Lennart Meri Conference – LMC

The Lennart Meri Conference is a high-level annual meeting at which foreign and security policy issues are discussed from the perspective of the Northern and Eastern parts of Europe.

Foto:Robert Reisman

Lennart Meri Conference

Sarah Kendzior: Truth Still Matters

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) sits with members of his cabinet including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L); Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (3rdR); and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (2ndR), during a bilateral meeting with China s President Xi Jinping at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 7, 2017.

The full interview by BNS/Erik Eenlo on Trump's foreign policy, Russia and the role of media.

It seems that the US is trying to strengthen its negotiating position both in the fields of security and trade. Whereas the approach of the previous administration could be characterized by restraint and a lack of willingness to stand up to authoritarian regimes, the new government seems intent to signal everywhere and to every adversary that it means business. How would you describe the foreign policy of the first 100 days of the Trump administration?

I would not describe the Trump administration as “meaning business”, unless you mean the family businesses of Donald and Ivanka Trump. Trump is attempting to build a dynastic kleptocracy through abuse of executive power. His relationships with dictators abroad are largely informed by his corporate interests, as we have seen in Turkey, the Philippines, and China, when US foreign policy was altered seemingly to benefit Ivanka’s commercial products.

While Trump does not have a consistent geopolitical philosophy beyond kleptocracy, he does routinely praise authoritarian leaders and extremist candidates. In the last two weeks alone, he has praised Erdogan, Kim, Duterte, and LePen – not in spite of their dictatorial tendencies, but because of them. Trump wants to present himself as tough and powerful: his admiration for these leaders seems to be largely rooted in envy. The end result of this is an incoherent politics, where the US strikes Syria and bombs Afghanistan without a broader strategy in mind. The primary rationale for those military incursions seemed to be so Trump can lap up media praise and be called “presidential” by the US press. Meanwhile, his North Korea approach is extremely erratic, alternating between threats and flattery, with different members of the administration giving conflicting public statements as to US policy. This is a dangerous road to take with a nuclear power.

Trump tends to see foreign policy in the same terms as he saw his corrupt businesses: he treats NATO, for example, as something analogous to a mafia protection racket. He doesn’t understand basic things. However, there are others in the administration who are more informed, but their policies often clash. Bannon is a white nationalist who has talked of dismantling the state and withdrawing from international alliances; Mattis and McMasters are more traditional neoconservatives who, while having a firm grasp of military policy, are prone to warmongering. It is unclear who will ultimately influence Trump most.

The West seems to be fragmenting and in an intellectual disarray at the very time when it needs unity to maintain its preeminence in an increasingly multipolar world. Are we witnessing a leadership fatigue and a crisis of self-confidence in its own model that gives the authoritarian regimes an opportunity not only to resist our soft power but also to undermine our position even further both globally and in our own countries?

Yes, absolutely. Institutions – civic, political, media, economic – have weakened considerably over the past fifteen years as a result 1) the war in Iraq and subsequent destabilization of the Middle East, 2) the 2008 financial collapse, from which many regions have still not yet recovered. As these changes happened, the rise of social media transformed how people around the world engage in politics, and our democratic institutions have not kept pace with technology. Authoritarian actors can now easily operate across borders to influence politics in vulnerable nations. The combination of genuine, domestic discontent with the capacity of opportunistic parties to manipulate the masses leaves the West open to revived authoritarianism. This is a disastrous situation as authoritarian regimes are not interested at all in remedying people’s suffering, but only in exploiting it.

Given that the European Union is so preoccupied by the many crises affecting it and focused on internal consolidation, has it given Moscow the advantage in the struggle over influence in the post-soviet space?

Yes. The Kremlin is savvy and shameless at exploiting domestic crises, in part because they want to distract the Russian public from its own domestic crises, like widespread poverty and corruption. To be clear, many of Europe’s problems are homegrown: economic inequality, rising nativism and xenophobia, lack of opportunity for youth, etc. But Russia is very skilled at manipulating the public through digital media and propaganda, and it has supported destructive actors in European states – LePen or Farage, for example – who share their goal of weakening the EU as an institution. The EU has offered an inadequate defense against these tactics, and the same is true of the US. This is unfortunate, as Russia will continue to influence foreign politics unless people get serious about stopping them.

