MSC Core Group Meeting in Washington, D.C. (2009)

MSC Core Group Meeting in Washington: New Paths in the Transatlantic Security Dialogue

High-ranking participants followed the invitation from the MSC and the Atlantic Council of the United States to Washington (Photo: Dennis Kan).

By Tim Gürtler and Oliver Rolofs


For the first time in its over 40-year history, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) this fall has initiated a new event format. Under the chairmanship of the MSC Chairman, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, and in cooperation with the Atlantic Council of the United States, an MSC Core Group Meeting took place in Washington, D.C. for the first time at the beginning of November.


Connecting to the historic origins of the security conference, just a few transatlantic friends meeting upon the private invitation of Baron Ewald von Kleist in 1962, it was a smaller and more private meeting, held to debate on a transatlantic strategy for coping with the global challenges. The circle, made up of high-ranking American and European foreign and security policy makers as well as representatives from trade and industry, mainly discussed issues regarding disarmament and arms control, transatlantic cooperation with Russia as well as questions of energy security and policy on climate in the run-up to the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Further central topics were the effects of the global economic crisis on security policy as well as the future of transatlantic cooperation within NATO and the mission in Afghanistan.


New Paths in Transatlantic Foreign and Security Policy

This new Munich Security Conference event, which in future will take place annually and at different places around the world in addition to the main conference in February, is intended to further strengthen the transnational security dialogue and to put fresh impetus into the work and the further development of the Munich Security Conference.With the Core Group Meetings as a new event, the German top diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger is following a new path in transatlantic foreign and security policy. "The aim of the Munich Security Conference has increasingly changed from being a U.S.-German defense partnership of convenience to a forum for defining German, European and transatlantic security priorities", says Ischinger. By choosing Washington, he has built a highly symbolic bridge from the main conference in Munich and the American capital at a time that could not been better chosen. If U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden's speech in Munich last February was the prelude to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent reorientation of foreign and security policy, Ischinger's first MSC Core Group Meeting helped to actively boost this momentum in the relations between the U.S. and Europe further. For the MSC Chairman, who at the end of this year's Munich Security Conference already ushered the political spring in international relations, the main concern regarding future transatlantic relations is that something is done. "The complexity and growing problems of our global environment require an urgent response and new solution strategies on both sides of the Atlantic. A transatlantic security dialogue is therefore more important than ever to solve global problems," said Ischinger, explaining the need to intensify the debates on both sides of the Atlantic.


High-Ranking Representatives from the U.S. and Europe in Debate

Under the central topic entitled "Forging a Transatlantic Strategy for Global Challenges", Ambassador Ischinger and co-host Senator Chuck Hagel, chairman of the U.S. Atlantic Council, together with the sixty or so participants of the Core Group Meeting, were able to discuss core questions of international security policy for two days. The circle of extremely high-ranking participants included, from America, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, National Security Advisor General James Jones, the senators John McCain, Joseph I. Lieberman and Carl Levin as well the former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, who is also the chairperson of the Group of Experts on the new NATO strategy. Participants from Europe who had travelled to Washington included the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Ušackas as well as former Polish foreign minister and member of the NATO Group of Experts Adam Rotfeld in addition to important representatives of German trade and industry, such as the chairmen of the executive boards of the Linde AG, Wolfgang Reitzle, and of Munich Re, Nikolaus von Bomhard. Germany’s new foreign minister, Dr Guido Westerwelle, combined his inauguration visit to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with his participation at the MSC Core Group Meeting in order to discuss transatlantic perspectives on international security with Steinberg and other participants.


Decision on New Afghanistan Strategy

The participants soon realized that at the venue of the meeting in the well-known Watergate complex, the debates – like during the main conference in Munich in its proven format - not only went beyond the strict rules of protocol and diplomatic courtesies, but that in Washington the internal American discourse on security policy issues, for example in regard to dealing with the situation in Afghanistan and its neighboring states Iran and Pakistan, was also all the livelier and more intense. The debate among the American participants was sparked off by the demand by the American commander in Afghanistan, General McCrystal, for U.S. President Obama to dispatch 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan. While Republican representatives in the U.S. Congress demanded a quick decision on the augmentation from Obama, recalling the success in Iraq of his predecessor Bush, attending Democrats warned that the president should not be urged to make a quick decision. It was over this issue that the decision-making process going on within the U.S. Administration became evident, the question being whether attach less importance to a possible increase in the number of troops and to concentrate rather on launching a massive civil aid effort within a future U.S. Afghanistan strategy. This re-orientation of the reconstruction concept will be presented to the troop-contributing nations for a decision in January during an Afghanistan conference and also contains the proposal to appoint a new commissioner for the coordination of civil aid in Afghanistan.


