A Commentary By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

There should have been secret diplomatic backchannel discussion during the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) concerning the situation in the Mideast and many other hot conflicts. Yet the “public” debate and many of the reported bilateral meetings revealed that the main protagonists were not able to come together for a constructive and fruitful dialogue.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Foreign affairs minister, Republic of Iran, speaks to the pepople assembled at the Munich Conference.

The Conference was essentially characterized by two “narratives” along the line “you are either with us or with them”, or “you are for or against our values”. The fact that a planned background discussion on the Minsk peace process, involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, did not take place was a signal for great “disunity” in this conflict.

World closer to the brink of nuclear conflict?

The Conference theme (as outlined in a special MSC Security report 2018) was put in the form of a question: “To the brink and back?” The answer seems to be that the world at present stands at the brink of a potential nuclear confrontation – like never before. As former NATO General Secretary, Javier Solana correctly remarked during a discussion “there is an astonishing degree of ‘frivolity’ and ‘recklessness’ in respect to the potential first use of nuclear weapons, something that was never seen in the past”.

And in Munich many threats and counter-threats were exchanged. An example was the irreconcilable exchange of views presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who almost obsessively focused on the need to fight against Iran, which he identified as the main threat for the Mideast and for world peace. This was contrasted by the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif who – returning from a state visit in India – reiterated his call for an enhanced Golf Cooperation security architecture along the line of the Helsinki peace process.

The two “narratives” that were competing in Munich centered on the question: who is to “blame” for the mess the world is in? The most often used “stereotype” was that Russia and China as well as Iran are identified as “adversaries” of the Western world. An example was the speech given by US National Security Advisor of President Trump, McMaster, who focused on the “rogue regimes” – among them Russia, Syria, Iran and North Korea. He spoke about them as “overlapping conflicts” and outlined three priorities: 1. The need to build up a strong deterrence (this includes the modernization of the US Nuclear Triade along the line of the new Nuclear Posture Review) with the aim to deter “rogue states”, 2. win the war against terrorism and 3. strengthen the basis for peace and the well-being of the states.

The National Security advisor praised the US achievements in the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq as well as in Afghanistan and emphasized that “international institutions are threatened by nations that want to subvert them” (a hint at Russia) and that those criminals who want to subvert them sit even in the UN Security Council. Russia, he underlined, is engaged in subversive actions against the USA via Internet. During the question and answer period a question was raised by the chairman of the Russian Foreign Policy Commission, Konstantin Kosachev, who reported that Russian experts see 28% of the Cyber-attacks coming from the US against Russia, while 2-3% are directed from Russia against the US. Kosachev asked Mc Master whether the US accepts Russia’s offer to have a “dialogue on Cyber Security”. McMaster cast this aside as “maskirovka” (Disguise), and referred to the ongoing US State attorney criminal investigation concerning Russia’s influence on US elections. What is done by Russia in the US, he stated, is that they try to polarize US society and support the right wing. He was enthusiastically underlining that 98 % of the Congress in a bipartisan way “supported sanctions against Russia” – as a means of punishment for their subversive activities. (President Trump criticized him strongly afterwards and at present rumors are circulating concerning a possible resignation of McMaster.)

McMaster spoke about the alliance as a “competition of free states” which is directed against “repressive, authoritarian states”. “We see the pattern of revisionist powers – repressive and authoritarian regimes” he said, suggesting that the latest US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the National Defense Strategy which recommends the US not to reduce the level of nuclear weapons deployment but to “increase” it, should be studied in depth. “What the US is doing is a ‘readjustment’ of its nuclear policy.” At the same time he called for more actions against Iran. This “narrative” was also echoed in a panel discussion with US representatives (Congressmen and Senators) who were essentially repeating the line that a robust answer is needed against the “rogue state and authoritarian regimes” including strong sanctions against Russia and Iran.

