The Inconvenient Message of Baltic Prosperity

A week ago I had the pleasure of attending for the first time the biannual conference of the Joint Baltic–American National Committee. It was a very positive experience; I learned a lot from the presentations, met some awesome people, and (as usual with these conferences—at least good ones) the best part was the discussions had over drinks when it was all over. The entire staff* of JBANC deserves a lot of credit for running a smooth, high-quality event.

[*I get the impression the “entire staff” of JBANC is pretty much Karl Altau and several impressive interns and volunteers.]

A lot was said that needs to be said repeatedly, so I will be sharing some thoughts in a series of blog posts sparked by the conference.

You can watch the conference yourself thanks to Marcus Kolga, who live-streamed it and posted it to YouTube here and here.

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My first thought comes from the opening keynote address given by Kurt Volker, former United States Permanent Representative to NATO. He said we are a country based on core, fundamental values, and that we are at our best when respecting and promoting them. When these values are under threat, it’s always a matter of time before it directly impacts the US. It is important to pay close attention to the margins of freedom and related values: Are those margins expanding or contracting? Looking at the world today, it’s hard to argue that freedom is expanding.

One theme that arose frequently throughout the conference was the idea that the Baltic countries are models of these values. Preserving the success stories of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is important not ONLY for geographic reasons, but because they stand as a giant billboard announcing to the world that the way of freedom can succeed. This is important because the question is not settled, and the idea that freedom will ultimately fail is a core message of Putin’s massive propaganda machine.

The Cold War was not a conflict between two morally equal systems whose only difference was geography. It was a battle, among other things, between moral, political and economic freedom, and its imperfect proponents in the West, and a totalitarian system that systematically violated human nature by taking his freedoms, devaluing his work, and stealing his property, a system that ultimately considered its own people as its primary enemy.

If this is true—if the Cold War was not only geopolitical but ideological—then our ideological victory in the Cold War was not the geopolitical fact of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the fact that, once given the chance, those peoples who escaped Soviet domination and freely chose their own way, have not only done better, they have truly thrived. They have shown that with sacrifice and planning and commitment, you can come back—and relatively quickly—from totalitarianism to freedom.

Baltic prosperity is the single greatest sign of the rightness of the West’s victory over the political system that Vladimir Putin looks back upon fondly, and whose demise he considers the worst disaster of the 20th century.

This is why it doesn’t matter that the Baltics are not near the US, or that that they border Russia. It wouldn’t matter if the Baltics were in the dead center of Russia: The success of the Baltics on the path they freely chose is crucial to demonstrate the legitimacy of all we have fought and died for over the last century and more. And projecting to the world that free countries are not worth defending, no matter where they are, endangers freedom everywhere.


Weekly Depth Charge: March 11, 2017

I’m trying out a new posting format, where I offer a roundup of links, with a bit of commentary, from the past week (or longer in this case since it’s the first installment).


PutinI still sometimes have Americans on the Right tell me that Eastern Europeans are not that worried about Russia (and Trump). Eastern Europeans tell me they are. Here’s a sampling …

Eastern Europe: Between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

Saeima speaker considers restoring compulsory military service in Latvia

Scandinavians are concerned too… Norway, Sweden, Finland.

North Korea

This is cool and informative: Jeffrey Lewis gives an easy-to-follow primer on using open source material to monitor North Korean missile launches.


This NY Times piece from last month does a good job of capturing the background behind the tensions in Cameroon’s Anglophone area. Among other things, this is an example of a modern conflict in Africa stemming from a weak sense of national identity, due in part to colonial-era borders. When a boundary is created on top of an existing cultural/demographic pattern and without taking it into account, it is called a superimposed boundary. This is almost every international border in Africa.


Getting water at UN House, Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Oxfam East Africa.


South Sudan’s beyond-emergency-stage food crisis is entirely manmade. In fact many of Africa’s food crises are in zones of conflict.

China is building a naval base just across the bay from the American base in Djibouti:

Democratization efforts in Zimbabwe are interesting and worth following. What is the US position on democracy and accountability efforts in Zimbabwe? As far as I can tell, we don’t have one.

