Vice President Joe Biden came to Germany last weekend to proclaim what the majority of the attendees of the Munich Security Conference wanted to hear–that the U.S. and Europe are indispensable for each other. He sent a very similar message four years ago when he came to the conference as the newly elected vice president. At the time, most conference participants were caught up in “Obamamania” and Biden was able to ride on that wave of enthusiasm. Four years later, such enthusiasm has waned and Europeans have been feeling that the Pacific is more attractive to the White House than the Atlantic. This time around, the vice president sought to set the record straight about the centrality of the transatlantic equation–primarily with references to numerators and denominators beyond the transatlantic arena.
The main message of Biden’s remarks at this year’s conference revolved around the viewpoint that “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global cooperation”. Naturally, his emphasis was on the “global” nature of any collaboration. Biden spent some time on the need for both Europe and the U.S. to get their respective economic houses in order while promoting a more integrated transatlantic market place. But the challenges he outlined lie mostly in other places–be they Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, or in connection with global threats like it climate change or terrorism. Running through Vice President Biden’s speech was a warning that the United States is a country that looks at the world through a lens that includes the two oceans which flow up against its borders. According to Biden, “the U.S. is an Atlantic and a Pacific power” looking in both directions simultaneously. His advice: let’s carry out that role together with European counterparts.
Yet is that really possible? Does the European lens looking at the world see the same picture? In fact, is there even a single European lens, or are multiple versions with different apertures all vying for the same spot on the international stage?
Germany’s Defense Minister Thomas de Maziere delivered his answer to this very concern at the conference: there is a need to connect the political lens of the European Union with the military lens of NATO. As Mr. de Maziere put it, “the main political home of Germany is the EU, its security home is NATO”. But de Maziere also added that “Europe’s creative power in security policy in the future will depend on two factors: our capability (…military and civilian) and our political will to shape the world together. Concerning both aspects, we still need to do our homework.”
That homework will prove substantial. The ability to get a common lens focused on both political and military issues is a major challenge to national sovereignty. Such an undertaking with require enormous efforts in overcoming legal, technical, financial, and political barriers. Despite overlapping memberships, the EU and NATO are different bodies entirely, and they have enough trouble talking to each other despite the fact that they are both based in the same city.
Yet it is also true that twenty seven nations in the EU and 28 nations in NATO have been engaged in sustaining their respective missions for many decades. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Libya or the Balkans, recent experiences have illustrated the possibilities and the weaknesses of coordinated activities between both bodies. Despite some lessons learned, there will be many more challenges to come that will test the ability to implement the need for what is called the pooling and sharing of resources in the future. However, the problem with pooling and sharing is that there needs to be enough to pool and share, not only in terms of resources but also in regard to political will power.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivered a wakeup call to the conference participants about that challenge by not only citing declining defense budgets in Europe, but also by referencing the impending decision in Washington regarding the so called sequestration process that could lead to enormous cutbacks in U.S. defense capabilities. He recalled the departing speeches by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who saw a danger for NATO in what he viewed as an increasing demilitarization of Europe. Carter suggested that the same critique might now be leveled at the U.S. if sequestration proceeds.
These warning signals and calls for collaboration, such as Joe Biden’s message for Europe and the U.S. to be moving forward together, are nothing new. Nor is the concern in Europe about alleged declining interest in Washington when it comes to European affairs. Those discussions and debates been going on for many years.
What is changing is the equation of interests for both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to how the catalysts of cooperation are seen and what is visible through the lens of transatlantic relations. The discussions at the Munich Security Conference focused on many fires burning around the world–all of which require responses in both the short and long term.
Do Europe and the United States see the same picture when it comes to the global challenges and choices that lie ahead? If so, do they even share the same capabilities to respond when needed? For now, decision makers on both sides of the Atlantic must refocus and widen their respective lens(es) to encompass the ever-growing list of issues facing them. The agenda of this year’s Security Conference was yet another reminder of the work that remains.
For more on the post-Munich Security Conference analysis of transatlantic relations: