Bow ties are cool: an evening at the IISS with Toomas Hendrik Ilves

By Nick Robinson and Andreas Haggman

On the 1st of December we attended a double-event at the International Institute of Strategic Studies headquarters in central London. The first event was a launch of a new publication about cyberspace; and the second the annual Alastair Buchan lecture, this year delivered by President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

In the ‘strategic dossier’ Evolution of the Cyber Domain: The Implications for National and Global Security, the authors have attempted to chronicle and contextualise the development of cyberspace. The dossier is essentially divided in two halves, the first of which provides a chronological history of the cyber domain from the 1970s to present, while the second takes a thematic approach, looking at issues such as governance and norms.

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Though noble in ambition, the launch presentation at the IISS was considerably underwhelming. As the contents of the dossier were divulged and dissected, we were left wondering what the original contribution of the publication was. The history of the Internet and associated technologies have been satisfactorily recorded elsewhere, and analysis and commentary on social, economic and political issues in the cyber domain – particularly pertaining to military and intelligence uses, which this dossier pays special attention to – are almost thirteen to the dozen.

In retrospect, however, this might be an unfair criticism of the dossier because it somewhat misses the point. The dossier is intended as a reference work more than an opinion piece, and in this capacity it probably serves the community – that of both policy makers and academics – well. On the other hand, the price point of £90.00 may well prove a barrier to entry, thereby limiting the utility of the dossier anyway. We will reserve final judgement until we can get some hands-on time with the publication.

Following the presentation of the new IISS Strategic Dossier, thoughts soon turned to the main event, as President of the Republic of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves took centre stage to a now packed out auditorium.

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President Ilves, eccentric in both his character and dress code (the only head of state you can rely on wearing a bow tie to every public event – much to our delight), delivered a rousing speech on the current state of Europe – in what could have perhaps been interpreted as a ‘call for action’ directed at all Europeans. According to President Ilves, Europe was currently experiencing a “transformational crisis” due to the ongoing refugee crisis, and he strongly called for Europe to come together – not be driven apart – by issues of such magnitude.

The lecture was somewhat pertinent given the recent Paris attacks, and President Ilves was keen to emphasise that, despite such an atrocity, European principles of collective defence, intelligence and communications should take precedent in such circumstances.

His speech felt, at times, like many of those delivered by heads of state; littered with clichés and typical rhetoric that focused on “strong leadership” and the “strong defence” of Europe’s external borders. However, it was hard to disagree with his notion that if Europe could not face up to its challenges, then, in his own words, “we have failed”.

The lecture concluded with a Q & A from audience members, and the topics soon turned to matters relating to Russia and NATO – despite (his own) pleas for a discussion on information-technology, e-governance, cyber security and the digital society; of which Toomas Hendrik Ilves is undoubtedly a pioneer.

On the subject of NATO, President Ilves was questioned on the efficacy of Article V and whether it would be invoked in the event of Russia invading or occupying Estonia in the future. The President was sharp and clear, “The minute Article V fails…there is no more NATO.” He also reflected on the possibility of dropping the word “armed” from Article V – so as to include other threats within the cyber domain or other such ‘hybrid’ attacks that are now much more commonplace. Rather more controversially, President Ilves offered an Estonian solution to Europe’s migrant crisis: electronic identification (or eID). The strong defence of Europe’s external borders is possible, only through adopting a European-wide strategy for “identifying people”. Furthermore, and something quintessentially Estonian, “all of it is technologically simple”.

Concluding the evening with mulled wine, questionable canapés and dubious networking, we reflected on the various shapes and nuances with which cyber manifests itself. It is certainly a privilege to be able to engage closely with these issues as part of the cyber security CDT at Royal Holloway, and events such as this one at IISS certainly demonstrate that there is room for a new generation of researchers and thinkers to be at the forefront of discussions and debates.

On our short walk back to Waterloo Station, it was also interesting to reflect on the particular practices and customs that came with attending an event with an elected Head of State. Despite only serving as a ceremonial figurehead within the Republic of Estonia, President Ilves still carried a noticeable amount of stateliness and political grandeur. As such, standing and addressing President Ilves as “Mr President” seemed a necessity. In addition, we both, rather interestingly, only observed one member of President Ilves security entourage in the room with us – plans to investigate further were probably ill-advised. We left also questioning: was this the closest we had ever been to a Head of State?* And how soon – or even at all – would such an incredible opportunity arise again.

*(A unanimous “yes”, in case you were wondering – see below)

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Nick Robinson is a current PhD student in the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, having just completed his MSc in Geopolitics and Security. Stepping across both Geography and ISG departments, Nick’s research interests range from Estonian e-Residency, the use of data embassies, and technology and the media’s role within society more generally. He is a new member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

Andreas Haggman is a PhD student in the Cybersecurity CDT at Royal Holloway. He completed his undergraduate and masters degrees in the War Studies department at King’s College London before joining the CDT in the autumn of 2014. Prior to and inbetween his degrees he spent time working in the video games industry, retail management and the defence sector. Andreas’s research interests lie in non-technical cyber security topics pertaining to military and government applications of cyber technologies, and organisational and policy responses to cyber security issues. He is also a new member of the editorial team at the RHUL Geopolitics & Security blog.



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