Working to rebuild transatlantic trust at a critical moment: The MSC Core Group meets in Washington

Four years after its first meeting in Washington D.C. and subsequent gatherings in Moscow, Beijing, and Doha, the Munich Security Conference Core Group convened again in the US capital.

At a time when the transatlantic relationship is under serious stress due to the recent revelations of American intelligence operations abroad, 60 senior decision makers and representatives from government, business, and civil society from around the world met to discuss issues of common concern. Hosted by the chairman of the MSC, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger and the presidents of the Atlantic Council, Frederick Kempe, and Brookings Institution, Strobe Talbott, the two-day workshop touched on a broad range of topics, stretching from EU-US trade cooperation to the conflict in Syria and the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme to the fraught Euro-Atlantic security relations with Russia.

Permeating many discussions was, unsurprisingly, the fallout over the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) on the territory of America’s allies. In a session dedicated to cyberspace, participants tried to find practical ways forward to balance freedom and security in an age where data are spread around the world. One driver, as it seems, could well be businesses as the recent letter to Congress from companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and others has shown. „It turns out the governments are not only customers and protectors of cyberspace, but also exploiters for national security and other reasons,“ Matt Thomlinson, General Manager of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing, said. „IT companies have not been calibrated to deal with this threat, but this will change.” One way for the transatlantic community to rebuild trust as much as prevent future disappointments thus is to start a dialogue on international norms determining permissible government behaviour in cyberspace.

While some voices in Europe have proposed to freeze the negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in reaction to the NSA scandal, most participants spoke out against such holding hostage of an issue of high mutual interest. Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, was among those who saw the obvious link between the economy and security but asked for an opposite dynamic: „Precisely because the importance of TTIP goes way beyond trade, negotiating the agreement should become a confidence-building measure for the transatlantic partners.“ Already in a dinner speech on the first evening, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman highlighted the partnership’s potential to strengthen U.S.-EU bilateral trade and investment relations as well as raise standards in the global trading system.

The potentially positive dynamic created by a trade agreement could then spill over into the security realm, where new challenges demand an equally ambitious new transatlantic arrangement. Against this backdrop, Jim Townsend, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for European and NATO policy, asked for bold action within the twelve months. That’s because, in a mixture of unforeseen events and unintended institutional calendars, important summits of the EU and NATO, respectively, are scheduled with parallel leadership transitions in each organisation. In that sense, 2014 will be decisive for the broader EU-US relations, including the Euro-Atlantic security area.

One issue where transatlantic cooperation is successful – and even extends to a unified position with China and Russia – is Iran’s nuclear programme. Participants discussed the recent – real but limited – opening of the new Iranian government, weighing the benefits of carefully engaging in the talks with the need for a firm position on the country’s international obligations. Looking beyond the current set of negotiations of the six world powers limited to the nuclear file, Prince Turki Al Saud from the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh proposed broader measures: “Ultimately, the goal should be the establishment of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, underwritten with a security guarantee from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.” Likewise, the Syrian conflict, while being a sectarian civil war at the heart, needed a regional solution including neighbouring countries currently heavily affected by the humanitarian situation there.

In his conclusion the MSC Chairman, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger stated:

“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 grown. 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.”

Among the participants were, in alphabetical order:
Prince Turki Al Saud, Chair, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Riyadh; Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, United States; Caroline Atkinson, Deputy National Security Advisor on International Economic Affairs; Harald Braun, Deputy Foreign Minister, Germany; Pieter de Crem, Minister of Defence, Belgium; Karen Donfried, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs, U.S. National Security Council; Franco Frattini, former Foreign Ministers, Italy; Michael Froman, United States Trade Representative; Philip H. Gordon, Middle East Coordinator, U.S. National Security Council; Rose Gottemoeller, Acting Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, United States; Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, former Defence Minister, Germany; Jane Harman, former member of the U.S. Congress and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Fred Kempe, President, Atlantic Council of the United States; Miroslav Lajcak, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Slovakia; Jane Holl Lute, former Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security, United States; John McCain, United States Senator; Aleksey Meshkov, Deputy Foreign Minister, Russian Federation; Christopher Murphy, United States Senator; Vali Nasr, Dean, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC; Sam Nunn, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI); Anne-Marie Slaughter, President, New America Foundation; Strobe Talbott, President, The Brookings Institution; Matt Thomlinson, General Manager, Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing; and Jim Townsend, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for European and NATO policy, United States.

About the Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting
The “Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting” has been taking place annually since 2009. It is as a small, high-ranking meeting in the context of the Munich Security Conference (MSC). The first meeting took place in Washington in November 2009, followed by a second meeting in Moscow in October 2010, a third meeting in Beijing in November 2011, and a fourth meeting in Doha in May 2013. The idea is to focus on new regional issues and invite a number of distinguished and high-ranking participants to changing capitals and give them the opportunity to confidentially discuss current international security policy issues and develop sustainable solutions.


Read more about the MSC Core Group Meetings here.

07 November 2013, by MSC