Foreign policy Egils Levits
Valsts prezidents Egils Levits

Ladies and gentlemen,

I

Introduction

The word “dialogue” is often repeated but it seems to mean different things to different people as well as to the countries they represent. I am grateful to the Latvian Institute of International Affairs that they, together with partners, have maintained this forum. It gives us all a chance to discuss the security issues that are important to us here in Latvia, in Europe and for the transatlantic unity.

II

Existential Challenges

The challenges which our countries, our region and our world face can be divided into two groups: those which are dangerous and those which are existential. I shall deal with the existential threats first.

COVID-19 has focussed our minds on biological threats to humanity. Pandemics are not unusual, and this will not be the last. The Spanish flu 100 years ago is estimated to have killed about 50 million people from a much less populated planet. Pandemics are a biological threat to mankind but not the only one.

There are also countries which are developing or maintaining biological weapons with attendant risks. There is a constant growth in medical conditions which are resistant to anti-biotics.

During the COVID-19 crisis some have suggested that nuclear weapon proliferation and the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has been reduced as a risk. In my opinion, this is not so. The risk of a nuclear weapon getting into the hands of a suicidal terrorist is not negligible. Furthermore, some countries covet the influence nuclear weapons provides. Logically, proliferation will lead to greater risks and must be tackled.

British Prime Minister Johnson spoke eloquently at the UN General Assembly about the challenge of global warming. I will not go into that today but will only point out that it increases the risks presented by the earlier challenges I have mentioned.

III

Man or Machine

Instead, I want to draw your attention to another forthcoming risk – one that I consider to be especially important. In recent years we have seen innovations which, through global social platforms and increasing use of artificial intelligence, make it possible to influence and manipulate human thoughts and actions more effectively. Thus, human autonomy, the free will of the personality is endangered. This is particularly dangerous when combined with disinformation – or, more precisely, the malicious use of information for commercial of political purposes.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need continuously to strengthen the resilience of countries and societies which are highly vulnerability to all kinds of disinformation. There is a need to strengthen public resilience by raising awareness of disinformation; strengthening independent and pluralistic media; the involvement of civil society; and teaching media literacy.

Combating disinformation that creates serious harm to society, while protecting and strengthening freedom of expression and data privacy in the digital world, is an extremely complex challenge. The lines between freedom of speech, accountability and censorship are thin and fragile.

The freedom of expression as a universal human right can be limited only in extreme cases. I am talking about democratic societies here. Such limitations should not be managed by the global internet platforms, by algorithms or artificial intelligence. Instead, in democratic societies, this function should be exercised only by democratically mandated institutions that are accountable and responsible for their actions.

The main challenge for the world in the coming decades will be whether artificial intelligence or humans control decisions. When individual scientists and environmental activists began to express concerns about climate issues in the 1990s, few listened to them. It takes time for public opinion and legal consciousness to mature. Today, we are grateful to them for raising the alarm early. Looking ahead, I consider the protection of autonomy of human thought to be the most important task for legal policy in the coming decades.

IV

Dialogue and Danger

To deal with these complex issues the countries of the world will have to work together despite our different ethical and political perspectives. This brings me back to dialogue and why cooperation is not always easy because of the dangers we perceive.

Looking from Riga, the “ZAPAD 21” exercise merely confirms our suspicions that Russia is preparing its troops for a possible attack on the Baltic States. 200,000 troops involved but no Western observers permitted is not good for mutual trust. Nor is the occupation of Georgian and Ukrainian territory. The annexation of Crimea breaches international law and has not even been recognised by President Putin’s new best friend Lukashenko.

I have so far not mentioned the People’s Republic of China. Its growing economic and military power is a source of concern to the whole Asia-Pacific region and beyond. We spoke extensively about China at the last NATO Summit in Brussels (June 2021).

V

The Difficulties of Cooperation

Even the best of Allies does not always find it easy to cooperate. The transatlantic bond which has brought peace to Europe since the Second World War has recently suffered some shocks. BREXIT was a most unwelcome surprise. Then the America first attitude of President Trump followed more recently by the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and now a diplomatic row over AUKUS, the Australian, British and American submarine deal at the expense of France, have set commentators busy.

This is, however, nothing new. NATO and the EU have weathered many storms in the past and can look forward to many more. As for the transatlantic link and NATO’s Article 5 – it is perhaps one of the very few things about which US Republicans and Democrats are of one mind. NATO is not about to break up; France will not withdraw from the Asia-Pacific region which is home to 1.5 million French citizens; the EU will hold together and continue to look for a strategic autonomy aspect to its role in the world. This will be beneficial to both Europe, NATO and democratic countries worldwide.

VI

Democracies

The challenge for democracies is to show that they can deal with these many dangers and challenges better than autocracies. The response to COVID-19 has not been as good as we would all have wished but we are slowly getting to grips with this challenge.

When it comes to climate change, we run the risk of seeing the world’s biggest economies playing a game of chicken – which country or grouping can keep polluting longer (and thus increase its economic advantage) but at the risk of global disaster.

We are not far from this outcome. COP26 in Glasgow may show us if democracies and authoritarian countries can cooperate for the common good. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy is undoubtedly a good thing, but the world’s democracies alone will not stop climate change.

VII

Conclusion

Digital transformation and artificial intelligence pose new risks which are as serious as climate change. Security threats in cyberspace are increasing. Therefore, in parallel with technological developments, we must work actively to define new legal principles. On the one hand, these principles should help us make the best use of opportunities and, on the other hand, to avoid risks and damage to human rights and freedoms. At the same time, we must not forget the biological threats, or the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. They will not go away.

Latvia is committed to meeting the goals of good governance that are crucial for respect of all human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. It remains to be seen whether the world can unite behind at least some of these principles in order to face our common existential threats together.

Video
Photogallery