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February 06, 2006

Munich's Security Conference: Deja Vu or Defining Moment?
Posted by Julianne Smith

While he is out of pocket this week, Derek Chollet asked me to report on the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy (aka Wehrkunde), which I had planned on attending this past weekend. Unfortunately, the flu kept me stateside but thanks to a few calls to friends and the conference website, I can still offer some highlights.

This high-profile conference always has an air of déjà vu to it and this year was no exception. The conference program addressed many of the same topics as in years past: the future of NATO, the state of the transatlantic partnership, and challenges in the Middle East. Like a well-rehearsed script, the Americans asked the Europeans to spend more on defense and the Europeans cautioned against NATO overstretch. Many of last year’s recommendations – to strengthen the EU-NATO relationship, expand NATO’s partnership programs, and deepen the dialogue between the United States and Europe – were repeated. However, three things made this year’s conference different:

One, the arrival of Angela Merkel on center stage. Germany’s new Chancellor made an impressive debut. Her confident and firm delivery of her hard-line position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions was met with a roaring round of applause. She also used the opportunity to state her strong support for NATO (“NATO is the most important body for international conflict management”) while making some rather provocative recommendations, including the rewriting of the Alliance’s 1999 Strategic Concept by 2009. Merkel’s remarks were a welcome departure from the tone and substance of her predecessor whose commitment to the transatlantic relationship remained in question during the last few years of his tenure. Personally, I also appreciated the addition of another female speaker at an event that is so heavily dominated by men.

Two, a global focus. Despite the changing nature of the global security environment, particularly over the last decade, the conference has always had a strong transatlantic focus. This year, however, the German organizers decided to add a separate session on the “Global Foreign and Security Interests in Asia” and invite speakers from both China and India. I consider this to be a strong signal that the Europeans are beginning to move away from their traditional security framework and recognizing the value of enlarging the transatlantic dialogue beyond the two sides of the Atlantic. Let’s hope this becomes a permanent feature of the conference.

Three, no drama. The Munich conference is known for its frank exchanges (most notably in 2003 with Joschka Fischer’s “Excuse me, I’m not convinced” remark to Secretary Rumsfeld on WMD on Iraq). This year, with the exception of Senator McCain questioning whether or not G8 leaders should attend the St. Petersburg summit and some tough talk on Iran, there simply wasn’t that much drama. Most of the speakers agreed that the transatlantic relationship is in much better shape than it was just two years ago, and in cases where there were clear disagreements on threat perceptions or the use of force, no one raised their voice. Even the protests outside were more subdued. Police were expecting 5,000 but fewer than 1,500 protestors turned out.

But did these three factors – a powerful speech by Merkel, the inclusion of China and India, and the lack of drama – make the conference a success? Not in my book. Too much time was spent on rehashing traditional areas of disagreement and too little attention was given to Darfur, energy issues, a possible global pandemic or climate change. Of course, it is only a three-day conference, but at a time when the transatlantic partners are crying out for greater exchange, important forums like this should expand the dialogue well beyond NATO and the war on terror. The Munich Conference should be the place where bold new ideas are discussed and participants are asked to think beyond today’s headlines.


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