By Egle Murauskaite*
(FPRI) — As the world anxiously watches President Donald Trump in action, concerns over the implications of his foreign policy choices are felt ever as keenly in the Baltic states. From cheers over Trump’s greetings to Lithuania on its day of independence making front page national news, to humorous videos offering to be a glad number three to America’s first. Signaling and interpreting subtle messages across the broad spectrum of communication is going to play a crucial role in rallying allies to step up security commitments to the Baltics. However, interpreting the actual rhetoric seems to be increasingly challenging on both sides of the Atlantic.
Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, Lithuania has pushed hard for NATO to step up joint efforts to deter Russian aggression, while internally, a growing number of public and private initiatives have sprung up to counter propaganda and involve civil society, building the public’s resilience to potential crises. Eagerness among Lithuanian policymaking circles for closer transatlantic cooperation has been matched by genuine interest from U.S. policymaking circles. Yet, differences in policy or desire between these two political circles are getting lost in translation, and gaps in perception have come to light. What is the significance of these differences of perception and their likely impact on security cooperation? Seemingly underappreciated by many in the policymaking community, these trends of underlying divergence risk undercutting transatlantic cooperation in the face of modern threats over the long term. To illustrate the case, let’s consider, in turn, two significant instances of strategic communication from both sides of the Atlantic at the end of 2016: a November episode of the prestigious BBC analytical talk show HARDtalk featuring Lithuanian Minister of Defense Linas Linkevicius, and the December visit to the three Baltics states by prominent U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Amy Klobuchar.
Following his previous statements of concern for Baltic security, Minister Linkevicius spoke out against Russian military adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria and advocated a systematic Western response to this global security threat rather than a Baltics-specific solution. In Lithuania, these statements were a familiar refrain: many remain captivated by the conflict in Ukraine, fearing a repetition of that scenario closer to home, and conflict developments are prominently featured in the news on a daily basis. However, BBC host Stephen Sackur seemed to dismiss those other conflicts as irrelevant to the Baltic situation: “We’re not here to talk about Aleppo today, but about what you fear might happen in your own country,” he quipped. Sackur proceeded to accuse Lithuania of “stoking up tensions” and “crying wolf,” calling the reintroduction of the draft and the establishment of a threat reporting hotline “not normal.” Judging by comments in Lithuanian media and social media, many have lauded the Minister’s boldness, and the seriousness of Sackur’s critique seemed to go unappreciated, without any subsequent efforts to comment on or counter these perceptions.
When Linkevicius called out Russia’s blatant spread of propaganda throughout Europe, the host met the point with incredulity. Referring to a campaign run on Russian state-controlled media prior to the annexation of Crimea, Linkevicius said, “In conventional warfare there was an artillery attack before the real battle… Now there is no need to use artillery. You can brainwash.” In disbelief, Sackur continued: “Brainwashing – that’s a big word. Are you saying Russia has a program to brainwash Europeans? Do you have any evidence?” However, Lithuanian audiences found Linkevicius’ point self-evident: the country has arguably been at the forefront of NATO’s efforts to counter Russian propaganda, successfully drawing on its Soviet era experience of sifting out the bits of truth from the firehose of falsehoods. In addition to reflecting the perceptional gaps, this pointed line of questioning may also serve as an indication of the challenges that Western efforts at fair reporting are faced with when countering Russian propaganda and disinformation. Presenting the audience with both sides of the issue in a “balanced” manner can lend undue credibility to blatant falsehoods.
The need to counter Russian propaganda more effectively came up frequently in Senator McCain’s statements during his Baltic tour although his primary focus was on cyber threats. The senator called the Russian-backed attempts to influence the U.S. election an act of war and the retaliatory measures (a new round of sanctions on Russia and the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats) insufficient. While a tougher U.S. stance on Russia was broadly welcomed in the Baltic states, local audiences met the rhetoric comparing these cyber attacks to 9/11 with some puzzlement. Frequently subjected to and arguably numbed by pressures from Russia across multiple domains, the Baltic view on such incidents tends to be limited to concern. In addition, Senator McCain reached for the 9/11 analogy just minutes after criticizing the Obama administration for a lack of action in Syria after its use of chemical weapons. This analogy highlighted inconsistencies in U.S. rhetoric versus action and somewhat detracted from McCain’s intended message of American strength and commitment in the face of modern threats.
