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A Foreign Country for 90 Years (Jan 2011)

You probably don’t have a ‘policy’ toward foreigners. Most people don’t.  We just deal with ‘em as we meet them.

If you live in a city like London or New York it feels like everyone is a foreigner. Them or us in an ethnic sense doesn’t mean much in a melting pot; we all become strangers in the big stew. If you have a policy of any kind, it’s toward people as such, regardless of their passports. You just want to know whether they are good or bad.

But if you are a country, or represent one, a foreign policy has always been a necessity. We live in a world of nearly 200 countries, and regardless of which one you happen to be, the other 199 are ‘foreign’. That’s by definition. They not only speak different languages, they have different laws, traditions, anthems and national sports. Not to mention visa requirements.

Every country has its internal policies, but every country also has a foreign policy for dealing with those 199 other “foreign” countries that share this planet.

This month Latvia will mark the 90th year since it first established a foreign policy. Such a policy came about because 90 years ago, on January 26th, 1921, Latvia became a foreign country too, along with all the others in the world. If you have a country, you need a policy toward everyone else, and in 1921 Latvia began to earnestly regulate its relations with the rest of the globe-spanning international community.

Those relations were abruptly cut short in 1940 by the Soviet occupation of Latvia. That was followed by a Nazi occupation, which was followed by a second Soviet occupation, which lasted until we declared our independence once again on May 4, 1990. One year later, on August 21, 1991, the international community restored its broken relations with Latvia, and Latvia in turn began rebuilding its ties with everyone else in the world.

We were back in business, globally speaking, and that meant the restoration of direct diplomatic contacts and the re-establishment of embassies, consulates, missions, permanent representations and other forms of interaction with the world’s other countries.  We also joined every international organization that would take us, from the UN, OSCE, and WTO to NATO and the EU.

Looking back at Latvia’s foreign policy since 1991, you could divide it into three periods.  1) 1991-1995, re-establishing international relations and removing Russian (former Soviet) troops; 2) 1995-2004, preparing for membership in NATO and the EU; 3) 2004-2010, learning what it means to be EU and NATO members.

Latvia’s last official Foreign Policy Concept was written and approved in 2006 and lasted until 2010. It was largely focused on NATO, the EU, regional Baltic relations, promoting economic interests, and strengthening ties with Latvia’s diaspora.

This year, on January 27 (a day after de jure recognition day) the Latvian parliament will do something it has never done before. It will hold debates on foreign policy. 100 deputies will have a chance to express their views on how Latvia should relate to the 200 or so other countries in the world. The question of the day is very straightforward: what kind of a foreign policy does Latvia need to be a vital and thriving member of this planet? (And a good place to live?)

No doubt many of the issues that dominated our foreign agenda for the last 5 years will continue to shape our national priorities: the EU, NATO, the economy, the Baltic Sea region and bilateral relations with neighbours and other countries around the world. We want to do business with the world and share our knowledge, culture and values with others.

While political scientists make a respectable living analyzing the strategy, tactics and practices of modern foreign policy, it still all comes down to people. There are over 6.8 billion of us sharing this planet, and we’ve found that organizing ourselves into 200 or so countries (which form thousands of additional international and transnational organizations) is one way to regulate our lives and relate to one another.

We do so as countries because despite the unrelenting tsunami of cross-cultural globalization, we retain a firm, stubbornly primeval grasp on the joys of national identity. At least Latvians do. We created this country in 1918, lost it in 1940, got it back in 1991 and have been shaping and forming it ever since. We may not always agree on what to do with it, and will continue to engage in endless debates about where it should be going, but the bottom line at the end of day is this: we sure enjoy having it.


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