Have you ever played “Jenga”? In this game, a tower is made out of wooden blocks — three blocks on each of the 18 levels. Each player in turn must take a single block from any level and put it at the top. At the end of the game, the tower is significantly taller, but several levels are balancing on a single block. At such a point, the smallest quake could send the entire tower tumbling — the one who throws it down loses and gets to pick up the pieces.
Now imagine each block as some significant element of your country — electricity grid, hospitals, social cohesion, civic society, private enterprises, media literacy, police, etc. What would happen to your country, if one such block is pulled out? What would happen if that happens to several? If malign actions by state and nonstate actors could be seen as attempts to pull out any number of these blocks to make your country weak, then the purpose of comprehensive defense is the exact opposite — making sure that all blocks stay firmly in their place.
Because of advances in information, transportation and other technologies, our world has become exceedingly more complex and interdependent. We live at a time of exceptional opportunities, but also of completely new vulnerabilities. The key to sustainable success in the 21st century is to retain the opportunities while making the society resilient against vulnerabilities. The problem is these vulnerabilities are known and can be exploited by competitors. This is why and where comprehensive defense comes in.
My dear readers from the U.S. can look up the information released by the U.S. Congress on the Facebook ads (the very tip of the iceberg) purchased by Russia prior to the 2016 election. You will immediately see a very clear pattern — the main point was not to elevate one particular group, but to douse gasoline on internal conflicts. Why? Because social cohesion is an important building block of any democracy. Countries with endless internal fights become less capable externally. For some global actors, there is clear benefit in this.
How do you defend yourself against foreign information campaigns? One path, which is chosen by authoritarian states, seeks to isolate the society from “inappropriate” content, both of foreign and domestic origin. For democracies, freedom of speech is not just a building block but the very foundation of the entire structure. We can fight external manipulation, but domestic discourse must remain unhindered. Instead of censorship, we need both trusted, free media and a media consumer with good media literacy and critical thinking skills.
“Good luck with that last part,” one might say. But instead of despairing, the Ministry of Defence of Latvia has started “state defense lessons” in Latvian high schools. Currently 10 percent of schools are engaged in this new initiative, with the intent to gradually go to 100 percent in 2024. The goal is to raise awareness of modern threats and challenges, to deepen understanding of citizens’ role in national security and defence, to give the necessary knowledge and skills that improve the ability to act in critical situations (including basic military skills), as well as to increase civic engagement and to develop leadership, patriotism and critical thinking.
Societal resilience is not just the preparedness of the individual, but of both public and private sectors. It is crucial to hold regular crisis management exercises within the government and with private organizations. Any branch of government or enterprise can be a victim of unforeseen disaster or a target of deliberate attack by an adversary. We were pleased to find out that many entrepreneurs were very enthusiastic about the initiative and were eager to make their respective fields more resilient.
For Latvia, because of its size and geopolitical location, the military dimension is of particular importance. Comprehensive defense is not replacing military preparedness — it is enhancing it. It is a counterweight to hybrid warfare so that if ever our soldiers would have to defend our country, they wouldn’t have to contend with all the nonmilitary challenges Ukrainians soldiers had to face in defense of their country. Anyone familiar with the regional balance of power would understand why Latvia would want as many soldiers as possible available for purely military tasks in defense of our country.
Unlike in the game “Jenga,” where you can only remove pieces and put them at the top, the process of building a country involves making sure every level has all the pieces. Whether you are building a country or a “Jenga” tower, if you start to see the structure wobbling, you know that you need to proceed with care. Comprehensive defense is not just the preparedness against military aggression, but also resilience to natural disasters, disruption of supply chains, cyber and informational attacks, etc. It is not only whole-of-government, but a whole-of-society initiative. And any country, irrespective of its current military threats, would benefit from making itself resilient against diverse vulnerabilities of today and of tomorrow.
Many countries nowadays are facing internal strife, both societal and between governmental institutions — maybe the collaboration and joint preparedness that comprehensive defense brings is exactly what we all need to make societies whole again.
Artis Pabriks is Latvia’s deputy prime minister and minister of defense.