Reflections on the 2017 Lennart Meri Conference.
A looming challenge to liberalism
The Brexit vote as well as the uncertainties surrounding the Trump presidency, combined with Russia’s assertiveness and the rise of populism—along with the accompanying erosion of confidence in the political and media establishments— are creating a series of contradictions within western liberal democratic systems. A central lesson to be drawn from this year’s Conference is that the liberal order is at a defining moment. In this respect, Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man may provide some keys for understanding. Instead of an end to the historical succession of events, the “end of history” referred to the absence of any viable intellectual competitor to liberalism after all other systemic alternatives to it died out by the end of the 20th century.
Reflecting on the “war on trust and how to win it,” the panels at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference addressed the general crisis facing our liberal, democratic societies. In particular, the European Union and how to make it a symbol of hope rather than skepticism occupied a central position, especially given the participation of EU HR/VP Federica Mogherini and Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, representing her country’s upcoming Presidency of the Council of the EU. The conference also tackled the challenges brought about by the “post-truth” era, concluding with a thought-provoking question: could fake news and disinformation actually be the best opportunity for improving our political systems?
Reviving liberal democracy and countering populism
The panelists argued that a campaign against populism as such would miss the point, since a series of factors have combined to undermine popular trust in government and belief in the relevance of liberalism. Opportunistic populist politicians are prospering in a values vacuum. Liberalism’s virtual monopoly in the marketplace of ideas over the past decades has led to an ideological demobilization that has deprived it of the capacity to make sense of the drastic changes brought about by globalization and technological advancement. While the world has never been richer and more prosperous, inequalities have become more intolerable. Globalization most visibly benefited the very rich and the very poor while the middle class became vulnerable and is feeling left out. The economic returns to labor have diminished, fueling economic and social insecurity. Migration flows together with fading national identities in globalization processes led to a sense of cultural insecurity. This is why the reasons for Brexit were for example more cultural than economic, as the panelists concluded. Populism can be seen as a result of the decay of our liberal democratic polities; it should be taken as a wake-up call and an incitement for policymakers to address more adequately the negative effects of major societal changes.
Restoring trust in the EU: the challenge of “De-Brusselization”
Two things plague the EU in the eyes of voters. The first one is the perception that the EU is a super-state. This is why the EU institutions and member states have a shared responsibility to communicate on the nature of decision-making at the European level. President Kaljulaid advocated making clear that EU policies are mostly designed to help national governments deliver to their constituents. Institutions and member states should fight the perception that “Brussels” infringes on political expression and serves only global financial interests: “de-Brusselization” of the EU—that is, making it clear that the EU has 27 capitals – is paramount to it. Careful communication is central to rebuilding trust. Enrico Letta, a former Italian Prime Minister, analyzed that the election of French President Emmanuel Macron would be a unique window of opportunity in reviving Europe. Estonian President Kaljulaid insisted during the panels that the Union is not facing a fundamental crisis. The Union needs to be developed, certainly, but there is no contradiction that cannot be overcome. The second challenge that needs to be addressed in order to restore confidence in the EU is the perception that it is the instrument of unchecked globalization and financial interests. This also requires attentive communication, something that is direly needed when populist politicians are trying to create a new fundamental divide between “globalists” and “patriots.” A possible way forward would be for the EU and its member states to deliver on European citizens’ demand for security and common defense. As European Commission President Juncker put it in 2014 at the start of his current mandate, the Union needs to be “big on big things and small on small things.”
Hybrid threats and disinformation require audacity
On its second day, the conference tackled the elephant in the room: Russia’s hybrid strategies and disinformation operations. Russia seems to be waging a systematic campaign to undermine public confidence in liberal institutions and media. LMC panelists proposed an innovative stance that is directly linked to the crisis of liberal democracies. Disinformation prospers in an ideological vacuum. Therefore, instead of merely responding to disinformation, a smarter posture would be to improve the inner strength of our societies. As Gerhard Conrad, director of the EU Intelligence Center explained, information warfare is best rendered ineffective by a system’s own invulnerability. The prospect of disinformation campaigns should be taken as an opportunity for self-improvement; in the end, the least corrupt and best functioning societies are the most secure and resilient in the face of hybrid threats. When confidence in the political system is high, disinformation campaigns have a very limited room for maneuver.
This is why the fear of election hacking, for instance, is exaggerated. In psychological operations, actual actions matter less than the perceptions of what could have been done; and political leaders have been rather late in understanding the true possibilities brought about by technological changes. We could put into perspective the attack on the integrity of the last US presidential election by reminding that it mostly consisted of hacking personal Gmail accounts. This lack of reflection as to the true extent of threats reveals a deep sensation of vulnerability about our own system of governance and values.
The risk of reopening history
Liberalism, as a system of thought primarily concerned with an individual’s autonomy, cannot function without trust. Getting back to Fukuyama is relevant because the crisis of western liberal forms of government is the common denominator for the uncertainties of today. History will “reopen” if an alternative system manages to point to unsolvable contradictions within liberalism or if it decisively undermines its credibility. This is the reason why Fukuyama’s “end of history” perspective should at last be understood clearly. Liberal dominance is a result of centuries of intellectual setbacks and material struggles. In order to avoid the dawn of a post-democratic age, liberals need to fill the ideological vacuum and propose an attractive future.