At the upcoming Munich security conference, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to make an appearance that will once again be designed to reassure impatient Europeans that the president really does care about Europe. Four years ago the vice president arrived at the conference amidst great fanfare to announce the end of the Bush era and the beginning of the Obama administration. Europeans were vastly relieved for the most part and expected great things from the young president and his team.

Not all of them have been satisfied with what they have seen during the last four years in Washington. Guantánamo is still open. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is using drones as no president before him. And there seems to be a fixation in and on the Pacific arena and away from Europe, which itself seems to be diminishing in importance in the White House.

Or so it appears for many on the European side of the Atlantic. The Germans often complain that the candidate president who drew a quarter of a million people to hear his one speech in Berlin in 2008, and subsequently has not appeared in the capital city since, has no time for the most important country on the continent.

Despite all of these complaints it is clear that the agenda for this year’s Munich security conference will again be primarily about the challenges and choices both the U.S. and ALL its partners face around the globe. Testimony to enduring importance of the transatlantic ties will be provided by regular speakers from Washington, including Senator John McCain and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick among many others.

While the themes of some of the panels ring familiar–the future of U.S.-European security challenges or of  the euro, the current crises in parts of the world in much pain such as Syria and Mali, and the continuing uncertainty of the future of Afghanistan–they have only expanded the range of concerns of the more recent Security Conferences. Problems continue to accumulate and the tools suitable for responding become more difficult to find.

Regardless of the expectations surrounding when President Obama might visit Germany, the more important question is: what message would he need to deliver there? Just showing up at the Brandenburg Gate to continue the tradition of American presidents speaking there would not be enough.

There is enough on the agendas of both Germany and the U.S. to serve up a complex exchange about how to deal with Iran, Russia, or China, as well as energy supplies or global economic regimes. The Security Conference in Munich follows the gathering in Davos last week where similar themes echoed in the Swiss halls there. And more such gatherings will inevitably follow.

As illustrated in Munich, we find ourselves confronted with rich opportunities to define our problems and plot our policy choices; to evaluate their consequences and draw conclusions. And yet we are continually surprised by still another turn of the unexpected. Who could have predicted the events in Egypt two years ago, let alone the chain reaction of the Arab Spring? For that matter, who could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall while standing in front of it some twenty five years ago?

Perhaps we are not as good as we like to think we are when it comes to recognizing the revealing signals amidst the pulsating noise of events, to borrow from Nate Silver’s book.  But we are confronted by the need to keep trying to ask the right questions even if the answers don’t follow right away. We did that all through the Cold War period in meetings in Munich and many other places. Not many predicted what was to happen in 1989. But all the efforts paid off eventually.  But since then, did we learn to ask better questions along the way to help meet today’s challenges?

Regardless of what they expected from Obama four years ago, Germans–or Americans–don’t have to wait for him to start thinking about that question, for it is never going to be fully answered. And it is that very aspect will continue to shape the agenda of the next conference.


More information on this week’s 49th Annual Munich Security Conference:

Will Europe Ask the Right Question in Munich?, by Jan Techau. Originally appeared in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s series entitled “Strategic Europe.”