Munich security conference: fresh focus on Afghanistan, nuclear weapons

The host of the Munich security conference, which opens today, says Europe must step up and help its main ally, the US, and tackle pressing global security needs like Afghanistan and Iran.

Christof Stache/AP
A police officer checks cars near the hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich on Friday, ahead of the annual Munich Security conference.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Conference on Security Policy, gestures during his speech in Munich on Friday.

After a year of uncertainty, “there are no more excuses” for Europe not to put its shoulder to the wheel; help its main ally, the US; and tackle pressing global security needs like Afghanistan and Iran, according to Wolfgang Ischinger, host of a prestigious annual security conference opening here today.

The “no excuses” theme comes amid hand-wringing and remonstration about European “relevance.” Following a White House decision that President Barack Obama will not attend an EU-US summit this spring in Madrid, the EU called off the whole summit. The White House cited scheduling problems.

Last year’s Munich conference saw the first rollout of American foreign policy in the new administration, including the famed "reset" on Russia and an emphasis on cooperation. But one year later, the White House is reportedly underwhelmed at what it considered mostly symbolic efforts by its chief ally on a range of difficult and costly issues it inherited. This year, Mr. Obama is represented by National Security Adviser James Jones and Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The election of Obama and his early visits to Europe brought a "political spring" in European-American relations and a host of good intentions to deal with problems ranging from nuclear proliferation to Iran and the Middle East. European leaders basked in the presence of the very popular Obama in numerous trips here. Yet White House officials are reportedly irritated with a lack of delivery on problems considered to be of mutual security interest.

"Last year's promises are still waiting to be fulfilled and excuses are no longer acceptable," Mr. Ischinger said in a Monitor interview on the eve of a meeting that brings together some 300 top world diplomats. It opened with a statement from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and brings a last-minute acceptance by Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

“I find it not exactly helpful, but understandable, that Obama will not be at the regular EU meeting," says Ischinger. "Europeans are the American partner in Afghanistan. We are his allies. Where are the Muslim country soldiers? Where are the Chinese? But Europe does need to make itself relevant to the White House. Obama has given us a wake-up call.”

Nuclear weapons

The 48-hour Munich meeting, with its rich set of sideline talks and bilateral meetings, also picks up a rising new focus on nuclear weapons. By May, Washington and Moscow are expected to sign the first strategic nuclear agreement in a generation, in time for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review. Senior statesmen like George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry have in recent weeks been in London, Paris, and Berlin to push a “nuclear free” world.

After a week of headlines here about a Europe “snub” regarding Madrid by the US president, analysts played down any transatlantic rift. Le Monde ran the headline "Europeans shaken by Obama’s indifference,” though French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Obama’s decision as “not a drama.” Most comment on the skipped meeting has been self-critical – pointing to catfights between Spanish and EU officials over the location of the EU meeting. Disagreements arose between the three EU leaders – European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and EU President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – over protocol, and who would greet Obama and chair meetings.

Brussels is still sorting out a complex authority hierarchy after accepting a Lisbon Treaty late last year for a more powerful federal EU that installed Mr. Van Rompuy, along with a new foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton.

Obama was reportedly “unimpressed” with the EU summit he attended in Prague last June, according to the Wall Street Journal, quoting US officials.

Critics, however, say it was a diplomatic gaffe that European officials had to discover through news accounts that Obama would skip the Madrid event.

“You pick up the phone and call someone,” stated a retired US senior official now residing in Europe.

The White House is reluctant to spend time on glamour trips and photo opportunities at a unfocused EU meeting, analysts say, especially with domestic concerns and populist sentiment running high, symbolized by the ‘tea party’ initiatives and Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's election to the Senate.

“With resources on the line, with the presidency on the line,” an EU meeting that might not deliver much “is on the top of the chopping block” for the White House, says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite Obama's absence in Munich, the security meeting continues to be an important venue for nations to signal policy changes and concerns. During the 2007 meeting, Vladimir Putin signaled a newly assertive Russian policy, with US defense chief Robert Gates pushing back that “the cold war is over.”

Now, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai here, this meeting is expected to further clarify Afghan policy, following up a new policy to engage the Taliban announced in London last week. Officials will also look at disarmament, as US and Russian officials this week revealed sharp cuts in nuclear-weapons stockpiles.

“The important thing is to lay to rest the hand-wringing on both sides of the Atlantic and get down to work,” says Mr. Kupchan. “If we aren’t meeting expectations in Afghanistan, what should we be doing? The will is there and it is time to make it happen.”

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