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Commentary | 27 August 2021

Why junior networks matter

Nuclear Weapons Russia-West Relations YGLN

Networks are central to the ELN. As part of the ELN’s series of reflections on our tenth anniversary, ELN policy fellow and coordinator of the YGLN Julia Berghofer offers her personal reflections on early career networks.

Little has impacted my career to the same extent as being part of junior networks. One of my memberships led me directly into the job I’m doing today. Being part of young career networks has not only changed my understanding of international politics, but also my knowledge of different cultures, nuances in negotiation styles, and diverging political perceptions across the Euro-Atlantic region. And not least I’m glad that I have met new friends, amazing colleagues and exceptionally bright minds who have inspired me to stay in the field of international security.

Being part of young career networks has not only changed my understanding of international politics, but also my knowledge of different cultures, nuances in negotiation styles, and diverging political perceptions across the Euro-Atlantic region. Julia Berghofer

When I was invited to the Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN) in 2017, I felt very excited to join such an esteemed community of young leaders from 30 countries across wider Europe and North America who were in the network to have an ongoing, in-depth dialogue on some of the most pressing challenges affecting the region. Being selected by a former British defence minister certainly flatters you, but I was initially worried about whether I was sufficiently equipped to fit into the existing crowd of 80 extremely well-educated, ambitious young professionals. I was impressed, even slightly intimidated, by the sheer expertise assembled in one room when I took part in my first YGLN meeting in Warsaw. However, my concerns soon evaporated as my new colleagues made me feel part of the family, not least through inspiring discussion over after-conference drinks in Warsaw’s city centre. Today, I’m not only a proud YGLN member but also the vice-chair of the Network and the coordinator of its activities within the European Leadership Network. The YGLN not only opened the door to a new job, it has also made me more self-confident and provided me with new colleagues and friends whom I can always approach when in need of advice.

A different, but no less exciting experience I had was with the one-year programme I was part of in the Réseau nucléaire et stratégie – nouvelle génération. Unlike the YGLN, the RNS-NG is entirely about strategic nuclear matters. Its membership is less inclusive: most are French and only a few come from NATO nuclear sharing countries. The RNS-NG confronted me with a completely different challenge: as a former German board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), I wondered whether my French colleagues would see my participation as a silent act of infiltration. Obviously, that was not the case (or if it was they didn’t tell me!) and I was welcomed into the group. I enjoyed lively discussions about how the German position on nuclear matters is perceived in France when our group was on a bus ride to the Technical Research Centre (CESTA) which hosts a vital part of the simulation programme that is meant to sustain the long-term capabilities of the French nuclear deterrent.

It is probably no surprise that experiences like this have fuelled my enthusiasm for young leaders’ networks. Being part of these networks enabled me to gain insights into the political and societal challenges in other Euro-Atlantic countries including Russia and Belarus and to meet inspiring former and acting leaders and civil society activists. In Minsk, for instance, the YGLN met with NGO representatives to get a first-hand impression of how they manage to keep up their engagement for human rights in a repressive environment. In Moscow, the YGLN discussed with local experts the challenge of disinformation and mutual “hostile narratives” in the West and Russia. In Warsaw our group met with Marek Belka, former Prime Minister of Poland to hear his views on Euro-Atlantic security, and in Berlin we met Angela Merkel’s closest military advisor in the Chancellor’s Office to discuss Germany’s actual priorities in security and defence matters.

In Moscow, the YGLN discussed with local experts the challenge of disinformation and mutual “hostile narratives” in the West and Russia. Julia Berghofer

I can confidently say that these experiences led my career and my intellectual thinking in new directions. Speaking to experts with such diverse backgrounds and diving deep into topics which are seldomly covered in the media, like the so-called “frozen conflicts” in Eastern Europe, has changed my own way of judging things. I am eager now to carefully listen to views that don’t necessarily match my own impression but offer a wider understanding of conflicts. The same goes for nuclear matters, where my thinking was very one-sided before I started engaging with US and Russian colleagues.

Communities of emerging leaders are often very exclusive. A network like the YGLN requires high ambition, first-rate education and excellent communication skills are assumed. The RNS-NG expects its members to have a sound understanding of nuclear deterrence. Other network such as the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Forum Neue Sicherheitspolitik are recruiting candidates according to party politics. While such exclusivity is expected, there is always room to increase diversity in other areas. While much work still needs to be done, the YGLN for example has committed itself to be gender-balanced and to emphasise the recruitment of young experts from racial, ethnic and religious minority backgrounds. In our latest round of recruitment, for example, we gathered suggestions from networks that specifically support Black people and People of Colour in international security and since 2021, the YGLN’s membership is perfectly gender-balanced. The same is true for the Boell Foundation’s Forum whose members are predominantly women.

By making policy debates in networks like the YGLN more inclusive, we make them not only more just and balanced, but also improve the quality of debate. Julia Berghofer

From my point of view, this is the great advantage of young networks. While senior and mid-career communities often struggle with the recruitment of a diverse membership because leaders in the Euro-Atlantic region are predominantly white and male, the situation looks better in the next generation. We urgently need this change because by making policy debates in networks like the YGLN more inclusive, we make them not only more just and balanced, but also improve the quality of debate. When there’s better representation of women and minorities, we get a more realistic picture of the world as it is and we benefit from different views at a time when we are starting to understand that approaches to big issues that have failed in the past – think climate change – can only be tackled when there’s progressive thinking and equal participation in the discourse. Besides all the other benefits membership in junior networks bring, I appreciate the opportunity to make them more diverse: both in my function as a member, as well as coordinator, of the YGLN.

Image: YGLN

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.