Who are we? What do we have? What do we want?

THE DRAFT DECLARATION ON SLOVENE FOREIGN POLICY

First of all, let me pose the following question to the reader: What is Slovenia’s key distinctive feature on the national and international level? 

The gap above serves two purposes. One, as a space where the reader can provide an answer. Two, to illustrate the answer. This is not a made-up exercise; I was asked this question almost 20 years ago by a BBC reporter who more or less unwittingly demonstrated the need for this newly emerged state to have some sort of foundation that would unite its citizens at home and abroad. We seem to pay too little attention to this question, if one judges by the variety of replies: “Don’t know.” And: “Nothing.” Followed by: “This is a country of thieves and corrupt politicians.” Or: “Our language.” As well as: Ski champion Tina Maze.”

The Declaration on Foreign Policy is a great opportunity to revisit the reporter’s question, or rather, some of the (sub-)questions contained within it, like those posed in the title above.

Even the most sophisticated of declarations is worthless if Slovenes as a whole do not take it very seriously, if it does not become an essential part of us all.

This article is an attempt to find a way to answer the posed questions. In doing so, my own thoughts are combined with the opinions of individuals who, although they chose not to draw attention to themselves during the public debate on the draft Declaration, allowed me to use some of their (critical) thoughts in this piece at my own discretion. Though from a variety of professional backgrounds, they are all well-versed in Slovene foreign policy. I cannot hope to do them justice since much of what they told me was omitted, which only serves to prove the core premise of the piece, i. e. that the Declaration in its current form has some way to go before it is ready to be accepted in the National Assembly.

Its shortcomings lie in the fact that despite its lengthy preamble, the document fails to actually provide answers to the three questions posed. Much ink has been wasted on the perception and (self-)image of Slovenia, yet with the exception of specific projects (European Union and NATO membership), very little has been internalised. And what little could have been internalised was lost in the search for catchphrases (such as Slovenia’s tourism slogan I feel SLOVEnia) meant to increase Slovenia’s visibility in the world. Sure, we feel Slovenia, but what is it that we feel? This question is left unanswered by the slogan. Instead, the answer was at least partially provided three decades ago with this song.

My land, this is its beauty

My land, we are its people.

Known for its beauty

named after its people –

A name worn with pride.

In its early stages, Slovenia, a land-turned-state, relied on its principal charms – its pristine nature and a people fully aware of the riches at their disposal. In what must have been a lucky coincidence, the photographs in this Meta’s List article on the Declaration on Foreign Policy illustrate this triangle between the country and the features for which it is known. The photographs showcase a small part of Slovenia’s natural wonders and physically place Slovenia at the heart of Europe, whereas Sweden and Norway, for example, would be considered the European periphery. Being at the heart of something rather than on the periphery … Does it seem blasphemous to think this way? And, speaking of publicity abroad, we need not look far for inspiration; there is plenty of it to be found in the Slovene national anthem:

God’s blessing on all nations

Who long and work for that bright day,

When o’er earth’s habitations

No war, no strife shall hold its sway;

Who long to see

That all men free

No more shall foes, but neighbours be.

Slovenia was born under a lucky star. The United Nations may not have an official anthem, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would commit the greatest desires of people around the world to paper more eloquently than the renowned Slovene poet France Prešeren.

The Slovene anthem contains everything we have always wished for: world peace and for others to have and receive what has been afforded to us: freedom and control over our own fates.

What more is there to add? The history lesson and the elaborate explanation of those core values in the Declaration make it seem like we do not believe in the words of our anthem. Truthfully, in the face of habitual pessimism and cynicism towards everything in Slovenia, one has to ask: Where does the distrust in our own country and its people stem from? Why do we shy away from prominent Slovene symbols, such as the linden leaf? Was it truly necessary to sell brands like Cockta, Radenska and Fructal, Slovenia’s unofficial ambassadors to the world, to foreign buyers? Why are there constant attempts to change the words of the Slovene anthem? There can be but one answer to this question, one that I have written about several times: we have yet to learn to exist in and to love our own country. Its interests are all too often confused with personal agendas. Slovene foreign policy also all too often reflects the personal preferences of individual decision-makers at various levels.

