May 19, 2014

The Lennart Meri Lecture 2014

We have seen in recent months and weeks that a state, determined to use whatever force is necessary, can achieve its objectives by acting unexpectedly and in a defiant manner. The Americans have been, and indeed are, preoccupied with their domestic agenda dedicating little attention to Europe which, after all, has been relatively calm since the Georgian war of 2008. The members of the European Union have been struggling with their economic worries and their politicians have dedicated almost all of their time to common and domestic issues. They have not been prepared to a challenge of a military nature in the middle of Europe. The strike came out of the blue, and it succeeded.

We have seen in recent months and weeks that a state, determined to use whatever force is necessary, can achieve its objectives by acting unexpectedly and in a defiant manner. The Americans have been, and indeed are, preoccupied with their domestic agenda dedicating little attention to Europe which, after all, has been relatively calm since the Georgian war of 2008. The members of the European Union have been struggling with their economic worries and their politicians have dedicated almost all of their time to common and domestic issues. They have not been prepared to a challenge of a military nature in the middle of Europe. The strike came out of the blue, and it succeeded.

Initial success is, however, no guarantee of final victory. It is good to draw lessons from history. In 1941, as Japan surprised the Americans by launching a successful attack on Pearl Harbor, the initial success was great. Most of the American Pacific Fleet was destroyed in a few hours. The declaration of war came the next day. The Japanese admiral in charge, Isoroku Yamamoto had second thoughts. He had seen much of the world. He had visited the United States Naval College and he was no nationalist. He did understand the risks involved in the Pearl Harbor operation but – being an officer in active duty – he did what was expected from him. “We may have awoken a sleeping giant” he said after seeing the destruction. And indeed, the giant had been sleeping. It took some time before the giant had collected himself and was ready to strike. But strike back it did – with formidable force.

We have learned already in 2007 from the speech made by President Putin at the Munich Security Conference that in his view Russia had been ignored, its legitimate interests have not been respected and it has been seen as irrelevant. Much of that is true. In the years after the collapse of communism Russia was indeed ignored, as a world power. The simple reason is that it was no longer a world power. It was in dire need of external assistance – and such assistance was given. It is true, of course, that those days are past today.

As Russia is insisting on having treated with respect, it is good to ask how respect is earned. Yes, earned. Let me give you some European examples. Sweden is respected because it has many great achievements – achievements that serve national purposes but also a larger whole. A balanced, wealthy country, with full respect to the rule of law and with social policies aimed at social justice. Respect earned.

Switzerland is another country we respect: harmonious relations between four different ethnic and cultural entities, much prosperity, and a well working democracy. Or this country that hosts our conference. In spite of decades of submission to a foreign power and a foreign system it has made a splendid return to the ranks of well governed, democratic and – in economic terms – growing nations. There is respect earned.

Respect comes from achievements. Russia too has many shining achievements we all respect. In science, in the arts, in music. Many of these achievements are world class. As far as those aspects are concerned, Russia has, and deserves, our respect. In my three other examples – Sweden, Switzerland and Estonia, there were a couple of more characteristics. All three are well established democracies, all three are countries where rule of law prevails. That is something, together with other achievements, that gives to these countries the respect they so well deserve. As soon as Russia meets these standards it will, I am sure, also have the respect it desires.

Sometimes it seems to me that at least some Russians do not always see the difference between respect and awe – or –indeed – fear. If that is the case then intimidation is used as a vehicle to gain respect – in that narrow sense of the word. Intimidation can take many forms in international relations. One form of intimidation is major military manoeuvers. Sometimes such manoeuvers even have names that they in themselves are a message. In recent years we have seen manoeuvers called Vostok or Zapad – East or West. So that there would be no confusion what the message conveyed really is, such manoeuvers are so staged that they simulate the occupation of territory of neighboring states – or the destruction of the capital of a neighboring state. Such was the case some three years back as Warsaw was blown off the map with a nuclear attack. That was one of the Zapad manoeuvers. To simulate the annihilation of the capital of a neighbor is an act of intimidation of monumental proportions. And yet, that is one of the events of recent years.

No wonder if such messages make people and nations think about their security. They have even more reason to worry as they live in countries which have, in recent years, reduced their defensive capabilities in the innocent belief that the time of military intimidation is part of the black past. Most European countries, and North Americans alike, have reduced considerably their conventional forces in Europe. Some of them have been doing that until this very day. Now alarm bells sound in many parliaments. Have we been too trusting, too innocent? Have we misread the signs of change?

That is a proper question to ask. What is wrong with the way how we have seen European developments and, more precisely, the Russian developments.

“The most common method of misunderstanding foreigners is to assume that they are similar to you” says Robert Cooper in his valuable but unconventional book “The Breaking of Nations”. Robert Cooper was the top diplomat with the European commission before his retirement. His point is worth examining a little closer. By assuming that foreigners are just like we are, we are guilty of the fallacy of thinking that we represent the norm, the standard behavior in the world. Our world and our world view is the standard all should respect and live by. That is intellectual laziness if not arrogance.

