We can counter this by keeping the trust, allies, contracts and laws that define the actors of liberal democracy. “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Book Six of Meditations. This not only defines Western values but defends them as well.

Photo: White House/Myles D. Cullen