Thursday, August 28, 2014
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The Western Alliance in the Digital Age

MUNICH – This weekend, Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger will participate in a discussion at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) – just as they did a half-century ago, when they took part in the first “Internationale Wehrkunde-Begegnung” (the forerunner of today’s conference). In the meantime, many developments around the world have given us reason to rejoice – but also to reflect.

It is not only the crises extending from Ukraine to Syria that will prevent the MSC, the fiftieth, from becoming an exercise in self-celebration. The transatlantic partnership, traditionally the backbone of the conference, has seen better days than these.

The United States has now at least recognized that a great deal of trust has been lost in recent months, owing to the scale of surveillance undertaken by its National Security Agency. President Barack Obama’s speech about reforms of US intelligence-gathering activities, as well as his subsequent interview on German television, represented a first attempt to regain the confidence of America’s allies. But it signals, at most, the beginning of an intensive transatlantic dialogue on the issue.

The topic is too broad to be discussed solely among governments and secret services. What we need is a more comprehensive international debate that engages, say, the American and German publics, as well as the US Congress and the German Bundestag – in short, an intra-Western debate about our relationship in the digital age.

In 1963, when Ewald von Kleist invited participants to Munich for the first conference, which Americans fondly call the “Wehrkunde” to this day, the motivating idea was to invite our most important allies to a discussion about the major strategic issues directly affecting Germany and NATO. The main topic, at that time, was the Atlantic Alliance’s nuclear strategy. After all, Germany would have been the first victim of a nuclear confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. Kleist wanted to contribute to the creation of a German “strategic community,” which could make its own contributions to the NATO debate, rather than just absorbing whatever their technologically superior US ally proposed.

In a way, we are in a similar situation today. Though the security implications of the digital age are less tangible and not as destructive as a nuclear attack, the technological possibilities fundamentally alter the playing field of international relations.

The revelations concerning the NSA’s surveillance activities are just the start. A future of “thinking drones” and defensive and offensive cyber weapons raises new ethical, legal, and political questions. We Europeans need to be self-critical and admit that we are not only lagging behind in terms of technical capabilities; we are also in danger of not fully grasping in time the possibilities and dangers of the digital world.

And of course, we will hardly be able to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Americans on cyber issues unless we succeed in establishing a united stance within the European Union. Doing so would put us in far better position to negotiate on equal terms with the US, just as we can on trade issues.

In the past, the Western allies’ participation in NATO and its Nuclear Planning Group accommodated their concerns and prevented them from becoming mere objects of US strategy. Today, we need similar initiatives with regard to the digital world. Those hoping to achieve true cooperation must be willing to make their own contributions.

This year’s MSC will include not only security officials from many countries. Three dozen German MPs and a significant US Congressional delegation will also participate. That is why the conference is an excellent opportunity to step up the transatlantic debate. After all, let’s be honest: there will be real changes in US intelligence agencies’ behavior only if Congress regulates their activities more strictly.

The revelations and resulting debates in recent months have shown that many US politicians are also uneasy about the liberties taken by the secret services. However, without domestic pressure, little will change. It is all the more important that societal stakeholders – companies, NGOs, or international commissions of experts – both here and in the US become more heavily involved than before. This issue affects us all.

The debate is not – and should not be – between Europe and the US. Some Americans are grateful for Edward J. Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, which they believe have stimulated urgently needed public deliberation. The institutionally assured possibility of self-criticism is, arguably, the West’s best characteristic – its outstanding trait. Our democracies are better organized than other systems to scrutinize their own policies and respond to criticism.

In the 1960’s, the West had to agree on a common strategy for the nuclear age, and learn to deal with the atomic threat. Subsequently, we were able to take the first steps toward arms control and disarmament. Today, we need a similar debate in the West regarding our strategy for the digital age if we want to overcome new challenges without denying our identity as liberal democracies.

This weekend in Munich, the Schmidts and Kissingers of today and tomorrow will have an opportunity to engage in what is probably the most important strategic debate of our time: how to prevent the West from falling apart in the digital age.

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  1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    I would be surprised if that last statement did not concern consumerism and futurism both---new tactics and strategies for appealing to the consumer, and therefore justifying the larger consumer platform. If there are entities that are not consumers or consumer platforms, then any risks raised by those alternate modalities or entities should be addressed by the government, corporations, and industries. Where there is reciprocity with the consumer, I suspect that when the consumer is educated, there is also a firmer foundation for infrastructure and dynamic optimization. Possibly technology is the solution, not the problem. It should not be shoved under the rug that some people feel under-stimulated or under-creative about the future of the consumer.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    In the course of history, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) had seen its shift in priorities. For years the conference had been a powerful forum for the US and its Nato-allies to compare and deliberate strategic policies.
    This year the world's top diplomats and defence officials gather again to discuss global security issues as well as to resolve conflicts. The international community is seeing encouraging co-operation between Moscow and Washington on Syria and Iran, despite an absence of agreement on their approaches to the issues.
    In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA snooping activities in Europe, the authors - Messrs Wolfgang Ischinger and Thomas Bunde - have recommended "an intra-Western debate about our relationship in the digital age".
    It is undeniable that Europe - vis-à-vis the US - is " lagging behind", not only "in terms of technical capabilities", but also militarily. In the heat of the Cold War Ewald von Kleist, the influential founder of MSC had always wanted to have a strong Germany within the Nato, "rather than just absorbing whatever their technologically superior US ally proposed".
    In 2000, speaking at the Security Conference in Munich, Nato's Secretary General, Lord Robertson, stressed that Nato must modernise its armed forces to meet the challenges of the 21st century. He stressed the technological change, meaning that some member countries' armed forces risked being left behind. He also insisted Europe as a whole had to shoulder more of the financial burden of its defence, playing a stronger part and relying less on the US.
    A decade later, nothing seems to have changed and Europe is mired in recession. Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) more important than the military alliance. So much so that she is not willing to jeopardise Germany's relationship with the US, despite outrage and distrust. Instead the two will co-operate, inter alia, "to prevent the West from falling apart in the digital age".

  3. CommentedNathan Weatherdon

    When will the respective publics be consulted in some form or another about what kinds of intrusions we are willing to accept in exchange for supposed security benefits? Does the actual public have any real representation at this table whatsoever when it comes to this issue?

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