We Should Remember the Achievements of Democracy During These Challenging Times
At this year’s Lennart Meri Conference, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Kaush Arha, noted that “democracy is quite robust and resilient in the US”, while the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, expressed her pride in the European Union, where “the leverage of small democracies is the best.”
Similar calls for greater self-confidence and more self-appreciation in the free world were heard throughout the 14th LMC, “My Neighbour’s Problem Today, Mine Tomorrow”. During these times of clashing ideologies, it may be that confidence in the validity of our democratic choices is needed more than ever. As Minister of State for European Affairs of France Clément Beaune stressed, as democracies we should visibly and consciously celebrate our victories. Because if we do not, who else will?
The 14th LMC, postponed twice due to COVID-19, eventually took place on 3-5 September 2021. It was the first major, full-scale, physical foreign and security policy conference to take place in Europe since the start of the pandemic.
The title of the conference was inspired by the Roman poet Horace – Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet (You too are in danger, when your neighbour’s house is on fire). This proved to be an even more relevant theme in 2021 than it would have been in 2020. The past year has highlighted that the boundaries between global, regional, and local issues are increasingly blurred and such distinctions are ever more artificial. It has shown that it is impossible to live in an isolated bubble, and that it is wiser to help your neighbours fight their fires than to wait until they reach your own home.
Afghanistan, although not so geographically relevant to the Nordic-Baltic region, was among the primary topics of the conference. It was discussed from various angles, starting from the opening panel, when BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner recognised Estonia’s contribution to allied missions there, and ending with the detailed and sometimes conflicting analyses offered by the panellists in a special Afghanistan session on the final day. The main take-away was clear: messaging and communication, especially between allies, is of crucial importance and should never be underestimated.
The LMC has long been known for its Russian expertise. This year, Russia-related themes ranged from the situation of its independent media and civil society, to developments in its neighbourhood policy and interests in Central Asia and the Middle East.
The decline of democracy and freedom in Russia was illustrated by the fact that security considerations prevented us from announcing in advance that Lyubov Sobol, a close associate of Alexey Navalny, would speak. Throughout the conference, analysts and experts agreed that autocracy in Russia is deepening. Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of The Insider, one of Russia’s most well-known investigative news sites, thought that summer 2020, when President Vladimir Putin made the decision to stay in power for and to physically eliminate his political rivals, was an important turning point.
Foreign policy is of little concern for most Russians, who face more acute problems in their daily lives. The state, though, is heading down a path of shutting itself off from the world outside. The head of the socio-cultural research department of the Levada Center, Alexey Levinson, put it bluntly: “In the opinion of the public, Russian foreign policy can be defined very simply: Krõm naš (Crimea belongs to us).”
Indo-Pacific and Middle East
Many discussions were dedicated to shifts in the security situation in the wider Indo-Pacific and wider Middle East regions. Among many different views, one conclusion stood out: the Indo-Pacific has become a major focus of international security. The implications for Nordic-Baltic states include a need to become more familiar with the region, and a need to adapt to the new international circumstances, rather than ignoring current trends or trying to turn back the tide.
This also points to a need to broaden the LMC and to include actors from regions less known in this part of Europe. This year, we were happy to be joined by high-ranking speakers from India. The President of the Observer Research Foundation, Samir Saran, claimed that Europe sometimes overplays the values card, but acknowledged that he himself could not escape the issue of values. He also reminded our mostly European audience that the technology race with China is not about technology, but about changing the social contract and undermining democracy.
Digital technology was another focus including a special session dedicated to the need for regulations in the digital domain and their political implications. But more broadly, technology was apparent not as an independent subject, but as a theme permeating a range of topics.
These included Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev’s warning, during a Russian language side event, that Russia would limit internet access as a means of controlling Russian society. And in a discussion on how NATO should respond to emerging technologies, IISS senior advisor Francois Heisbourg elegantly stated that technology itself is not a problem, but authoritarian systems using technologies in their interest, are.
Assessments of the state of play of transatlantic relations included discussions of how NATO should engage with China, whether the US and Europe can together manage the looming arms race, how elections in Germany and France would shape the transatlantic alliance, what the security priorities of the US administration should be, and whether the pivot to Asia would mean less US engagement with Russia. While it is not possible to reach definitive conclusions during a three-day conference, NATO Assistant Secretary General Baiba Braže stressed the important point that the ability to have open and substantial discussions is a driving force behind the Alliance.
Perhaps the best conclusion from series of heated discussions about the health, relevance and prospects for the EU came from the Secretary General of the EEAS Stefano Sannino, who stated that in the end it is a matter of political will and determination.
To return to the title of the conference, unless you recognise that your neighbour’s house is on fire, you will not be able to help him. The LMC is determined to continue to play its part in recognising, and promoting the search for, solutions to global and regional security challenges.
The Lennart Meri Conference
The International Centre for Defence and Security and the Lennart Meri European Foundation organise the annual LMC to acknowledge President Meri’s continuing legacy in foreign- and security-policy thinking. The conference aims to encourage curiosity and debate, highlight unity and diversity, and foster liberty and democracy. Each year since 2007 the LMC has brought around 500 distinguished policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel and thought leaders from around the globe to Tallinn.
Partners and supporters of LMC 2021 were the Estonian Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Government Office; Open Society Foundations, Rail Baltica, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, Swedbank, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Saab, Tallinn City Government, the U.S. government, the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation, BAE Systems, the European Commission, Cybernetica, Tallinn Airport, Hyundai and Iris Janvier. Elering contributed as an ICDS research partner.
In 2022 we will revert to our usual annual routine. The LMC 2022 will take place in Tallinn, on 13-15 May.