Thaw in International Relations

45th Munich Security Conference Ushers in Political Spring

US Vice President Joseph Biden combined both a willingness to talk and a call for international cooperation. Photo: Harald Dettenborn

Fresh impetus was given to international relations in Munich this weekend. Now that the new US government has assumed office, the United States wants to renew its partnership with Europe. A thaw has returned to the relations between Russia, the United States and NATO. At the 45th Munich Security Conference, several Heads of State and Government as well as Ministers of Foreign Affairs und Defense repeatedly confirmed their willingness to make a fresh start in international relations. The objective is to provide a constructive contribution to a global security architecture that will meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Around 300 high-ranking participants from more than 50 countries, including a dozen Heads of State and Government and around 50 senior politicians from the fields of foreign affairs and defense, gathered to discuss a new beginning for international relations. According to conference host Wolfgang Ischinger, the three-day talks in the state capital of Bavaria have "sent out a message of determination to the world". At the close of the conference, Ischinger said that problems had been plainly addressed and tackled. "The political spring of 2009 is starting early, and it is starting in Munich".

American "Ice Age" Ended

The much-anticipated speech by US Vice President Joseph Biden was the focus of attention at the conference on Saturday at noon. He emphasized that the new US foreign policy under President Barack Obama would comprise both a willingness to talk and a consistent call for international cooperation, thus reviving the partnership with Europe. Biden announced a new tone in US foreign policy: "America needs the world, just as the world needs America." At the same time, he left no doubt that the new willingness to talk was linked to the expectation that the partners of the United States would make greater efforts to defend their common values and goals. In Munich, this was interpreted as a request for a more consistent support of the United States in military terms as well, for example in Afghanistan. Following some speculation, the US Vice President for the first time officially announced that the United States would ask other states to take in detainees from the US prison camp at Guantanamo. "We need your help," Biden said in a general statement directed at German Chancellor Merkel.

New Dialogue with Moscow

With regard to Russia, the Vice President announced a renewal of relations, including possibilities for cooperation. While Washington would continue to adhere to the plans for a missile defense system in Central Europe, he guaranteed that this would not be done without consultation. He added that this also applied to missile technology, a field in which the United States were planning to cooperate with Moscow. Biden also called for a new start in the relations to NATO. "The United States rejects the notion that Russia's strength is NATO's weakness." Just the day before, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov had warned the United States not to adhere to their missile defense planning. He urged the United States to include Moscow in the plans for a missile defense shield in Central and Eastern Europe. According to Ivanov, Russia was willing to discuss cooperation regarding the issue of the missile defense shield and suggested that if after analyzing the threat together, Russia and the USA would actually find a threat, they would tackle the problem together. He offered that radar systems in the south of Russia could also be used for this purpose.

The US Administration's new tone towards Russia and the remaining world mark the beginning of a multilateral reorientation of Washington's policy. It is now up to the United States to fill the new way of international cooperation it has announced with concrete contents, while Europe must make its own explicit ideas known to Washington instead of waiting for the Obama Administration to take further initial measures.

Start of a New Era in Disarmament Policy

New signs of hope were also discernible in Munich in the area of disarmament policy. German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened the 45th Munich Security Conference with an impassioned call for a new era in global disarmament policy. Steinmeier welcomed the new way of thinking offered by President Obama in the entire spectrum of disarmament and security policy, claiming that the window of history was now open.

Following Steinmeier's speech, former US Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Henry Kissinger explicitly warned against the threats posed by nuclear arms in an environment of regional conflicts. Since the atomic bombings in Japan in 1945 it had been possible to avoid further nuclear strikes. However, he went on, the sharpening of ideological dividing lines and in particular the persistence of unresolved regional conflicts had magnified the incentives to acquire nuclear weapons, especially by rogue states or non-state actors. Therefore, the former US Secretary of State called for increased efforts to resolve regional conflicts. On Saturday evening, Kissinger was awarded the first Ewald von Kleist Award of the Munich Security Conference for his longstanding contributions to global peace policy and conflict management.

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, also warned that more and more states might get access to nuclear weapons and urged global disarmament. Against this background he called for a collective security system to meet the needs of the 21st century, finally leaving behind a level that had existed since 1945. The most important element of the fight against nuclear weapons, however, was the fight against poverty, ElBaradei stressed.