Is the perception in the United States of the “dishonest media” spreading “fake news” a new one or an older perception that was given new prominence by the election of Donald Trump?

It’s an old problem which Trump has exploited. Trump spent his whole career preying on vulnerable businesses and people like a vulture, and the media – which has been in a financial crisis since roughly 2001 – was just his latest victim. But they were a willing victim, using Trump to boost ratings at the expense of democracy. Trump’s feud with the media is largely a fake feud: he craves their attention and approval, and they crave the revenue boost.

At the same time, there is genuine public dissatisfaction with the media in the US, as a result of two changes we’ve seen over the past decade or so: 1) extreme partisan rhetoric supplanting straightforward delivery of facts, best exemplified in outlets like Fox News 2) the geographical clustering of media in the most expensive cities in the US, which shapes who reports and what they prioritize. Currently 1 out of every 4 US journalists lives in three elite coastal cities. This is a very different media landscape than a decade ago.

I live in Missouri, in the center of the US, in a “red state” that voted for Trump. Our local media has been gutted since the recession, which means Missourians often rely on national news. The national news outlets do not pay attention to problems in the Midwest, and that apathy stokes public resentment and distrust – and also drives readers to conspiracy websites or outlets like Fox News, who pretend to care while peddling propaganda. The best solution to the “fake news” problem is rebuilding local news. When you have robust local news outlets, people may debate the meaning of the facts, but they will at least be dealing with the same set of facts, and they will feel their concerns are being covered and addressed.

The international NGO Reporters Without Borders warned on April 26 of the negative impact Donald Trump’s election is having and that the world is at a “tipping point”, but according to news agency AFP newspapers such as the New York Times have seen a significant increase in circulation since November and cable news networks have seen a rise in ratings.

Is this increase a sign of a pushback amongst the public against claims of media’s dishonesty and counterclaims of obfuscation because people can’t quite make out what is factually correct or not and who to trust?

After the election, people were desperate for information and looking to preserve democratic institutions, like a free press, which were being openly threatened by the Trump administration. Papers like the New York Times capitalized on this by advertising themselves as purveyors of facts and proof. Now many Americans are canceling their subscriptions to the New York Times because they hired a climate change denying columnist, wrote pieces supporting fascists like Le Pen, and regularly churn out puff piece propaganda on the Trump administration and Trump’s family members.

I think this deep desire for truth remains, but Americans will not find it at the New York Times – they will find it in outlets who are actually committed to good journalism. As for cable news, the ratings will inevitably remain high because of the drama of the news cycle, where every day brings a new crisis. It would be nice if cable news used this increase in revenue to fund good investigative reporting, but with a few exceptions, that is not their priority. They are behaving largely as they did during the campaign cycle, having learned no lessons on how media can be manipulated by an autocratic administration.

What does this rise in popular interest tell us about the future of the supposed “post-truth” era and its longevity?

I don’t believe we are in a “post-truth” era, but I believe that the Trump administration wants us to think we are. If we were in a post-truth era, they would not work so hard to suppress the truth. They would not threaten journalists and the first amendment. Truth still matters.

Authoritarian regimes encourage cynicism in the population, bombarding you with propaganda and lies in order to reinforce the idea that truth is irrelevant. The US is not an authoritarian state – is a state where an authoritarian-leaning government is held back by democratic institutions in a constant test of checks and balances. This isn’t an abstract debate for us in America – we are trying to figure out if we will lose our health insurance, our public schools, our civil rights, our voting rights. As a result, there is intense commitment to finding out the true motivations of the Trump administration, to catching them in their lies, and to trying to ensure the integrity of our democracy. I don’t see this commitment to the truth in the media, unfortunately, as much as I do from citizens. Most Americans have not given up on truth and justice – if anything, more people recognize the fragility of democracy and are willing to fight for it.


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Lennart Meri Conference – LMC
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