Values is a word often spoken here. Values and principles based on those values. As I was a young member of the Finnish delegation to the United Nations I got a lesson about principles. A more experienced colleague from a country I shall not name voted in a minor matter in a way that contradicted an earlier vote. I asked him, in my innocence, how that was to be understood. “Do you vote on the basis of a principle or was that based on political convenience”, I asked him. “My friend – he said – our policy is always based on principles. This world of ours is very complex. Therefore it is not possible to make all political choices on the basis of one single principle. Therefore we have many principles. You never know which one of them is the most useful in a given context.”

“Pacta sunt servanda” – agreements are to be honored is a Roman principle often quoted in discussions such as this one. The Ukrainians thought in 1994 that they had a pact which was credible enough so that they gave up the nuclear weapons remaining on their territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After all, the American president, the British Prime Minister and the Russian president had signed it. The Budapest memorandum was an unequivocal commitment on paper. And yet one of the signatories invaded while the two other ones looked the other way.

If commitments as serious as this one are not honored, how about other commitments? The entire international system is based on the “pacta sunt servanda”-principle.

We tend to compare the best of our intentions against the worst practices of our adversaries. Principles against practices. I think it is safe to say that principles guide our acts as long as they are in harmony with our interests. If there is a conflict between the two, we have to decide: do we bend the principles or do we redefine our interests?

The fact is that different political cultures mold different patterns of thinking. The Russian political culture is very different from that in most of Western Europe. Of course it is different because the Russian history, and in particular Russian political history, is so different. So let us not expect the Russians see the world the way we do. If we are going to really be able to communicate with them, we have an uphill task to understand them better. Their task is no less, it is even more difficult because they live – compared to us – in political isolation.

It was the French political scientist Marquis de Custine who in his book “Russia in 1839 “ shared with us his thinking on the Russians: “I do not blame the Russians for what they are; What I blame them for is what they pretend to be”. Yes pretend – we have seen much of that.

What is said here is no excuse for breaches against good conduct or the existing and recognized forms of international conduct. In spite of profound cultural differences the Russian leadership is well versed in the basic principles of international conduct. They have chosen not to play by the rules they have themselves recognized. It is an entirely different case with the common man. He cannot be expected to know what has happened because the way he has been informed in a seriously misleading way. Nationalistic fervor is easily instigated if sentiments of hurt pride and dignity are seen to be at issue.

We all know what has happened but we do not know, not yet at least, what is to be expected. If the pronouncements we have heard are any guide then more of the same is to be expected. Therefore it is only natural that people ask themselves how can we put an end to this dangerous set of events. Or what should be done in order to limit the damage.

There is one school of thought found in many corners of Europe and also in North America. What they say is: Ukraine is, after all, historically part of Russia. So it has been for several centuries. Ukrainians are not one nation, but two or three nations, since the Tatars of the Crimea are not to be excluded. It is not such a big thing if Ukraine is reunited with Russia. After all, it was earlier even called Russia minor. So let us not endanger friendly relations with Russia because this is not such a big thing. Some put it the way Secretary Baker of the United States did with the Balkan wars: “We have no dog in this fight.”

True, we have no dog in this fight. But we have much more than a dog. We have seen a return to the philosophy that might is right. What is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable. That is no basis for the conduct of international affairs. If the culture of cloak and dagger is back, then our peril is near. It is no consolation if the color of the cloak is green and the dagger well concealed. In ancient times the dagger was most likely forged in Toledo. Today Tula is more likely.

It is no good that we lament the evil turn of European inter-state relations without thinking about the remedy. The remedy is to show that ill-gotten is soon lost. Crimea is not necessarily the main thing here. It is considered, by most observers, to be lost as a part of Ukraine. But it has a price. The international economic community is already exacting that price. Capital flight from Russia is a strong signal. Even without any sanctions the markets have spoken loud and clear. It will take quite some time before investor confidence will return to Russia. Both domestic and foreign investors are likely to hold back for long. Sanctions are always troublesome because they hurt both parties. But market reactions can be even a more of powerful message than any sanctions.

By choosing to challenge the existing world order, and international law, Russia has a serious self-inflicted wound. In a country where the economy has, already for some time, been in the doldrums that means that the living standards are more likely to sink rather than to rise. Threats issued about a withdrawal from existing arms reduction agreements do not improve the situation. The last thing we need is a new arms race. That is something no one of us can afford, Russia even less than North Americans or Europeans.

One of the few German words that have found its place in the English usage is “Weltanschauung” – the way we see the world. It is obvious that there is not one, no common world view. Much could be achieved if there would be a better understanding of what the worldview of others is and where are the origins of such a view. History is no cookbook with recipes for how to come to grips with the problems we meet.

But unless we know our history we have no hope for understanding one another. Present thinking, everywhere, owes much to past thinking, ideas past and even values. It is customary to emphasize that the world changes rapidly. That is true, of course. But we cannot delete what we have learned from our parents and grand- parents. We cannot reload our minds with entirely new concepts of right and wrong, just and unjust.

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