The Global Crapstorm, Generally

The world as a whole is facing the largest humanitarian crisis (or, collections of crises) since World War II.

People fleeing war more likely to find shelter in poorer countries, says UN refugee agency. Most of the 3.2 million people driven forcibly from their homes in early 2016 found shelter in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new UN study. Is this a function of national compassion, or lower capacity to enforce borders, or just that refugees may be more likely to flee to neighboring countries which might be in similar economic circumstances? No doubt it will be spun as the first option, but the others are worth some consideration.

Information Security

The House, including its Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, has a serious problem with shady IT staffers. There’s some weird stuff going on. The investigation includes this article, and the six more at the end.

News and Disinformation

Technology hasn’t just enabled citizen journalists and those pushing for greater accountability from their governments. It has also made them more vulnerable to well-resourced disinformation campaigns by their governments.

Here is an interesting look at hyperpartisan news sites (known to many simply as “news sites”). I hope this phenomenon gets more coverage. A key quote: “Some of the same people operate both liberal and conservative sites as a way to ‘run up their metrics or advertising revenue’.”

Can Fake News be Stopped?


Toomas Hendrick Ilves. Photo: janwikifoto.


It’s hard to overstate the importance of this observation by one of my favorite recent world leaders, former Estonian president Toomas Hendrick Ilves:

The domestic political goal within Russia is to demonstrate that elections in the West are fraudulent. The government wants to show its public that open societies are flawed, too, so there is no point in becoming a democratic state.

Ilves spoke at a conference on cyber-espionage, propaganda, and Russia, at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Peace, Democracy, Governance, Accountability

Accountability measures are crucial to peace processes.

Transparency makes regimes more resistant to military coups.

One tool to end conflicts: follow the money being made off of them—and stop it.

The U.S. supports South Sudan’s national dialogue. This touches on a pandemic I see in the world today: leaders using democratic institutions or negotiations or peace talks to pay lip service to Western values while having no intention of making any real change. I hope to write more about this in the future. For now, it suffices to note that both South Sudan and Burundi currently suffer from intractable conflicts, and the de facto leaders of both regimes are sponsoring peace talks. This is akin to putting Putin in charge of talks between Russia and Ukraine, or making a rapist the judge of his own trial. Certainly in the case of South Sudan, both sides have committed unspeakable crimes, but the point is that a party to a conflict should never be the one to mediate the conflict. US support for this national dialogue is a sign of intense naiveté on the part of the new administration, which will have grave consequences for justice, and extend the mortal danger to many people.

Trump speaks with Kenyan president about terrorism. What is the US position toward efforts toward freedom and human rights around the world? Based on current diplomatic activity, everyone can go do whatever they want.

How Africa’s political regimes legitimate themselves through the fight against terrorism.

Which form of government is more stable, democracy or autocracy? These days in the US it’s easy to think democracy, but internal pressures (oppression from the government, resistance from the people) are stronger, if less public, in less free countries. A series of maps of Africa shows strong correlations (not causation, mind you) between autocratic countries and … conflict, refugee generation, and food insecurity. It’s not necessarily surprising, but it does suggest that efforts to promote accountable governance worldwide may have more long-term benefits than may appear at first glance.


International Justice

There is a raging debate in Africa about the International Criminal Court. Many of its most vocal critics have argued that it targets Africans unduly and is thus revealed as nothing more than a racist tool of neo-colonialism and imperialism. Aside from the fact that this argument is extremely overused and applied to every dispute imaginable, as our own Paul Nantulya points out in this case it is false, since 7 out of the 8 open cases were requested by Africans, and African populations are mostly in favor of the court (though not overwhelmingly). When it has been effective at all, it has filled a justice gap that many countries haven’t filled nationally yet, and this national/international complementarity was a key reason the idea of the court was first advanced—by Africans.

The Best Men

Trump’s skills at picking solid advisers is wildly inconsistent. Mattis is one of his best. This is about one of his worst.

