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Minister of Foreign Affairs

Linas Linkevičius

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the-american-interest.com: Handling the Transatlantic Stress Test: A Conversation with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, 2019.04.02

Created: 2019.04.02 / Updated: 2019.04.04 16:00
    the-american-interest.com: Handling the Transatlantic Stress Test: A Conversation with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, 2019.04.02

    As NATO ministers gather in Washington, Lithuania’s top diplomat describes a “stress test of Transatlantic unity.”

    This week marks the annual NATO ministerial meeting in Washington, when foreign ministers from the Alliance’s 29 members convene to discuss shared security threats. It also marks the 70th anniversary of NATO itself: a milestone that has been met with both celebration of NATO’s past and trepidation about its future.

    One of the foreign ministers in town this week is Lithuania’s Linas Linkevičius, a seasoned diplomat who has long argued for a tougher line on Russia and for prioritizing the fight against disinformation. Charles Davidson, Publisher of The American Interest, and TAI Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin recently sat down with the Foreign Minister to discuss the state of the NATO alliance at a time of profound uncertainty. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

    Charles Davidson for TAI: I’ve known you for many years as a strong defender of Western values, and I remember an incident about four years ago when you were speaking at a think tank in Washington. In the Q&A at the end, a young man from the Russian Embassy stood up and disputed what was really happening in Ukraine. You spoke to him directly, first debunking his claims, and then saying that he must know in his heart that what he said was completely inaccurate. And he sat down with no rejoinder.

    Linas Linkevičius: No one supported him, that’s right. Although there were other people from the Embassy present, I remember.

    TAI: Let’s start by talking about that incident, and about culture. Lithuania has a strong culture of freedom and democracy. But when we look at the broader arc of Eastern Europe, we see big differences in how committed people are to liberty. How do you view this issue of culture in Eastern Europe, and how can Lithuania be a leader, encouraging others to follow your example?

    LL: It’s not a question unique to Eastern Europe. This applies to Western Europe, as well. We talk a lot about “resilience” nowadays—it’s a popular word, and it has to do with information. If people are informed, they are more resilient. If people are not informed, they really have no immunity to disinformation.

    We had a hard time explaining this to our allies in 2013, when we held the presidency of the European Union Council. For instance, we said that we had to take this counter-propaganda issue very seriously. It was not understood. Many colleagues said, “No, we’re not going to do European propaganda. We’re not going to do censorship and prohibitions.” And we said, “No, we are not calling for that. We are just asking that you take these propaganda attacks seriously.” If you’re brainwashing people, it’s a very efficient weapon. And you can prepare people to be demotivated during elections and referendums.

    Now we have some movement on this issue. We have the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service. Next year its budget will be increased. We have the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga. I still believe we need more interaction within NATO because we all face the same challenges, the same sources of disinformation. We’re not necessarily trying to lead on this issue, as you said, but these developments do make us feel better.

    You used the word “debunk,” which reminds me of something else. We have a great resource that was recently mentioned in the Financial Times: Debunk.eu. This is a Lithuanian platform run by journalists that involves media, smart software solutions, IT solutions, and even artificial intelligence. They’re screening about 10,000 articles per day in real time, and debunking fake news. I’m really proud of this initiative because it shows that it’s not just government that should play a role here, but also ordinary people, journalists, and NGOs.  They’re doing this on their own time, for free, because they’re so enthusiastic. This is an example of resilience, and it works.

    You mentioned this one Russian guy at the think tank. I also once participated in a discussion with Russia Today journalists, and I talked to them in the same way. I said, “You are deliberately lying. You know that there are Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil, but on your channel, you are saying something else. So why are you doing this? Do you really believe it? No.”

    If you are deliberately spreading lies, this is not an alternative point of view. This is not freedom of expression. It takes time to learn this lesson. So to get back to your question, we do not think that we are smarter than others on this issue—but maybe we have more experience.

    I still remember, let me remind you, how dramatic the events of January 1991 were. I remember the victims by the television tower [when Soviet soldiers fired on crowds of civilians in Vilnius – ed.]. And in the Soviet Union, they couldn’t show this on TV. If there was no CNN or BBC coverage, it would have been lost, and nobody would know what happened. That experience of so many years ago showed us how this fake news works, how powerful it is. We needed no persuading that we should take this threat seriously. But it takes time to explain to allies and partners.

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