And these are the circumstances informing the future Declaration. Every single conversation partner who has shared their thoughts on the proposed Declaration has been critical of the omnibus approach to its drafting. The document reads, as one of them aptly put it, “as if the draft was sent to individual departments within the ministry, with each making a small contribution.” Another – and hardly the only one judging from the discussion up to this point – took issue with the unusually wide spectrum of priorities and ‘sub-priorities’ within them. “It is as if the point of the Declaration were for everyone at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries to justify their existence.” As a typical example of the fragmented nature of a Declaration that is incapable of focusing on ‘what, of all that we have, is most ours’, one of my interlocutors points to a passage in the Declaration advocating the maintenance of a strong presence in international organisations: “At the same time our salaries are being slashed, our child care benefits cut, pensions reduced, when people cannot afford to eat and the state insists its coffers are empty, we are to pay tens of thousands of Euros in membership fees to organisations we are incapable of participating in, be it actively or passively, due to the lack of personnel and professional interest, and because it is of little significance to us compared to third states, seeing as how everything is regulated by EU legislation here… We act as if we were a world power.”

Such are the reactions provoked by a document that strives to guide Slovene foreign policy for at least a decade or two, but fails to provide any clear, focused objectives, objectives that any Slovene would understand and be able to argue for. As is evident from many responses, the body of the document irritates experts and the professional community alike precisely because of its voluminous vagueness, nor can the Slovene public be expected to adopt it in its current scope.

In its present incarnation, the draft has ignored the most important point: that foreign policy involves much more than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘Foreign policy’ essentially involves every Slovene citizen that comes into contact with foreign countries. For this reason, the Declaration must by its very nature include domestic policy at its core.

If internal affairs are regulated, free and not paralysed by the fear of diversity, history and public expression of opinion, if the country is not routinely abused by the ideological preferences of political elites that want to give the impression they are acting in the public interest when in reality they are pursuing nothing but their own narrow political and even purely personal interests, then individuals in such a safe and tolerant country can be expected to defend it and its interests in any situation at all times.

There is, however, a significant upside to the draft, which may even be of historical importance in this context: it is being publicly debated. This has not involved opening any Pandora’s boxes. I see the discussion as a sincere effort to familiarise the Slovene public with the issues of Slovene foreign policy objectives, as well as a chance to introduce points into the Declaration that have so far been neglected despite their role in our everyday lives – such as the rapidly increasing role of the Internet as a factor in international relations. I concur with those suggesting that it would be wiser to debate the Declaration further, rather than to pass it prematurely, perhaps even by a majority vote in the National Assembly. If that were the case, it would definitely mean, as one of my interlocutors put it, “that the next government would produce its own new Declaration.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Karl Erjavec used the public panel on the Declaration on 22 January at Jable Castle to stress the importance of “working together to create a Declaration that will be met with general political approval, among the experts and the general public.“ The current version of the Declaration cannot hope to reach that goal. The answers to the three questions – Who are we? What do we have? What do we want? – must be clear, easy to understand, stimulating. A few rough answers can be provided to these questions.

WHO ARE WE?

It is right to be aware that we are a nation who, through centuries of struggling to survive, fought for and preserved our language and culture, as well as achieving sovereignty. It is right to safeguard the values such as solidarity that are virtually enshrined in our DNA. As it is right to be aware of our place in the present.

Slovenia is a unique geographical meeting point of regions that have been vital for stability in Europe, i. e. Central Europe, the Balkans (!) and the Mediterranean. Our contribution towards stability must be formulated clearly: we do not shut anyone out; we do not seek favour at any cost; we actively cooperate with everyone.

