The 10th annual Château Béla Central European Strategic Forum was held against the backdrop of traditional paradigms associated with international politics experiencing serious challenges to their legitimacy. After the initial shock of Brexit, Europe seeks to find a common vision for its future unity. The multilateral order that has shaped international politics for more than seven decades is being questioned. And while the Western world faces hybrid threats and disinformation campaigns from Russia, the transatlantic partnership is hindered by economic and political disagreements.

What follows are the main talking points from what is always an inspiring and thought-provoking two days of discussion.

Towards a New European Agenda after 2019 Elections

Europe should not be taken by surprise regarding possible outcomes to next year’s European Parliament elections. A fragmented parliament, unconstructive populists and difficulties in creating a majority for the Commission President are just some of the realities that Europeans is likely have to confront the day after. Despite these difficulties, elections are also an opportunity to unite and offer much needed solutions for longstanding problems.

As our participants saw it, Europe needs to develop a grand vision that rejuvenates what it means to be European while continuing to address the everyday issues that concern its citizens. Domestically, European politics should be better connected to national narratives in order to bridge divides and pursue continent-wide unity and solidarity. While citizens have the right to be concerned, instead of succumbing to these fears, leaders need to exercise more courage in explaining what Europe stands for and how the success of the continent transforms into prosperity and the well-being of individuals. Alongside a more relatable vision, Europe must remain pragmatic and focus on practical issues – such as well-functioning single markets, fighting corruption and sticking to the facts.

To thrive in an increasingly competitive global environment Europe should also seek to enhance its relevance by playing a more active role in solving crises. Promoting peace and prosperity around the neighbourhood, facilitating trade, strengthening alliances and defending core values should form part of the continent’s ‘to do’ list. Economically, Europe will only withstand competition if it promotes innovation as well as the faster adoption and adjustment of rules that ensure technological progress benefits all.

White Hybrid Russian – Countering the Intoxicating Kremlin Toolkit of Influence

While some believe that hybrid warfare is redefining the concept of conflict, our participants cautioned against viewing it as a separate stand-alone doctrine. Instead, hybrid measures are part of a wider spectrum of operations to be used in a conflict. Figuring out the role specific elements play in the mix will help to determine what constitutes an adequate response, as well as how to deter hybrid  threats on one hand, and how (and if) to retaliate on the other. This, in turn, reflects that the spectrum of activities that fall under the definition of hybrid is malleable, constantly evolving and often tailor made.

In a Central European context, “innovative” elements are often reinforced by incidents that undermine the ability of the state to withstand Russian influence. Recent developments include the presence of the Night Wolves biker gang on Slovak territory, removing mentions of Russia as a security threat in national security documents, and the inability to follow-up and implement existing security strategies. Internationally, the central weakness is the lack of European unity on the threat posed and, consequently, lack of common response and agreement on courses of action.

The debate on how to respond to hybrid threats must reconcile two views. First, we should only deter in such a way that our democratic character is not undermined and that we consider legitimate at home. Second, the rules of engagement and legitimate response need to be clarified to make sure we are not paralysed by inaction.

Transatlanticism in Dire Straits

With President Trump’s administration openly questioning the value of multilateralism, institutions like NATO, the UN and EU are struggling to adapt to the void created by the withdrawal of their principal benefactor. Yet, while criticism of established multilateral institutions can be viewed as encouragement for much-needed innovations in global governance, the lack of a constructive approach to discussing reforms raises questions regarding commitment to this track. To this end, dialogue is also being complicated by an ‘America First’ rhetoric that propels the rise of nationalism around the world. However, the United States is not the only source of current tensions in transatlantic relations. Indeed, a lack of strategy and leadership in Europe is also hampering the sustainability of the liberal international order. Europeans should be less obsessed with Trump and focus on their own strategies.

