Peeking around the corner. Wilton Park Atlantic Youth Forum


During the first week of August, the Wilton Park Atlantic Youth Forum brought together over 40 students and young professionals, aged 18-24, from Europe and North America, for direct exposure to the ideas, concerns and perceptions of active individuals across these regions, focusing on a range of current and future policy issues. From the financial crisis, climate change and cyber security to the challenges facing the EU, NATO and the BRIC countries, and from nuclear proliferation and public diplomacy to the “Obama effect”, the exchanges stimulated by the forum were rich indeed. This was in part due to the high-calibre speakers Wilton Park attracts – among them, Professor Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics, Tom Ilube of Garlik Ltd. and Dr. Jamie Shea of NATO – and the fact that the discussions were held under the Chatham House Rule to enable free exchanges of ideas through assured confidentiality. Nonetheless, it was of equal importance that Wilton Park sought to create lasting connections between individuals across Europe and North America, and to equip them to tackle future challenges, whether related to security, economy, culture or politics. Through active debates, the Forum enabled its participants to take a peek around the corner, a look into issues we would have no choice but to tackle in our future personal and professional roles.

Taking place at a moment of deep uncertainty regarding the global economy, the Forum’s discussions focused from the outset on how one might seek to understand the current crisis, and how a stronger understanding might be generated and communicated among wider audiences. Here, one speaker echoed the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s exhortation that one should “never waste a good crisis” – the crisis could, the argument went, be put to use in changing ossified mindsets unsuited for responding to today’s challenges. The role of the media proved controversial in this regard; could it resist the temptation, including commercial and governmental pressure, to force simple narratives onto events that have complex implications and multiple interpretations? Likewise, it was questioned whether international organizations and officials within them would be able to respond flexibly and effectively to events that could cast into doubt familiar values and modes of operating.

Indeed, the themes of “going against the current” and of individual responsibility in judgment and action surfaced in discussions throughout the Forum. First, in debates about climate change, one speaker noted that “science can never be about consensus,” arguing that it was vital to maintain a critical perspective on any emerging agreement on climate policy. Another spoke of those living under repressive regimes, representing their options as a choice between psychological adaptation to the prevailing order; suicide or other escape; or dissent, which the speaker argued was laudable but “not psychologically normal.” Third, the responsibilities of government officials came to be debated, as a range of speakers discussed the development of public diplomacy in the 21st century. Here, one speaker noted that unlike an advertiser in a corporate setting, a diplomat “can’t walk away from the account” when the going gets rough and when one has to defend a weak or perhaps ethically dubious position; the commitment to a “greater good”, to serving the nation, they argued, had to prevail. It was this stance that stirred me a great deal and that led me to extensive debates with my peers at the conference: surely it is the case that anyone, working for any organization, public or private, must ask this very question, must seek clarity about the point at which they must simply walk away, at which they are defending the indefensible, and at which the overarching motivation of working for a “greater good” simply could not be pursued with integrity. The all-too-common tale of individuals joining organizations for their ideals, only to be consumed by cynicism through many and varied compromises during their careers, calls for a mindset that encourages each individual to think critically about their values and the relative weights thereof, so that those in positions of responsibility would be equipped to evaluate and manage the trade-offs they may face. This appears vital for ensuring flexible but principled responses to policy challenges, and for avoiding careless consensus as well as careless compromises.

For NATO and the EU, a different aspect of their work provoked debate. This was the difficult task of encouraging long-term and big-picture thinking in a context where similar organizations are proliferating and where a difficult economy accentuates citizens’ awareness of the sacrifices membership in them may imply. NATO was represented as crucial for binding the West together, yet its enlargement had been a fraught process and its current membership appeared not to share a common threat perception. The expansion of the organization’s work to encompass work such as nation-building was controversial, with some arguing that “NATO is not the Red Cross” and should therefore limit its scope to more traditional domains. Such challenges of defining the organization’s reach and its role were likewise debated with regard to the EU. The prospect of EU membership had exerted a significant impact in countries such as Turkey, which had abolished capital punishment virtually overnight due to pressures from the organization. However, there were at times perceptions within old member states that enlargement implied infeasible costs and might jeopardise other priority expenditures. In this light, while it was argued that the 2004 round of enlargement had cost less than a cup of coffee for each citizen of the old member states, it appears necessary for leaders to find more effective ways of communicating about the importance of this endeavour if it is to be taken further. Indeed, some felt that both NATO and the EU had come to epitomize outdated, top-down organizations that struggled to communicate their relevance to a changing world.

On a related note, the change in the American leadership was discussed throughout the Forum, surfacing at times in discussions on nuclear disarmament and again in debates about public diplomacy and Western alliance politics. The impact of the new administration on global public opinion regarding the United States had been crucial, and the multi-platform approach to communication taken by Obama, who was characterized by one speaker as working “as much in the information business as in the policy business,” was essential in this regard. This was echoed in the British setting through discussions of “off-platform,” digital diplomacy; citizen participation and consent were elemental to the “co-responsibility” required by the multifaceted nature of contemporary policymaking. In particular, grassroots engagement was indispensable in addressing the experiences of alienation and discontent that caused conflicts within Western societies. For individual citizens, of course, the new uses of the internet and the proliferation of information available online also presented new risks; with identity theft among these threats, privacy was coming to take on new meanings, including transparency, quality and control, which policymaking would need to reflect.

While many at the conference sounded sceptical notes regarding the rise of the BRIC countries, the sources of scepticism revealed decisive factors in the exercise of global influence today: the ability to communicate with the international community, including through media with a global reach; the existence of education systems and domestic media outlets capable of nurturing critical thinkers; simply put, the ‘human factor’ that enables creativity, economic growth, communication and advances in understanding. Although a range of countries grappled with these questions, some argued that the legacies of repressive rule as well as present-day demographic issues would continue to pose particular challenges in this regard for many emerging economies.

After these thought-provoking debates, I could only hope for such fora to be organized for a broader range of regions – a Global Youth Forum, if you will – and covering a broader range of policy issues. While participants left Wilton Park with the palpable sense that ‘sitting back’ was no longer an option for them, an idea put to the EVA Junior Fellows at their seminar in Helsinki a few weeks later reinforced my sense that more expansive fora were needed. Marco Steinberg, Director of Strategic Design at the Finnish Innovation Fund, spoke to the Junior Fellows of the importance of questioning the definitions of problems one faced, and of thinking about ‘big picture’ policy challenges holistically and from multiple perspectives. Building on what fora such as the Wilton Park Atlantic Youth Forum already deliver, we could go much further by bringing together a truly global mix of students and young professionals to discuss a truly global mix of concerns and to think about how to develop ideas – and ideals – with foundations as strong as they deserve, how to take effective action to promote those ideas, and how to foster cooperation between the realms of business, policy, media, academia and civil society in tackling some of the most pressing policy questions of the future.

Annikki Herranen represented the EVA Junior Fellows Network at the Wilton Park Atlantic Youth Forum. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science (BSc International Relations, First Class Honours, 2008) and has completed several internships and worked with CNN International in London, with the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and with the International Center for Transitional Justice in Geneva. She is also the co-founder of the Critical Engagement Programme, designed for the United World College of the Atlantic.