June 25, 2024

Summary of the 17th Lennart Meri Conference

The 17th Lennart Meri conference took place in Tallinn, Estonia, on May 16-18. The conference title – Let Us Not Despair, But Act – was based on the words of the then US Senator John F. Kennedy. The conference centred on the war in Ukraine and was built on three key pillars: changes to European security and defence, the West’s relations with the global majority, and support to Ukraine.

The three-day conference was packed with insights from distinguished policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel, and academics who gathered in Tallinn to talk about the most pressing foreign and security policy issues around the globe.

The key theme was the inter-connected nature of the different evolving crises around the globe. It was evident from the start, when Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in the opening panel Brave New World – Building a Stronger Europe? that the major lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that when aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere. As Dr Jae-Seung Lee put it in the panel The Next Conflict on the Horizon: Tensions in the Indo-Pacific, there are simultaneous multiple fronts in the world and they are all inter-related and they are all based on values.

Another topic that cut across different regions was disinformation and the struggles of Western countries and institutions with getting their messages across domestically and abroad. Dr Tobias Lindner, the Minister of State at the German Federal Foreign Office, put it well in the discussion panel Competition of Narratives and the Impact on Global Relations when he said that liberal democracies cannot do state propaganda, because we have to be honest. At the same time Russia is very effective in countering the West’s narratives and sowing chaos as was evident in the breakfast session titled 2024 as the Year of Elections – Can Russian Disinformation Change our Politics? This competition of narratives has become even more difficult in the context of the war in Gaza, because as Dr Dubai Abulhoul said it, the rest of the world is becoming disillusioned with what is seen as selective application of international law.

We were very honoured to host Professor Timothy Snyder at the Lennart Meri Conference where he delivered the Lennart Meri Lecture. In his speech, Prof Snyder focused on the importance of the Ukrainian territory, particularly the Kerch Strait, on European security in the past and in the present. Prof Snyder claimed that world order is going to depend on what happens in Ukraine. He used historical examples to highlight that Ukraine has had a great deal to do with world order a number of times before and therefore we should not think it is different this time around.

The urgent need to increase Western support to Ukraine was touched upon in almost all panels. As Dr Pål Jonson, the Swedish Defence Minister, repeated throughout the conference, we are fighting for a rules-based world order in Ukraine. There was a strong push to give Ukraine permission to use Western weapons to strike military targets in Russian territory. Several people stressed that we shouldn’t be deterred by Russian threats of using nuclear weapons, but instead should build up our own deterrence. At the same time, Dr  Samir Saran stressed in the closing panel Keeping Up Support to Ukraine – Defining as Long as It Takes?

There was a lot of talk about European defence capabilities and the upcoming NATO Summit. During the pre-event What has NATO Gained from Enlargement? President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves and Kurt Volker, former US Ambassador to NATO, explained what NATO has gained from enlargement and how new members give new life to the organisation. The discussion in the panel 75 Years of NATO: What to Celebrate in Washington This Summer? focused on what European partners can do to prove to their US counterparts that they take their own defence seriously, like the Estonian ACDC proposal. At the same time, US Assistant Secretary of Defence Celeste Wallander explained the extent of US support to Ukraine, and why it will continue even after November elections.

The concern about trans-Atlantic relations was present in several discussions. Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna claimed that trans-Atlantic bond remains strong in the panel Trans-Atlantic Relations at a Time of Growing Isolationism. There was hope that the United States will not decrease their presence in Europe considering the mounting crises in the Indo-Pacific and in the Middle East. Dr Andrea Kendall-Taylor put it well when she said in the panel discussion Trans-Atlantic Relations at a Time of Growing Isolationism that instead of focusing so much on China, the US should notice that its Asian partners are very worried about what is happening in Europe. At the same, there was a clear understanding that Europe itself needs to do more as well. Member of the French Parliament Benjamin Haddad put it well when he said that the best way to anchor the US to Europe is by bringing value added.

As a positive development within NATO, Finland and Sweden will participate in the Washington Summit as full members of NATO. While it was clear in the panel Can We Turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO Lake? that the Baltic Sea can never be a NATO lake, several proposals on how to improve the security in the Baltic Sea were put forward. Vice Admiral Kaack, Chief of the German Navy offered several solutions on how to better monitor the activities of Russian ships on the Baltic Sea and introduced German plans to set up NATO Maritime Headquarters in the region.

Overall, the conference touched upon all major security policy issues in Europe and beyond. Several ideas from the conference have resonated later in the hallways of different institutions and in the press. Overall, the key message was that should not be deterred by fear, but resolute in our actions. As the President of Iceland, Dr Guðni Th Jóhannesson said, the notion should be that it is a common defence for common ideals.

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