The wave of disruptions that came from the world of technology has long spilled over to the realm of politics and international cooperation. Adjusting to disruption is, however, difficult as there are many different readings of reality. For instance, there are different perceptions as to how the world works, as well as the current state of relations between and within the United States and Europe. For its part, Europe finds itself facing several possible scenarios. One is that the continent will gain its own consciousness by developing strategic autonomy and global clout regardless of how the U.S. behaves. Another envisages a Europe that remains dependent on its unpredictable ally and avoiding making independent choices. Yet another scenario implies that Europe will be carved out by more ambitious and aggressive regional and global players. While many see the ‘day after’ on the horizon, it will only come if we immediately start working on a roadmap for better global order.

American Leadership in the 21st Century by John R Allen

In his analysis of Trump’s envisaged new world order, General John R. Allen outlined changes to the manner in which the U.S. interacts with the world and the path forward. Several trends have become pronounced since the election of President Trump. First, Trump’s favouring of bilateral relations over multilateral relations has direct consequences for the perceived feasibility of institutions like NATO, the UN, and the EU and others. Second, his broadly transactional, versus a transformational, approach to international relations and in relevant areas of cooperation throws the world into a zero-sum competition paradigm. Third, ‘America First’ increasingly translates into ‘America Alone’. Fourth, under the current administration, the U.S. is abandoning its traditional role in championing human rights. And fifth, great damage has been done to the civility of public political discourse and with it, our ability to manage crises and resolve conflicts.

General Allen also profiled the increasingly challenging environment in which the U.S. has to exercise leadership, including vis-a-vis other major powers (China, India, Russia, Europe), the rise of digital governance and events in the Middle East. Across the spectrum of issues, the absence of U.S. leadership has created severe constraints on multilateral approaches, while also creating openings for alternative sources of influence, with the Chinese model being preeminent among them. Despite these challenges, General Allen is confident that there will be a “day after” the Trump Administration and that we will return to an era of constructive American re-engagement and leadership. The concern is not whether America will seek reengagement but how much will the world have changed (perhaps irretrievably, politically, economically, and structurally) and how long it will take to repair the damage. Like-minded countries and groups should begin to develop road maps for a “day after” world order underscored by constructive American leadership.

Thirty Years of Central European Democracy by Miroslav Lajčák , Minister of Foreign and European Affairs

Miroslav Lajčák began his keynote address by lamenting that, from a political perspective, the world is not currently in the best shape. Western models of governance like the European Union – which emphasise freedom and human rights, prosperity and security – are being challenged by alternatives that advance the latter two goals but pay less attention to values. To this end, the growing popularity of populist narratives is often attributed to the EU’s current inability to meet the needs of its citizens. None more so than the continent’s youth, who are particularly susceptible to alternative political ideas.

Another cause of Europe’s growing dissatisfaction with prevailing democratic norms is the proliferation of hoaxes, unverified information and conspiracy theories. These have gained particular traction in Slovakia, where GLOBSEC Trends 2018 reveals 53% of the population believe that secret groups control the world and 27% think Russia interferes in elections. Other surveys suggest that only 47% consider the 2004 enlargement of the EU a good thing, a statistic which fuels arguments that the Union is divided along east-west lines.

Such divisions have caused a state of paralysis just when the EU needs it least. Since 2009, member states have talked about nothing but crises, be they financial, economic and now Brexit. However, such introspection is preventing the EU from looking at the crises that exist beyond our borders, most notably the Western Balkans. Europe’s inability to stabilise parts of its immediate neighbourhood affect the EU’s ability to stay globally relevant and make it look weak and afraid.

Minister Lajčák’s prescription for Europe’s current malaise rests on five key points. First, the EU should work together within multilateral platforms to secure and safeguard its neighbourhood. Second, European states should never lose site of the fact that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Third, Europe must show that national and international institutions are the bedrock of alternative societies. Without them there is only chaos. Fourth, Europe needs to reacquaint itself with transparency and inclusiveness – two of the main drivers of Brexit. Finally, winning back the support of the younger generation rests on doing more for them inside our borders.