July 31, 2013

The Strategic Landscape, Europe and Challenges Ahead

The central question of this year’s LMC will be whether a North-South split has emerged within Europe and what its economic and security implications might be.

This issue of Diplomaatia provides an intellectual welcome to the Sixth Lennart Meri Conference (LMC), convening May 24–26 in Tallinn.
Taking our cue from Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s now operatic debate with Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman (http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2013/01/10/ilves-krugman-spat-to-be-turned-into-financial-opera/), the central question of this year’s LMC will be whether a North-South split has emerged within Europe and what its economic and security implications might be. President Ilves has argued that policy responses to Europe’s banking and fiscal crisis suggest that Northern Europe’s greater readiness to embrace frugality (meaning austerity and structural reform) is essential to restoring economic growth. Moreover, voters in Estonia, Latvia, and the Netherlands rewarded political leaders who pursued such painful policies with reelection. In contrast, Southern European voters in Greece and Italy responded to budget cuts by ousting their political leaders, while the Spanish and French electorates are increasingly livid over government belt-tightening (and economic stagnation).
This year’s LMC will not resolve the Keynes versus Hayek macroeconomic debate over whether government spending is essential or detrimental to economic growth. The conference will, however, examine whether such policy divergence, coupled with the harsh market realities of higher interest rates demanded of private companies in Southern versus Northern Europe, herald a new era of a Eurozone that is bifurcated and perhaps, therefore, unraveling.
The Conference will also explore differences between Northern and Southern Europe in security policies. Russia looms larger in Northern Europe, which depends heavily on Siberian natural gas that Moscow has sometimes used as a geopolitical tool; Southern Europe, which enjoys more diversified natural gas supplies, is geographically more drawn toward threats and opportunities in neighboring North Africa rather than Russia.
Of course, overemphasizing geography as a policy determinant risks oversimplification. After all, Paris is geographically northern, but increasingly looks southward on hard security (e.g., Libya and Mali). Similarly, Turkey is located in Southern Europe, but has implemented tight fiscal and sound banking policies that reflect Northern Europeans’ self-image. And, Turkey’s own geographic character is split between North and South: it is a Black Sea neighbor of Ukraine and Russia but increasingly focuses on its southern borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
Like Turkey, the entire Euro-Atlantic community’s strategic focus is increasingly drawn southward (and eastward), as historic changes grip North Africa, the broader Middle East, and Afghanistan. Over the past decade, NATO’s flanks have been stretched wider than ever—from the Arctic to Afghanistan—even as austerity policies severely restrict military budgets on both sides of the Atlantic, and Washington strives to define what “rebalance toward Asia” means in practice. The LMC will explore whether NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan might help restore the Alliance’s balance of means and ends and thus sustain its credibility. Yet, given the daunting challenges in today’s Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine Afghanistan will grow more stable after NATO troops withdraw next year. Indeed, since it is unlikely that Afghanistan’s own security forces will be able to preserve even today’s fragile “stability,” a resurgence of Islamist extremism seems likely, which will threaten Afghanistan’s women and girls with renewed persecution and echo the causes of Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Mali.
The LMC will also try to restore the Euro-Atlantic community’s focus closer to home, on enduring challenges to security and democracy in the Eastern Partnership countries. We will debate whether Georgia’s new government, empowered by the freest and fairest election in the history of the South Caucasus, remains as committed as its predecessor to Euro-Atlantic integration. We will explore Poland’s multiple roles as a key partner with Germany in the EU’s first tier, an inspirational leader of the Visegrad Group of Central European countries, and a potential catalyst of positive change in Belarus and Ukraine. We will also sharpen our appreciation of the Baltic states’ important role in sharing their experiences with groundbreaking reforms to help the Eastern Partnership countries deepen their relationships with Euro-Atlantic institutions.
The Baltic states’ net contributions to Euro-Atlantic security will be a key leitmotif of the LMC 2013. These include hosting NATO Centers of Excellence on cyber and energy security, boosting EU efforts to establish a single and unified energy market, facilitating Coalition transit to/from Afghanistan, and sending troops to some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous corners. Though often overlooked in Washington and Brussels as inconvenient and emotional, the Baltic states’ security concerns have been earned by Moscow’s blustery use of discriminatory energy pricing and nuclear weapons deployments in the Baltic region. These concerns spill into Finland, which has also been a target of Russian nuclear saber rattling over the past year. As both Finland and Sweden examine their relations with NATO in new and historic ways, Baltic security concerns may acquire increasing relevance across our Alliance, even as the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole strives for a mutually respectful, beneficial, and friendly relationship with its biggest and most significant neighbor to the East.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.