Iran: Threat to the Future of Non-Proliferation

Iran's nuclear program on the other hand gave the participants of the Core Group Meeting little reason to be optimistic. The general tenor of the debate was the conviction that currently not only the Iranian side was playing for time, but that also Washington had moved on and was now pursuing a more long-term approach. The most controversially discussed aspect was the question of whether sanctions against Teheran make sense. While a number of U.S. representatives called for harsh sanctions, skepticism was voiced on the European side, with representatives asking why – after countless historic missteps – sanctions should lead to the desired outcome exactly this time. There was agreement among the participants, however, over the estimate that should Teheran one day indeed have a military nuclear potential, it would mean the end of non-proliferation.The representatives from trade and industry tabled technological and economic alternatives for preventing conflicts. "Nowadays, technological and economic issues can no longer be separated from classical security topics", emphasized Wolfgang Reitzle. He and other business experts made it clear that greater focus should be put on investments in sustainable technologies. Helping such innovations to achieve a breakthrough now would create a security cushion for averting impending escalation scenarios. The technological prerequisites had either already been created or were within grasp. It was also agreed these innovations must not only be geared towards renewable sources of energy, but should, for example, also and especially comprise the clean use of lignite and the safe handling of nuclear energy.


NATO's Tasks Must Be Defined Precisely

There was broad consensus among the European and American representatives on the future of NATO. The security challenges are also diverse in the 21st century, so the raison d’être of the Atlantic Alliance need no longer be put into question and must no longer be, though the new Strategic Concept that has to be developed would have to define the tasks and priorities of the Alliance. This is the very job that has just been given to Madeleine Albright, who as chairperson of the Group of Experts on the new NATO strategy, was able to draw important aspects for the Alliance's new strategy paper from the discussion with U.S. senators Joe Lieberman and Carl Levin. "Especially such meetings are important in the process of finding the new Strategic Concept," said Albright, praising the new initiative of the Munich Security Conference. NATO also played an important role during the following panel on energy security, which focused on Russia, whose importance regarding security issues was a recurrent theme during all the discussions.


Better Coordination of Energy Issues Necessary

From a geopolitical point of view, the participants agreed that the present political approach towards potentially instable transit regions was not very coherent and that it was necessary to coordinate actions. This also included pursuing a common policy from now on towards developing and newly industrializing countries rich in natural resources. While oil, for example, would lose importance perspectively in the North, it was simply a matter of whether the lights would stay on or not in parts of the South. From the point of view of European security, instable regimes, civil wars, migration waves or rising crime in neighboring regions were also of extremely great importance. Nonetheless, development policy only made sense if support was provided for the establishment of market economy conditions for the introduction of alternative energy sources.There was also heated debate over China’s future role. The transatlantic community was now at a crossroads and had to decide whether it wanted to define its energy interests together with China or leave it to Beijing to embark on its own path. A transatlantic initiative to deepen cooperation in energy with China was considered to be long overdue.From the security point of view and falling back on the debates of the past year, the participants of the Core Group Meeting agreed that especially in regard to Russia, the transatlantic alliance must not be turned into an "energy NATO". They differed, however, in their answers to the question of being dependent on Russian oil and its implications for security. While "Liquefied Natural Gas" (LNG) was considered by the U.S. and some European representatives to be an option for reducing dependence on imports from Russia, representatives of larger European states emphasized that the dependence on Russia was not too great, especially since Russia did not (yet) have sufficient alternatives to export oil to other regions. What is more, France and Germany of all countries did not have the technology for LNG and investing the amount of money needed to build the appropriate infrastructure was beyond economic reason.


Debate on the Right Policy towards Russia

There was very heated debate on the estimation of the political role played by Russia, which was considered an indispensable partner of the West by European participants. The American participants were a little more skeptical and expressed the view that as regards Moscow's policy towards Iran, among other things, Russia shared the West's interests only to a minor degree. This was another topic over which the internal American debates also clearly manifested themselves. President Obama's policy towards Russia was above all attacked by the Republican side, which claimed that it departed from America's previous policy on human rights and that the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe had been abandoned without any concessions on Moscow's part. Now it was a matter of issuing a guarantee on the inviolability of the borders in Europe. The American debaters did not conceal their wish to see the Ukraine bound closer to the European Union. Gentler tones were, however, also found for Russia's policy. The West needed to give Russia the feeling that it was an equal. Ischinger advocated considering Moscow not as a former enemy, but as a future strategic partner.


The intense debates in Washington will now also have an influence on the 46th Munich Security Conference, which will take place from 5 – 7 February 2010. "We were able to draw important information and conclusions from the first MSC Core Group Meeting for planning the upcoming security conference," said organizer Ischinger, seeming pleased at the end of the transatlantic circle of excellence meeting. "No other questions are currently of such great importance to the future of the European and transatlantic security environment," said Ischinger. He announced that the upcoming security conference in Munich would concentrate on these issues. Henry Kissinger praised the new format from Munich as absolutely interesting and useful for the future debate about global security.There is no doubt that the first MSC meeting outside of Germany provided important new impetus. With an eye to next February, Ischinger referred to another signal for the future of global security. "The fact that the first MSC Core Group Meeting was held in Washington shortly before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is also intended to symbolize that close partnerships and joint action can make big things happen."


A version of this article will be published in the December issue of the journal "Europäische Sicherheit".