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 uranium.
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 neither.
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. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.