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The Western alliance in the digital age

Feb 01,2014 - Last updated at Feb 01,2014

This weekend, Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger will participate in a discussion at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) — just as they did half a 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 50th, 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 recognised that a great deal of trust has been lost in recent months, owing to the scale of surveillance undertaken by its National Security Agency (NSA).

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 absorb 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’ behaviour 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 organised than other systems to scrutinise their own policies and respond to criticism.

In the 1960s, 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 towards 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.

Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference. Tobias Bunde is a policy adviser with the Munich Security Conference. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.

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