a personal blogger

Reflections of a Peace Student on the Baltic Sea Region Forum 2023

The first of the three panels

My friend recommended to me the Baltic Sea Region Forum where they discussed the security and safety of the Baltic sea, especially in the context of escalating tensions due to Russia invading Ukraine and Finland joining the military alliance NATO[1].

What follows are my thoughts and observations, focusing more on the underlying frameworks that shape the discussions, rather than the content itself.

I followed two – ostensibly British – suits into the university building. I found myself feeling somewhat out of place, wearing casual attire amid a sea of suits. My long, curly hair swirled on my back and shoulders like a surfer. An uncomfortable sensation of impostor syndrome tugged at my consciousness.

As I collected my glossy name tag, it struck me that I was a stranger in a room full of familiar faces. Determined to change this, I made eye contact with a middle-aged man and took a leap of faith. We conversed casually about our backgrounds and goals. The German silver fox had tired eyes, though after a few litres of black tea he was buzzing.

This was my first conference that I had attended in any topic. I observed the former military officer in wolves clothes beside me follow cryptocurrency charts and another panellist scrolling through memes while answering emails. I had to suppress a smile. The click-clack of keyboards echoed across the room, reminding me of my bachelor studies.

They were all men

Entering the conference hall, I was greeted by the sight of nearly two hundred individuals, predominantly middle-aged grey men close to having pension. The striking scarcity of women and youth was clear. I believe I was the youngest person in the room, and apparently also one of the handsomest people in the room (by two accounts).

This made me think of gender questions: What are the consequences of lack of women in decision-making positions, especially as it relates to war? How does masculinity override the more feminine ways of thinking?

During the second panel discussion, Kaja Tael, the Ambassador-at-Large for Climate and Energy Policy, astutely remarked:

Happy to be the only lady on the panel … Is it mentality or is it mindset?

The room erupted in laughter. The humour of the moment belied the uncomfortable reality it addressed. I thought it was awkward.

It began with anger

The panel was introduced by Kari Liuhto, Minna Arve, and Markus Granlund, painting the onset of the event with their speeches. I forgot the two speeches, however the speech by the Mayor of Turku, Arve, was memorable. Her piercing gaze and articulate words filled the room with sadness, determination, and pride, albeit tainted by undertones of polarisation and violence, especially as she cited:

If you want peace, prepare for war.

The narrative of the conference seemed disproportionately tilted towards war, seldom touching the topic of peace. This disconcerting reality left me feeling uneasy.

Obviously she (and many others, Ukrainians and Russians alike) are justified and in their right to feel and express strong emotions such as anger, but the question is how is that emotion translated into behaviour. How do we react?

As Aristotle said:

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.

Then, is it wise to advocate for more military action in the Baltic Sea region?

Words such as threat, risk, kill, climate change, deterrence, defence, aggressive, foe, Iran, Russian, China, U.S., democracy, dictator, Cold War, military bases, control, interference, missiles, tracking, weak, fear, escalation, mindset, territory, invade, weaponising, and war were mentioned throughout the conference.

Afterwards Mikhail Shishkin, the Russian dissident and author of On My Russia: War or Peace? gave a speech, concluded by an eerie murmur:

Slava Ukraini.

A sense of sorrow entered the room that was underpinned by a collective determination.

They shared notions of Realism

Artis Pabriks, the former Minister of Defence of Latvia, delivered an extensive and impressive keynote. His primary message was clear:

If we can’t change the Russian elite, then we need to change ourselves.

Indeed, assuming there is a relationship between Russia and ‘the Other’, then changing oneself changes the relationship, and by extension, who Russia is and what it can do in that relationship. This much is clear.

Pabriks proposed that 'the West' has failed to invest adequately in arms. As a political realist, he suggested an increased military response, asserting:

All of the West is in the War, and therefore we should act like it.

Structural realism, which is a theory in international relations, assumes that military power is all that matters in the context of an anarchical world. This situation is what we call 'anarchy', but it's not chaos; it simply means there's no overarching power to enforce rules. Because of this, each country has to act in ways to ensure their survival and increase their power.

How to increase and measure that power is what structural realism argues and what most of the attendees in the event seemed to agree upon: more military expenditure, more ammunition factories, more weapons, etc.

He raised his voice saying that

For the Kremlin, “doing nothing” is escalation.

And he continues

One does not learn from victories, but from defeats. Therefore, Russia must lose. First, Russia must be made incapable of attacking others, and secondly, Russia must lose appetite in attacking.

To illustrate this point, I remembered a 2011 study by Dayu Lin.[2] In a simple mouse experiment, Lin found that victorious mice became more aggressive, while defeated mice became passive. Translating this to real-world scenarios, if Russia consistently triumphs, it might become more aggressive and likely to win again – an escalating cycle Pabriks is keen to prevent. Given this, I agree with Pabriks.

Finally, Pabriks raised the question of whether Russia would ever acknowledge and apologise for its past war crimes, something he noted has never occurred. Having studied memory in the context of peace and transitional justice, Pabriks's speech motivated me to study more about the role of memory and war. Alas for this blog post, I do not have the time to delve deeper.

They all thought the same

The panellists shared knowledge and wisdom. However, it quickly became evident – as my new German friend pointed out to me – that there was little debate and a presence of devil’s advocates.

The danger here is groupthink. Everybody (perceivably) agreed with each other, and as such there was no critical evaluation. When people did not say their real opinions, even though they may think differently, this makes others think that perhaps everybody agrees.

In fact, I asked a question on human rights. Understandably authorities need more powers to do what they do. However, doing so, human rights may be forgotten or violated.

For example, one panellist mentioned cryptocurrencies and North Korean hackers using it to evade sanctions. While such concerns are valid, an overall balanced perspective was missing, leading me to wonder whether our rational-thinking capabilities were overshadowed by fear. It is only human that when one experiences fear, the brain shuts down the rational-thinking capabilities. As such, it would be helpful if the panellists didn't perceive and share everything through the lens of fear.

Afterwards a person reached to me and told me that it could have been detrimental to my career to throw critical, disagreeing questions if I was a decision-maker. This made me think that groupthink is a powerfully ingrained phenomenon in this field.

How can we afford to have this?

The friend who recommended me the conference told me that

Security experts see danger everywhere because their entire careers, industry and salaries are based on creating fear, and if you challenge them then you are either naive or a lefty avocado-eating wokeratti. The biggest threat to their industry is diplomacy and mediation. It’s in their interest to delegitimise diplomacy as a security method to keep their careers existing.

Notwithstanding the validity of this argument, introducing experts from peace studies into the discourse could be beneficial. Peace specialists bring a unique approach, philosophy, and interdisciplinarity. In my view, the Baltic Sea Region Forum would benefit from this broader spectrum of perspectives. Such diversity could enhance dialogues and promote more comprehensive and creative solutions. Including more women could also offer diverse insights, disrupting the typical narratives of war and security usually dominated by men.

[1] Baltic Sea Region Forum 2023 /watch?v=NNkviImXs6Q&ab_channel=CentrumBalticum

[2] Lin, D., Boyle, M., Dollar, P. et al. Functional identification of an aggression locus in the mouse hypothalamus. Nature 470, 221–226 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09736