Dialogue for peace as another “narrative”

The other “narrative” was coming from people like UN General Secretary António Guterres who in light of the multiplying conflicts around the globe urged that a formula must be found for a “dialogue for peace” – which is needed for example in respect to North Korea. This was echoed in a panel (“Nuclear Security. Out of [Arms] Control?”) with the chairwoman of the Chinese Committee on Foreign Affair, Fu Ying, the South Korean chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Choo Mi-ae as well as by former Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. All three urged that a “nuclear free zone” be established on the entire Korean Peninsula and expressed optimism that after the Olympic games more backchannel discussions will begin between the two Koreas. A similar effort was made during a panel on the Mideast with Former US State Secretary John Kerry and Aleksey Pushkov (Chairman of the Commission on Information and Media of the Russian Federation Council, and Parliament of the Russian Federation), as well as by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and the special envoy of the UN Secretary General on Syria, Staffan da Mistura. In contrast to the very aggressive speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, most of the panelists were underlining the importance of the Astana and Sochi peace process on Syria that had been called on the initiative of Russia, Turkey and Iran. They qualified the two summits as a process that should pave the way for Geneva talks, involving all parties from Syria. What Syria needs, they stated, was a constitution, free elections and economic and humanitarian reconstruction so that all people who were driven out as a result of the war, might return home again.

John Kerry, Former Secretary of State, USA, and Aleksey Pushkov Commission on Information and Media of the Federation Council, Parliament of the Russian Federation – panel Widening Gulf (image source: MSC ).

From the Russian side there was the speech given by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who left the impression on the audience of a diplomat that is at present deeply “frustrated” and “angry”. In his speech Lavrov remarked that “history is not learning its lessons”. He recalled the 1938 agreement on the division of Czechoslovakia that subsequently led to the Second World War and pointed to Field Marshal Keitel’s statement during the Nuremberg trials, who had said that the Munich Pact aim was to “push Russia out of Europe”. A memory which would be especially alarming when “superimposed on modern realities”. “The experience of WWII and the subsequent polarization of Europe during the age of bipolar confrontation should have shown to the European nations, that there is no alternative to building a common European home where people will not be divided in us vs them The very integration project of the European Union is rooted in a desire of the Founding Fathers to prevent the revival of the logic of confrontation, which was the reason behind many disasters on the continent”, Lavrov stated. At the same time he bitterly complained about NATO’s eastward expansion which is done in such a way that the US is accumulating troops and military infrastructure along Russian borders, while the European theatre of war is being systematically developed: “Purposeful propaganda campaigns are underway to engender hostility against Russia among the European public” Lavrov said. He also expressed deep frustration that Kiev is sabotaging the Minsk package of measures and that there is no true cooperation between Russia and the EU. “Russia has not changed its policy approaches to cooperation with the EU. We would like to see the EU united on the basis of respect for the fundamental interest of its member states. They must be free to determine how to develop their economies and foreign economic relations; for example, whether to meet their energy needs based on pragmatic, commercial approaches or under the influence of political and ideological considerations.” (A hint at the Ukraine crisis 2014). He further proposed that “it is important to make good use of the potential of Russia-EU cooperation so as to create a common space of peace, equal and indivisible security and mutually beneficial cooperation in the area from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. “At the strategic level, I would like to draw your attention to the initiative of President Vladimir Putin on promoting a greater Eurasian project that would combine the efforts of all members of the integration structures within the CIS, SCO and ASEAN. I see no reason why the EU could not join in this work for example by starting with the establishment of professional contacts with the EAEU. I hope this day will come very soon.”

Lavrov’s quite angry remarks illustrate the lack of dialogue and back channel discussions between Russia and the EU, something which would be vitally necessary in order to turn the situation around. As acting German Foreign Minister Gabriel stated during a breakfast between German entrepreneurs and Lavrov at the sidelines of the MSC “things can’t stand still”. In his speech, the German Foreign Minister underlined that “we also must tackle the conflicting questions with Russia in a new, ambitious way. We are now in an escalation logic, which we thought we had overcome after the Cold War.” He emphasized that “the idea of a robust UN blue helmet mission in Donbass is extremely challenging. I am aware that Russia and Germany see the implementation of such a mission very differently. But it’s still worth a try. We should presevere in our dialogue with the Russian and Ukrainian Governments, and keep pursuing this idea resolutely. Setting up this type of mission, enforcing a ceasefire and withdrawing heavy weapons can lead to gradual lifting of sanctions. If this happens, we Germans and we Europeans should offer to invest in improving living conditions in the Donbass region. And Russia should see us as more than an opponent. Where else will Russia find opportunities for lasting economic success and stability in its society if not in a common future and in cooperation with Europe?”

