MSC Core Group Meeting in Washington, D.C. (2013)

Trying to rebuild transatlantic trust: The Munich Security Conference met in Washington at a critical moment

High ranking decision makers from politics, economy and civil society participated in the Core Group Meeting in Washington D.C. (Photo: Denis Kan).

By Cornelius Adebahr


'Confidence-building measures' is an old word from Cold War times. Who would have thought that it would one day apply not to the Western allies' actions vis-à-vis a common enemy but to re-establish broken trust within the alliance? Yet precisely this is what was at the heart of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) Core Group Meeting in Washington on November, 5-6. By coincidence, but not without symbolism, the group convened at the same time that a delegation of the German intelligence agencies had come to town to clarify the allegations of spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on the territory of America's allies.





Thus, while officials were still trying to understand what exactly has gone wrong with governmental oversight of the US intelligence services, the Munich-based tracktwo initiative embarked on the necessary repair work. Hosted by MSC Chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, Atlantic Council President Fred Kempe and Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, 60 senior decision makers and representatives from government, business, and civil society from around the world took a broader look at how the "Summer of Snowden" has damaged transatlantic relations and what could be done to overcome this extreme low point. Senator John McCain’s unequivocal demand for more supervision of the intelligence agencies was a welcome admission that something had gone wrong with American intel activities.

The meeting performed a balancing act, addressing the fundamental concerns that have arisen over the NSA activities without letting such discussions derail the principal policy agenda of the transatlantic partners. With one session exclusively dedicated to the question of balancing freedom and security in cyberspace plus lots of informal talks on the margins, this objective was met.

Interestingly, the debate about civil liberties in cyberspace focused much more on the role of the private sector than that of governments. This has not only to do with the fact that IT companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have stepped up the pressure for better political oversight of the intelligence services. As Matt Thomlinson, General Manager of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing, put it: "It turns out the governments are not only customers and protectors of cyberspace, but also exploiters for national security and other reasons. IT companies have not been calibrated to deal with this threat, but this will change." What is also important is that ‘big data’ is increasingly hoarded by private companies around the world for the pursuit of their business. Thus, ultimately, if there should be anything like a transatlantic market place, different conceptions of data protection – simply keeping government out of private life in America vs. the citizens' right to control 'their' data in Europe – would have to be reconciled. This, undoubtedly, is a task that goes way beyond the current mending of fences over the NSA affair.

As an early result of the fallout over spying practices, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), ideally an affair of mainly business people and regulators, has taken a clearly political turn. Some voices in Europe have proposed freezing the current negotiations, saying they were pointless if one side could spy on the other side’s internal deliberations. The Core Group discussions, in contrast, highlighted the intricate positive links between the economic and security spheres, broadly speaking out against holding an issue of high mutual interest hostage. "Precisely because the importance of TTIP goes way beyond trade, negotiating the agreement should become a confidence-building measure for the transatlantic partners," Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, argued. Jim Townsend, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, extended this argument by saying that the potentially positive dynamic created by a trade agreement should spill over into the security realm. Here, new challenges demand an equally ambitious new transatlantic arrangement, "a security complement to TTIP." With important summits of the EU and NATO, respectively, and parallel leadership transitions in each organization scheduled over the twelve months, 2014 will be decisive for the Euro-Atlantic security area.

The large room occupied by non-traditional security issues like cyberspace and trade relations by no means signals a diversion from the 'classical' topics of discussions in Munich and, via the annual Core Group Meetings, in places like Moscow, Beijing, Doha and now for the second time in Washington. To the contrary, it is recognition of the complexities of today’s interwoven security threats. This became clear during the discussions of both the Iranian nuclear program and the sectarian civil war in Syria, where the international community currently 'only' deals with the arms control parts of the problem but refuses, for a sheer lack of imagination and capacity, to tackle the manifest regional and geopolitical consequences of those conflicts

Finally, even friends of 'old security' got their money’s worth from the discussion, with Sam Nunn's presentation of the report on Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region. Outlining a new security dialogue on nuclear forces, missile defencse, and conventional forces in Europe (old vocabulary) as much as on prompt-strike forces, cyberspace, and space (new jargon), the former senator and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) made it clear that there are not only new security threats to counter, but also old one’s that simply have not disappeared over time. Therefore, the transatlantic partners had better get over their current crisis and deal with the real security threats, both old and new, out there.

Or as MSC Chairman Ischinger stated in his conclusion: "With today’s meeting, we could see two important effects. For one, the degree of understanding on this side of the Atlantic for the dismay the NSA affair has caused in Germany and Europe has risen. For another, and maybe even more importantly, we proved that even such a low point of transatlantic relations should not derail our principal policy agenda. Our discussions of topics such as Syria, Iran, and TTIP are not only a confidence-building measure as such but have also shown concrete ways how the transatlantic partners can and should work together."