Russia and the United States Consider Nuclear Disarmament

Relations between nuclear powers USA and Russia showed first signs of thaw here as well. US considerations aimed at reducing the number of nuclear warheads on both sides by eighty percent were met with approval by Moscow. Also, hopes were raised in Munich for negotiations about a successor for the START disarmament treaty that is due to expire soon. This was supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She called for courageous steps towards disarmament and efficient arms control that should be combined with the integration of Russia into the European security architecture. Moscow supported this demand by suggesting a revival of the suspended CFE Treaty, which establishes ceilings for troops and conventional weapons in Europe. In spite of Steinmeier's and Merkel's calls for a worldwide reduction of nuclear arsenals, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made it clear on Saturday morning that France would not do without nuclear weapons.

Obama's Change not yet Reached Tehran

A reaction of the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, to the new US Administration's offer to enter into a direct dialogue was also highly anticipated in Munich. However, during a discussion on disarmament and non-proliferation held on Friday afternoon, the former Iranian nuclear negotiator for the time being rejected US President Obama's offer to talk. Instead, he harshly criticized the United States. He denied the West the right of influence on the Iranian nuclear program. Larijani accused the United States of applying double standards by tolerating the Israeli nuclear program and the nuclear tests conducted by Pakistan and India while condemning his country for its nuclear policy. The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament called for a new policy regarding the current six-nation nuclear talks with his country. "The old carrot-and-stick cliché must be abandoned," Larijani said.
However, Larijani also sent some positive signals at the Munich Conference. He welcomed Obama's decision to send special envoy George Mitchell to the Middle East. “This is a positive signal,” Larijani said. If the political attitude towards Tehran changed, Iran would be willing to cooperate in elaborating new security concepts, he pointed out. In the past years, the United States had burned many bridges. "The new White House can rebuild them", the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament emphasized.

Extended Hand to Remain Open to Iran

Despite Larijani's harsh criticism of the United States, the US Administration was not fully disappointed. The National Security Advisor of the US President, James Jones, said that the hand of reconciliation would remain extended. US Vice President Biden made it clear that Iran had to guarantee to abandon its nuclear program. If it did, he continued, Iran would benefit both economically and politically. If Iran remains defiant, however, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States intend to push for more severe UN sanctions against Tehran. Many conference participants felt that the attendance of Larijari was a first sign of Iranian readiness to talk. His apparent rejection of a dialogue could also have something to do with his possible candidature in this year's presidential elections in Iran. Too much cooperation with the West could minimize his political chances in Iran. It also became clear, however, that Iran is still having difficulty finding a clear way out of years of international isolation.

Call for International Cooperation in the 21st Century

Prior to the keynote speech given by US Vice President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk stated their views on European security and relations with Russia. Merkel and Sarkozy called for increased international cooperation in matters of foreign and security policy which should involve not only the United States but also emerging nations in Asia and South America. Today, current global conflicts could "no longer be solved by any one country alone; we need one another," the Chancellor pointed out. She added that the comprehensive approach, which included development, economic and environmental efforts, was the appropriate response to crises and wars and to their prevention in the 21st century. At the Conference, Merkel and Sarkozy also announced that a Bundeswehr unit would be stationed in France, a decision designed to express and deepen the German-French friendship.

Russia to be Part of European Security Architecture

With regard to European security, Sarkozy spoke in favor of reconciliation between the European Union and Russia. "After the gas crisis and the crisis in Georgia, we have to restore confidence," the French President said. He referred to a vision of former French President Charles de Gaulle, who associated a "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals" with a common European peace order. Sarkozy renewed this vision, directed at Russia, with the goal of creating a "common space for people and the economy", as it was created between Germany and France after World War II. He stressed he did not believe that Russia posed a military threat to the EU or NATO. His aim was to reinforce the international security architecture “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” by explicitly engaging Russia. He said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would be a suitable framework for this effort.

