As expected, the turmoil in the Middle East dominated the agenda of the Munich Security Conference last week - overshadowing even major developments in US-Russian relations. The crisis in Egypt cast a shadow over the 47th Munich Security Conference where world leaders and diplomats alike assembled to discuss the financial crisis and the growing threats from cyber-space, among others. With the Middle Eastern crisis threatening to destabilize the entire region, it was impossible for the Conference participants to ignore it.
Egypt's strategic position in the Mediterranean, controlling the Suez Canal and bordering Israel, makes it a key partner for the US and Europe. Thus, in Munich, the international community commented cautiously on the crisis. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel compared the Egyptians' situation with that of the Eastern Germans' before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "There will be change in Egypt. Naturally, it has to be shaped so that change can happen peacefully," Merkel said. At the same time, she expressed her compassion: "Who are we if we would not say that we stand side by side with those people?"
Similarly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that if past events proved anything it was that leaders who suppress their people would only further instability. She emphasized that addressing the "perfect storm" in the Middle East was not only a matter of ideology, but also of strategic importance.
History on the move
Together Clinton and Merkel outlined the West's anxious approach: verbally support the demonstrators' demands for more democracy and freedom while at the same time warning about a quick transition. This transition, Clinton said, could easily "backslide into just another authoritarian regime" and therefore would only work if it were deliberate and transparent.
From a strategic angle, the discussion on Egypt showed Israel's concerns about the region as a whole. Uzi Arad, Israel's national security advisor, stressed that three things had to be avoided: first, the rise of radical Islam, personified by, among others, the Muslim Brotherhood; second, the rise of anti-democratic groups; and third, anti-peace groups coming to power. Other conference participants, however, reminded him that the protestors' motivation was less national or religious than economic. It was the young generation, marginalized politically, that now demanded jobs and freedom.
Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood eventually began to respond to the protests and is now trying to influence events in Egypt. What is more, young people can easily be persuaded by simple solutions. Poverty and unemployment can drive desperate people into the arms of political or, maybe worse yet, extremist-religious ideology. Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned: "We do not want extremists, with their intolerant ideas, taking this moment of opportunity to propose radical ideas."
Frank Wisner, US Special Envoy to Egypt, was more concrete than Clinton, articulating that Mubarak should remain in office for now. He expressed his own, not the administration's, stance via video link to the conference, when he stated: "We are aiming for an orderly transition that clearly lies in Egyptian hands, foremost in Mubarak's." He reminded his listeners that unlike in Tunisia where the government had collapsed, Egypt still had a government with authority and a coherent military force. But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: History, according to Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, is on the move right at Europe's doorstep.
After the Munich Security Conference, Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told ISN Insights: "Generally, the Security Conference did only discuss the events in Egypt in a very cautious manner. All agreed on an orderly transition, but there were no clear decisions at the Conference." Indeed, the Security Conference is well known for seldom delivering tangible results. It is mostly a platform for dialogue - where the most important talks take place behind closed doors. Mostly, but not always.
Words indicating a new START?
Had Egypt not dominated the world's headlines, journalists covering the Security Conference would instead have written about the ceremonial exchange that took place over the ratified START treaty. The turmoil in the Arab world overshadowed a major step in US/NATO-Russian relations, which have improved considerably over the last years.
It was only two years ago that US Vice President Joe Biden had pressed the reset button in Munich on US-Russian relations. Now, the circle closes again, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the organizer of the conference. With the formal exchange of documents, New START came into force. It commits the two countries to reducing strategic warheads by 30 percent compared to the 2002 Moscow treaty. Moreover, it limits the number of strategic launchers and bombers to 700 while verification rules are set. As Volker Perthes told ISN Insights: "The exchange of the START documents was clearly the right sign and highly symbolic. And without this treaty, there certainly would be no further effective disarmament talks." In fact, the US has already reduced the role of nuclear weapons in its latest national security strategy.
Shield and sword
At this year's Security Conference, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, emphasized the importance of the New START: "We are convinced that this treaty contributes to greater security of the US and Russia and is beneficial to global security." At the same time, however, he warned that only a concerted effort could prevent a shield from provoking a sword.
He was referring to NATO's planned missile shield - initially devised and developed by the US - which still overshadows relations. Russia sees the plan to install a missile defense system in Europe as a threat to its own security, while NATO emphasizes the system's deterrent value. But over the past few years, these tensions have eased considerably. During the last Security Conference in 2010, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen still stressed one point: "In an age of globalized insecurity, our territorial defense must begin beyond our borders." Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Duma's International Affairs Committee, had warned that if NATO reached beyond its borders, this would no longer be an internal NATO matter only.
Since then, a lot has changed. Particularly NATO's offer to Russia to join the missile shield plans at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 has contributed to a better understanding between the Alliance and the Russian Federation. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accepted NATO's invitation. Partially as a result of the Lisbon summit achievements, Rasmussen sounded much more amiable at this year's gathering in Munich: "Far too often, the Conference has been dominated by apparent divisions between NATO Allies and Russia. This year, I am delighted that it is no longer the case." His words mark the latest achievement in US-Russian relations: exchange of the START documents.
It is now up to both countries to continue on this peaceful post-Cold War path. And we will see what achievements the next Security Conference brings.
Carolin Hilpert is a PhD candidate at the University of the Federal Armed Forces, Munich. She holds a Master's in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich. Her areas of expertise include security policy and the Afghan conflict.
International Relations and Security Network (ISN)