In this way, leading by example as a tolerant, democratic and economically enterprising country that seeks out partners based on mutual interest rather than their geographical location, Slovenia has made a significant contribution to stability in Europe. As our anthem says: “All men free/No more shall foes, but neighbours be”. And considering we live in an era of globalisation, it may well be time to stop taking the reference to ‘neighbours’ so literally (in the geographical sense) and interpret it in terms of interest, i. e. connecting with entities that share our goals and values.

WHAT DO WE HAVE?

We have natural wonders coveted by the entire continent, which we wish to preserve and promote: nature, waters, mountains and the sea. We have know-how and skills. It makes little sense for us to give out several hundreds of thousands of Euros in developmental aid; a far more effective response would be to provide solutions to and experts on developmental issues. Our know-how also works to our advantage, comparatively speaking, when searching for an answer to the question of what specifically we can offer NATO, as well as the Council of Europe, the central European organisation for the protection of human rights, which the Declaration – unlike NATO – does not discuss in its own right.

WHAT DO WE WANT?

We want to see a world that appreciates our know-how; where added value is being created; where the potential offered by the Internet-based society is capitalised on; we want our Slovenia-based start-up entrepreneurs to be able to see their vision through without their own country and its provincial regulations hindering them in the process. We want openness externally as well as internally; and we cannot have the latter without a society that promotes creativity, diversity and ambition. Top experts must feel at ease in our country – regardless of their country of origin, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.

We must see the whole forest rather than individual trees.

The Declaration must therefore be concise, clear, aspirational and should not be interpreted as idealistic under any circumstances. Perhaps the capital offence of the Declaration is that it projects a copy of the ‘actual’ world and, in doing so, gives up on a vision for the future, perhaps without realising it. By its very definition, the Declaration must first and foremost contain our core principles, goals and objectives, our vision for ourselves at a certain point in the future. It is the execution stage where the cynicism of realpolitik and pragmatic approaches, the realities awaiting us as we work to meet our goals and ideals, should be dealt with. Or, as one of my interlocutors put it: “The Declaration should not exceed two pages – the strategy is the document concerned with execution details.”

The song “Slovenia, my country” is about proud citizens expressing love for their homeland. Since the mid-80s, when the song was recorded, the world has undergone a radical transformation. As one of the participants in the discussion correctly observed, it is hard these days to survive on natural wonders alone– not that this was any different three decades ago. But it is also difficult to live in a country where the Foreign Policy Declaration fails to rise to the level of a Declaration in the true sense of the word, a short document that provides guidance to those who have to act in a foreign environment with some degree of confidence, proud of their homeland and the values for which their country stands. A document that stirs something in you. Just as the song about Slovenia stirred something in the vast majority of Slovene citizens before independence; a song that says a lot and means a lot to many to this day – and that is made up of all of two sentences.

 

Author: Zlatko Šabič. Teaches international relations at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana and occasionally tries to generate interest in foreign affairs, international organisations and European integration among the general public on Meta’s List. That is, however, not all he does and he is known not just in Slovenia. He has also been a Fulbright scholar, editor of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and president of the Central and East European International Studies Association (CEEISA), where he still edits the organisation’s journal. In 2015 he will end his term as member of the governing council of the European International Studies Association, the umbrella organisation for international-relations scholars. Can be found on Twitter at @Zlatko_Sabic.

 

The entry is part of a Meta’s List discussion on Slovenia’s Declaration on Foreign Policy:

– We do not need a declaration, we need a strategy! (Sabina Lange)

– Foreign policy in the Internet age (Matic Bitenc)

– The Declaration on Foreign Policy is a declaration on the EU and on human security (Adriana Dvoršak)

– Foreign policy that continues to exist merely for its own sake (Marko Bucik)

– Three reasons why cannot accept the Declaration on Foreign Policy (Marko Lovec)

 

Title photo: jernastyle via Pixabay

 

Translated by: Urša Klinc.

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