This might spark an interesting discussion on foreign investment, corruption, and autocracy. If you want more on the topic, check out the head of Global Financial Integrity talking about illegal financial flows. If you want a lot more on this topic, check out the Africa Center’s special report on what it calls “predatory investment”, and how autocrats use it to get around things like sanctions and accountability. The report is also a great case study of how China uses such investment, and investment companies, as tools of statecraft.

There’s no clear good guy in the Sonyhack story

Not every story has a winner, or a good guy, and in my opinion the Sonyhack story (which would make for a more interesting film than The Interview) has neither. Let’s review the cast of characters.

Sony executives have been revealed as greedy, immoral, and cowardly. While it is not technically a free speech issue, since Sony was not legally compelled to pull the movie (and there are normal external forces that influence how we express ourselves on a smaller scale every day), it is still disheartening to see an American company so thoroughly manipulated. Those who point to personal cowardice on the part of Sony execs and theaters may be right in fact, but as an explanation it is incomplete.

Insurance companies and lawyers, it seems, still rule our lives, since movie theaters knew that showing the Interview in the face of the slightest indication of threat means they will not be covered by insurance, and thus would be responsible if these unsubstantiated threats actually materialized. I think this reflects an odd American trait that we are more willing to risk death than legal responsibility in the face of danger. In either case, the remedy for such a scenario is not simply more “courage”, but a system that incentivizes it, or at least doesn’t discourage it.

The American people are rightly offended at the idea of a foreign government determining how we practice our right to free speech. But let’s be very clear on the distinction between the right and the content in this case. The Interview, making fun of both a murderous head of state with no sense of humor and (I’m told) North Korean culture, with the typical millennial crass and uninformed humor over serious political realities, was a stupid movie to make.

Those who don’t believe in free speech argue by pointing to evil or offensive content. The counterargument is *not* that all speech is good, but that yes, some speech is bad, but it must still be protected in order for speech that is good and true to have a chance. This is not to say there should never be limits, only that we could stand to be a little more aware of the danger to all speech posed by imposing them (whether legal or social) too readily. The resilience of opposing views in western society is a strong argument for freedom; conversely when the other side sees us seek not to persuade but to silence our domestic opponents, they feel vindicated. Freedom takes work, and requires a sense of responsibility. When free speech is challenged, we tend to think of extreme examples, like the right of Illinois Nazis to hold a parade. (Though I think we are changing our collective minds on this; if so, we really should have the discussion outright, so we’re sure that’s what we want.) But if we ask ourselves why we so cherish free speech, I dare say it is more valuable to focus on diverse voices contributing to a shared view of reality from multiple perspectives, informing all but ultimately based on desire to get at the truth. At root, discipline, a bit of prudence, and commitment to seeking truth build the strongest defense of free speech.

Kim_Jong-Un_Sketch-croppedNorth Korea is not justified in doing what it did either, of course. I hardly need to say much about it as a player, except to note that while the details of their capacity for cyberwarfare and -espionage may have been a surprise, their overall reaction – and willingness to take some action in response – was entirely knowable, based on openly available knowledge of their culture and on past experiences. Should Sony have known this, and/or cared? I would answer that at the least, since we as Americans know that our audience is increasingly global, the right answer is not to pretend otherwise. Knowing more about the world is never a bad thing, though many Americans like to think it is. And it’s not an infringement of free speech to allow ourselves to make our own discourse a little more nuanced and informed in light of our global audience.

Then there’s the White House which, despite some conservative complaints of inaction and my own political leanings, I think comes away with the least egg on its face so far. Contemporaneous complaints that the White House has done nothing should always be interpreted as “the White House has done nothing publicly.” Being late to the game in publicly identifying North Korea is not as bad as getting it wrong if it really turns out to be Russia or China. The serious US negligence of two key areas – cybersecurity and counterintelligence – will continue to hurt and endanger us. The list of US failures in these areas is massive, and making them real priorities will take a degree of leadership that Americans on all sides thirst for, but which I fear our current process of choosing leaders is not designed to reward.

Sorry to end on a negative note, but as I warned at the outset, there are no true unblemished good guys here. That’s just the world we live in. There’s always room for improvement, even when you’re a victim.