The Munich Security Conference: Europe’s absence

The Munich Security Conference was once again at the centre of foreign policy discussion, but Europe was an intellectual absentee

The Munich Security Conference is a key
date in the diaries of those involved in foreign policy in Europe
and beyond, and much has already been written about this year’s conference,
which took place last weekend in the Bavarian capital.

Much of the writing commented on the Iranian
foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who, to borrow the words of US Senator Joe
Lieberman, was ‘essentially lying’ to the audience when promising talks about
the Iranian nuclear programme. His promises came the day before his president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, announced the success of Iranian attempts to enrich

That incident alone showed Munich’s position as the international
security policy’s prism, through which all world conflicts meet, heating up
over three days like boiling water. But while an orchestra of debate built up,
and ideas to make the world a better place flew backwards and forwards, there
was one notable intellectual absentee: Europe.

From Afghanistan to energy security,
from the future of NATO to ‘Global Zero’, the other voices were heard. The
Chinese were intellectually present, the Russian sharp and clear on their security
needs, the Americans largely running the agenda on NATO reform and ‘Global
Zero’. But Europe’s voice was again missing.

Guido Westerwelles’s rather romantic pledge
of a ‘European Army’ trailed away like dust in the discussion; Cathy Ashton’s performance
was received poorly, and she ran away from the questions of the audience;
Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos claimed that NATO must be reformed, which
was not an idea that broke much innovative ground.  On the Lisbon Treaty and whether that would
change Europe’s impact on security policy: no
mention. A clear conception how to combine values and interests in foreign and
security policy: not the European way to think. Interesting talk remained pretty
much an American or Russian exercise, with the problem for Europe that the
American approach on Russia
doesn’t really suit the Europeans, but they can’t lean towards the Russians

It was the Americans who set the tone on Afghanistan, Iran and NATO reform – although one
needs to say it wasn’t really the US of President Obama. Instead the tone was
set by the more traditional voices of Senator McCain, Henry Kissinger and
Senator Kerry, with their strong focus on NATO. The EU, as an institution with
ambition, power, the capability to build a new European security architecture,
and a partner for an expectant US, was simply not present. There was no
European with a strong approach to questions of Europe’s
international responsibility and potential. There was no clear European voice
on what the European security vision is, especially on the vexing question of
how a new relationship with Russia
could be built.

The Europe of this Munich
conference was voiceless, squeezed between Washington
and Moscow, and too overwhelmed to make a
critical contribution to the hot-spot themes of Afghanistan,
Middle East, Iran and ‘Global Zero’.

Of course this is no surprise, coming just
after the President Obama’s decision to cancel his appointment at the next
EU-US Summit in Madrid
in June. The message is clear: Europe has had its chance, it missed it, it is
no longer important. The drive and the energy for international security policy
stems from other actors!

The Munich Security Conference is a
changing institution. For the second time that Wolfgang Ischinger convened the
security community at the Bayrischer Hof, much has changed: the conference has fewer
participants, but from more countries. There are more Indian and East Asian
faces, and more from the worlds of business and industry. The conference is
less Transatlantic but more global. There are fewer ‘old security’ issues, and
more new ones such as energy security.  The
classical ‘security community’ is breaking up.

I think this is a positive development,
because the mixing of different sectors and areas of knowledge is a fertile way
to approach new global security needs. It is good, too, that the conference is
no longer a Transatlantic exercise in introspection. Europe
needs to realise this and see it as an opportunity and a challenge, rather than
a loss of previous status. And hopefully the European voice will once again be
a strong one when we all convene in Munich
next year!

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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