A week ago, I spoke at the annual Leangkollen Conference in Norway, organized by the Norwegian Atlantic Committee and the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association of Norway. I was one of five younger panelists who had been asked to say a few words about transatlantic values for future generations.
I must admit that while preparing my speech, I felt slightly at a loss. The fact is that Kristin, the university student, has never thought of herself as an Atlanticist. More than anything, I consider myself a ‘global citizen’ after having lived in countries like Latvia, Turkey, the US, Russia and Indonesia.
And so, in the early stages of speech writing, I came to two very crude conclusions. The first: I am a product of Transatlanticism. If my American hippie father had not decided to cross the Atlantic and settle down in Denmark to procreate, then I would not be writing these words.
The second: we must practice and engage the general populations in Transatlanticism – not attempt to force, what many perceive as a politically constructed identity, upon them.
I think we are all well aware of the history that is shared across the Atlantic and the values that have been born from this shared history: freedom, liberty, peace, security and the rule of law – as formulated in the North Atlantic Treaty. These are values which few people in the Western world will dispute and to a large extent, they have become so well integrated in our mentalities, that they are a matter of course. For many of the younger generations, these values are no longer associated with a common cause. Transatlanticism seems instead to connote a political arena, where somewhat hollow expressions such as “strategic partnership” and “transatlantic dialog” prevail.
Each morning we open our newspapers to innumerable crises challenging the transatlantic community. There is the lack of American interest in the debate about Europe’s economy and the shifting American focus towards Asia. There is the deficit in European solidarity, spawning what some refer to as a “small Europe-mentality” and loss of unified responsibility. There is NATO - the institutionalized bond between the US and Europe - for which one of the biggest existing challenges seems to be the lack of apparent relevance of the Alliance in certain countries, for whom conflict is very far from the shared consciousness of the population.
I study at a Danish university and meet, amongst my peers, the perspective that war is bad and peace is good – therefore, as a military alliance, NATO breeds conflict and ought not to exist. This perspective lacks nuance, in my opinion. And it is nuance that I believe civil society organizations can bring to the debate by engaging populations in dialog and concrete problem-solving initiatives.
We must embrace developments within public opinion and understanding, and use them to our advantage by focusing on the discussion of security policy in new and broader terms, and upon this foundation debate the role of international organizations such as NATO. A broader approach to security affairs may enable a wider range of discussion and thereby action.
Despite the “bad press” that Transatlanticism is getting, I see definite positive elements developing – with the example of the growing significance of the youth dimension in the debate, and the ever increasing mobility which is facilitating the exchange of ideas. Developments within technology and social media are contributing to the maintenance of contacts established internationally – and for younger generations the world has generally become a smaller and less scary place.
But again, Atlanticism must be practiced. I find that with an organization such as the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association (YATA) and networks such as atlantic-community.org, the framework is there. Within that context the concept goes from politically constructed to making sense. Within that context I am meeting with people of different nationalities, I am discussing a broad variety of political, social and economic issues and I am learning about values and interests which greatly vary. Within this framework we are able to take the discussion to the policy-maker, the man on the street and the kid in the classroom in an attempt to bridge the divide that often develops, and undermines the larger goals.
I see it as our duty to do all we can to engage, educate and inspire young people to take part in debates which will ultimately affect their future We should never underestimate the power that dialog has in impacting agendas and the effect that youth can have in pursuing change. Last week, at the Leangkollen Conference in Norway, a significant step was taken in the right direction.
Kristin Durant is President of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association.