Critical Voices on Russia from the EU, NATO and Eastern Europe

European reconciliation with Russia was, however, also accompanied by criticism directed at Moscow. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech Vice Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra criticised Russia's position in the gas dispute with Ukraine and insisted that the US missile defence system be sited in their countries. There is still a great mistrust of Russia in Central and Eastern Europe. Tusk said: "Without full confidence, more openness towards Russia is impossible." NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and EU High Representative Javier Solana also deplored the "general atmosphere of mistrust" prevailing against Moscow and voiced their concern over the cooled relationship of the EU and NATO with Russia.

Criticism was also leveled at Moscow's policy regarding breakaway provinces, which had led to a war with Georgia in the summer of 2008. Estonia's President Thomas Ilves criticized the fact that the border changes brought about during the war between Russia and Georgia had not had any consequences. He doubted that the Russian proposal for a new security architecture in Europe would be of much help. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko advocated an accession of Ukraine to NATO so that it could be integrated into the European security architecture.

More European Commitment in NATO Framework Expected

With regard to a revision of NATO strategy in the run-up to the 60th NATO Summit, German Chancellor Merkel said that the “comprehensive approach” should also be reflected in the new NATO strategy. Merkel called for a strengthening of NATO, which should once again be "the place for political discussions”. She said that NATO was the "central anchor of the transatlantic alliance". US Vice President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for a stronger European commitment in the framework of NATO.

Biden in particular called for a highly flexible NATO that stands by the United States, while de Hoop Scheffer explicitly called for a stronger commitment of Europe in Afghanistan. He stressed that the new US Administration was not just waiting for good advice but expected Europe to take on new tasks. He urged NATO members to understand that NATO’s transatlantic partnership was based on reciprocity and was thus a "two-way street". The new US National Security Advisor, James Jones, also addressed a new NATO strategy on Sunday morning. In his view, NATO stands at a crossroads. Security today, he said, could no longer be limited to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction but also included the illegal drug trade, energy security, and ecological disasters. At the same time, Jones proposed restructuring NATO from a defense alliance to a security alliance.

Litmus Test for NATO in Afghanistan

The 45th Munich Security Conference came to a close on Sunday morning with a discussion on the future of NATO and its central military mission in Afghanistan. US National Security Advisor Jones called for a change in the long-term strategy of the West in Afghanistan. The Alliance could not afford to fail in Afghanistan, the former general stated. The mission in Afghanistan was an "enormous task" for NATO. Support for the Taliban from along the Pakistani border posed a particular threat, Jones said. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, who attended the conference in Munich for the first time, urged NATO to show more consideration for the population during operations in his country. The high number of civilian casualties during the international military mission in Afghanistan was one reason for the declining support of the population for the administration in Kabul, Karzai said. He welcomed in particular the German contribution to the training of police officers. Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, called for new ideas, better coordination between the United States and its allies, and "a lot of time" for the NATO mission. He said no quick solution was expected for the crisis situation in Afghanistan and the region and there was no "magic formula" for it. The conflict with the Taliban could only be defused by a regional approach. German Minister of Defense Franz-Josef Jung advocated more intensive civil reconstruction efforts and highlighted the progress accomplished so far in Afghanistan. Based on the concept of the "comprehensive approach", the development of Afghan security forces had to be intensified and expanded. Jung emphasized: "Now more than ever before, we can say that in Afghanistan there can be no development without security and no security without development."

Concrete Request to Europe at Close of Conference

Whereas US Vice President Biden had worded his expectation of the partners of the United States in quite general terms the day before, calling for greater efforts to defend common values and goals, the commander-in-chief of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, General David Petraeus, surprised European decision-makers with concrete demands: Europe had to guarantee stronger participation in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. With this request, the brilliant strategist who brought about significant improvements in the US operation in Iraq made a clear call for European NATO members to send additional combat forces to Afghanistan and to extend their financial support and cooperation with the Afghan government.

Europe's Turn Now

The request made by Petraeus makes it clear that Europe can no longer wait for President Obama to act and decide. The wait-and-see policy adopted in European capitals can no longer be maintained. An independent and constructive contribution by Europe is now required in the context of foreign and security policy. The expectations from Washington are clear: Now it is Europe's turn to make a joint independent contribution to a global security architecture for the 21st century. The keynote speeches given by French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel give cause for hope that the "political spring of 2009" really has begun in Munich this weekend.

09 February 2009, by Oliver Rolofs