German-French cooperation: a promising future

What was positive during this year’s MSC, was that the conference was opened by German Defense Minister von der Leyen together with the French Defense Minister Florence Parly. The idea was to transmit the message that the German-French tandem is vital for Europe and that while Germany wants to remain “transatlantic” it also wants to become “more European”.

Ursula von der Leyen (Federal Minister of Defence, Federal Republic of Germany; Member of the Advisory Council, Munich Security Conference), Florence Parly (Minister of the Armed Services, French Republic), António Guterres (Secretary General, United Nations), and Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani (Emir, State of Qatar). (Image source: MSC / Mueller)

Von der Leyen spoke about the need for a “common strategic culture” for Europe, “a common European understanding with respect to our interests, our objectives and our foreign policy instruments.” She strongly underlined the need to strengthen the United Nations. “In the coming years, we are willing to make an even greater contribution to solving the many tasks faced by the UN (…) The United Nations may be far from perfect, but this is our framework for global security. The reforms proposed by Secretary General Guterres seek to strengthen the UN in exactly that role. As the protector of a rule based global order the UN must be strengthened, not limited in its options. The UN needs to be reformed – yes, but not weakened.”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly in turn strongly emphasized that the German-French cooperation is robust. She referred to the regular Ministerial Council meetings, the close cooperation between the two countries, the German-French brigade as well as the joint projects in the arms industry. She recalled an invitation which was recently given by the German Ambassador in Paris who said Germans and French are no “equal”, but “identical”. We have common interventions in Africa (Niger) where Germany is supporting France with tactical helicopters, Parly said.

Similarly, German acting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who was viciously attacked in the German press, sent a self-confident message: “Only if we fight for the rule of law, we make sure that the wolf-principle, the right of the stronger, can be prevented” he urged. He further spoke about China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. “China currently seems to be the only country in the world with some sort of genuinely global, geostrategic concept, one that it is pursuing to the letter. I’m not blaming China for having this concept and this desire. China is entitled to develop such a concept. But what we can blame ourselves for, is the fact that we, as the West, do not have our own strategy for finding a new balance among worldwide interests, one that is based on conciliation and common added value and not on the zero-sum game that is the unilateral pursuit of interests”.

Gabriel also referred to what he qualified as a “positive cooperation between American and European states within NATO”. The example he referred to was the agreement with Iran, that the US administration however wants to abolish. “Together, we have blocked Iran’s path to nuclear bomb, incidentally with Russia and China. With the JCPoA – agreement (the Iran deal), we achieved a significant milestone that has created greater and not less security in the region. We negotiated this agreement in partnership. And we don’t want, and we won’t give it up. On the contrary, we have advised our American friends not to let this agreement fail, but to work with us at the same time to develop and launch strategies that will help us to limit and reduce the destabilizing influence of Iran’s policy in the region to a considerable degree.”

At the same time he urged to actively work together to achieve lasting political solutions in Syria and Yemen, to establish an agreement that the North Korean nuclear program must be terminated and that the global threat posed by the regime in Pyongyang shall be brought to an end. He expressed deep concern about the “infringements or indeed breaches of the INF Treaty”, which prohibits medium range missiles and cruise missile in Europe to this day. “We are still beneficiaries of the era of détente and the arms control treaties that the US and the former Soviet Union and subsequently Russia negotiated in the 1980s and 1990s.”

And he was adamantly stating that Europe does not want any nuclear rearmament: “We Germans do not want to go back to an era dominated by the nuclear arms race because, ultimately, we at the heart of Europe would once again be directly under the threat of nuclear conflict. We are seeking close dialogue and understanding with our American allies on all of these issues. How successful we will be, depends entirely on the way we interact with each other.”

Wiesbaden, 21. January 2018

In the front picture: a Syrian girl, victim of the on-going war.

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