These perception differences carry significant implications for security cooperation, of which strategic communication and public engagement are an important part. For Western observers, it can be difficult to accurately assess the moods and developments in the Baltic states: considerable differences in the tradition of security culture and discourse, as well as historic narratives, tend to obscure the normative baselines. For instance, the plausibility lent by many in the West to the narrative of simmering separatism in Latvia’s region of Latgale can be ascribed to their failure to appreciate the somewhat casual nature of internal frictions between Latvia’s ethnographic regions and its historical lack of the use of violence as a means of self-determination. The Baltics, in turn, often fail to appreciate the broader context of the issues at hand. For instance, they may voice concerns over U.S.-Russia rapprochement without taking U.S.-China and Russia-China dynamics into account, or they may push for greater U.S. military presence and support without appreciating the focal shift to addressing gray zone crises through non-military means.
Familiarity with different types of crises is another factor influencing the distinct reactions to and interpretations of certain developments. For instance, in political-military crisis simulations, American experts tended to assign a higher level of threat to energy supply disturbances in Eastern Europe compared to their Baltic counterparts already familiar with such pressure tactics. In turn, an incident simulating an attack against a school in the Baltics—a first-of-its-kind event— caused considerably more alarm in the region, whereas in the U.S., regrettably, school shootings or stabbings are not an infrequent occurrence. Historical experience with a particular type of crisis may predispose the experts and policy elites to discount its seriousness.
In contrast, such experience seems to lead the public to overestimate the probability of that type of crisis occurring again – as illustrated by contrasting attitudes towards terrorism threats. According to semi-annual Eurobarometer surveys, in December 2016, around 1% of Lithuanians viewed terrorism as a serious threat to their country (historically consistent), while 44% believed it to be the second most important threat to the EU. Meanwhile, in countries that have recently suffered acts of terrorism – France, Germany, and Belgium – the portion of respondents who found terrorism to be a primary issue of national concern was 31%, 28%, and 21%, respectively (up from 18%, 10% and 9% in 2015). The Bloomberg National Poll conducted in August 2016 showed that 14% of Americans saw terrorism as a major threat to the U.S. Different threat perceptions and security priorities across the Atlantic are hardly news, but, instead of laboring to convert the allies, learning to leverage the different expertise in handling these challenges is crucial in times of crisis.
Local nuances in the language used when discussing policy issues can also contribute to mutual misunderstanding. Complex policy issues – especially matters of defense and security – are often stripped down to shorthand labels and key words. Locally relevant implications, connotations, and assumptions behind these matters can be lost on a different audience. For example, Lithuania’s Conservative Party has been at the forefront of the transatlantic dialogue since the 1990s, traditionally relying on the links with the U.S. Republican Party. However, seemingly lost on the U.S. public is the fact that a faction of this party has been locally dubbed “the Taliban” for pushing a nationalist-religious agenda – a nickname that would likely resonate with the country that led the war on Afghanistan. Similarly lost on the Lithuanian public is the casual manner in which some Republicans refer to members of the U.S. Democratic Party as “communists”– a term that carries very different historical connotations in a post-Soviet state. In terms of defense, Baltic strategists seem to dismiss the role of nuclear weapons in deterring Russia, despite the growing consensus in the West that the Ukraine crisis marked their return to the geopolitical calculus. Similarly, across the Atlantic, it may be difficult to grasp Lithuanian historical narratives that glorify armed civilian resistance more so than men in uniform, or to understand the Lithuanian constitution compelling every citizen to participate in the defense of Lithuania in case of foreign incursion.
Ultimately, effective partnerships require effective communication. As the Baltic and Western states move forward and face regional security threats together, they must consistently work to improve their mutual understanding. First, they must examine their own assumptions, which their counterparts may not necessarily share, or may have altogether different ones. It is important to expose policymakers, diplomats, military leaders, and journalists on both sides to the background underwriting these different narratives through consistent mutual engagement. Second, they must look for common reference points that will assist with mutual problem solving. Finally, they must be sensitive to the connotations and nuances of the language they use for key issues. The cohesiveness of NATO and the success of political dialogue and strategic communication within the alliance as well as with its external partners depend on collectively learning these lessons.
The views and assessments expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent either the official position or bear the endorsement of the University of Maryland.
About the author:
*Egle Murauskaite is Non-resident Research Fellow, ICONS Project / National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland.
This article was published by FPRI.