Will the difference really make a difference?

In her review of the Munich Security Conference, Ulrike Gu?rot argues that the US reassured Europe of its commitment to a multilateral approach to foreign policy. But how visible, deep and quick will the change in transatlantic relations be?

The Munich Security Conference was an atmospheric highlight this year. First, there was the show-down of ‘the big-shots’ in international relations – Vice-President Joe Biden, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Afghan President Karzai, EU High-Representative Xavier Solana, Czech European Minister Sascha Vondra, and of course the Doyen of international relations, Henry Kissinger, just to name a few, were all in attendance. It felt like a big family meeting: the good old United States, the good old transatlantic relations dialogue, the good old times – a general atmosphere of relief, relaxation and confidence. No more arrogance, no more harsh “I am not convinced”. In particular the US delegation seemed to be all about listening, adopting a new style and tone.

That is not to say that there was no room for controversial discussions. But the US delegation stayed in the room when Iranian Security adviser Larijani spoke, the Russian Ivanov was astonishingly constructive given Putin’s show-down at the same conference one year ago, and Merkel and Sarkozy behaved as if their EU tandem had never suffered.

Vice-President Biden spoke in simple sentences such as “there will be no torture in the US.” Although this statement should not come as a surprise anymore, it was received with a warm welcome; as was the underlining US willingness to embrace a multilateral approach to foreign policy, especially with regards to two age-old hot-topics – NATO and relations with Russia.

This reassurance, following Merkel and Sarkozy’s opening statements, set the stage and laid the foundation for a new transatlantic security platform. The setting of Munich resembled what we can expect from the forthcoming NATO Summit in April – the 60th birthday of NATO. It is likely that France will announce its return to the military structure of NATO, which would be a further symbolic element for an improved relationship between Washington, Paris and Berlin. This ménage à trois has sometimes been difficult. Germany has favoured NATO, while the French a European security structure ‘outside’ NATO. This schism between NATO and ESDP needs to be overcome. And luckily, it was one of the central messages to come out of Munich.

Merkel underscored the necessity of NATO in old-fashioned terms. Sarkozy – probably talking to his French constituency rather than to the Munich audience – argued that France’s return to NATO would not affect its independence. Both Merkel and Sarkozy, together with Biden, repeated the mantra that NATO and the ESDP are not in competition with each other, but are instead mutually reinforcing. They repeated it so often that beneath the surface one could detect the difficulties in overcoming what one conference participant called the ‘Chinese Wall between the EU and NATO’.

The US appears to have understood that Europe is not so naïve to seek a controversial stance in relation to Russia, but is ultimately aiming for a strategic partnership with the Bear. It has been widely admitted that the suspension of the NATO-Russia Summit was an error and that the triangular relationship between the US, Europe and Russia must be improved in a spirit that will overcome the current Cold War mindset.

So, what now?

Overall Munich largely resembled the celebration of a fresh start in transatlantic relations. The desire to change and move things forward was tangible.

So, what now? How visible, deep and quick will the changes in transatlantic relations take place? Despite positive advances, it remains fair to say that the new tone of ‘understanding’ is weak. The devil hides in the details: NATO-ESDP cooperation will not be an easy ride just because people want it to be. It will be a long and difficult process.

Embracing Russia will not be easy – the EU and the US needs to give her space within the US framework of denying her the ‘right of influencing zones’. Europe and the US still diverge on Afghanistan, with the US remaining focused primarily on military victory. At least on Iran the permanent offer of dialogue was combined with a bilateral stance on Iran and its nuclear programme. But still, there were rumors that the US delegation was taking to Larijani alone in a closed hotel room.

With the Indian Security adviser as a kind of onlooker, and no representatives from Egypt, Syria, China or Israel present, Munich was still a conference of the ‘West’.  The US and NATO celebrated themselves as the only possible leaders. The fact that their relative power is vanishing in the 21st Century was not mentioned. Nor was the issue raised of how to turn the US-EU relationship into a ‘peer relationship’ or how to reshape transatlantic institutions so that they can carry out comprehensive dialogues for which NATO may no longer be appropriate. In short, whether the window of opportunity created by the new American style and tone will trigger a lasting shift in foreign policy free of nostalgia remains to be seen.

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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