Latvia’s concentric circles of foreign policy interests

A cursory look at Latvia’s National Development Plan 2014-2020 would suggest that foreign policy seems to play a very small role in Latvia’s future. The Foreign Ministry is solely responsible for only one section and that primarily deals with strengthening Latvia’s political and economic interests abroad.

However, each ministry is assigned a “Territory of Responsibility”. Here the Foreign Ministry takes on enormous importance, because its sphere of operation is designated as “The Whole World”.

Clearly, Latvia’s foreign service cannot embrace the entire world, so it is natural to divide that world into regions of priority. For the purposes of the Latvian Parliament’s annual Foreign Policy Debates, I’ve chosen to isolate those priorities by segmenting Latvia’s foreign policy world into concentric circles of interest. I have identified six such circles.

The first and closest circle includes our immediate neighbours: Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Russia. While relations with all these countries are important economically, they are much more complex and diverse politically. They will remain a top priority in 2013. 

The second circle is slightly larger, and includes the Baltic Sea region and the Nordic countries. Here we continue to develop good ties in such multi-lateral formats as NB8, the Nordic-Baltic Council and the Council of Baltic Sea States. This year Latvia hosts the Baltic Development Forum and in 2015 during our Presidency of the European Union, we plan to organize a special forum on the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy.

But in 2013 most of our attention will be focused on the third circle, where I have placed the European Union and NATO.  Both organizations expand our areas of direct foreign engagement, although at the moment the greatest challenges lie in the EU itself, and our place in it. As always, our strategic partnership with the United States anchors our commitment to the transatlantic relationship.

This third circle also reveals the geographic direction of our interest in the fourth circle:  the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Cooperating with and supporting such eastern neighbours as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova has always been a priority for Latvia. Direct person-to-person ties in these countries dating back to pre-independence periods has enabled Latvia to make robust use of Cooperative Development programs, which need to be expanded. Latvia also plans to host an Eastern Partnership Summit during our EU Presidency in 2015.

History, economic interests, and Latvia’s foreign policy priorities also determine the geographic direction of our sphere of interest in the next, fifth circle – Central Asia and Afghanistan. Latvia’s embassies in Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan have been extremely successful as contact embassies for NATO, and have developed a special expertise and respect in the entire region. This needs to be expanded.

Latvia’s role in the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan has produced a unique opportunity for long-term economic development as well. Working together with the US, Russia, NATO and regional countries, Latvia plays a key role in the Northern Distribution Network – the transport corridor for shipping NATO ISAF supplies from Latvia to Afghanistan. This has enormous future potential, for the moment that this network becomes a commercial transhipment corridor and connects to the planned New Silk Road, the door will open for Latvia’s road to the sixth and last circle, the Far East.

If until now such countries as China, Japan, Korea and India didn’t seem within reach of Latvia’s foreign policy grasp, then today they are very palpable. China and Japan have very active embassies in Riga and soon will be joined by South Korea. These countries are part of one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing regions in the world, and are looking with growing interest at Latvia’s strategic location in Northern Europe. The time has come to focus much more attention to this region, and determine how economic and political developments there can be aligned with Latvia’s long-term national interests. While some commentators have made much of the United States’ ‘pivot’ to Asia, it’s only natural that Europe does the same. Thanks to Latvia’s eastward tangent through the six circles of foreign engagement, this once distant region of the world is the logical next step in the long-term expansion of our international diplomacy.

Last year, the Latvian Foreign Ministry took a bold (and necessary) step in providing the framework for Latvia’s ‘pivot to the Far East’.  It established an ‘External economic policy coordinating council’, which brings together the Foreign, Economic, Transportation and Agricultural ministries, as well as other state institutions.  This institutional model of cooperation is ideally suited to review and analyse just how Latvia’s economic interests, geostrategic location and existing logistical and transportation links to the east can be further developed to promote our national interests. Suddenly, the Far East no longer seems so far.

Latvia cannot embrace the world, but thinking strategically about our potential long-term interests in specific geographic directions and regions, Latvia’s foreign policy can play an essential role in promoting our national interests. We are moving in the right direction. But we must move faster, further and with a greater understanding of Latvia’s unique place in a globalized world. 

(This article is based on remarks made on January 24, 2013 during the Latvian Parliament’s annual debates on foreign policy.)

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