Chancellor Merkel, French President Macron and Joe Biden will speak at the virtual security conference today. The head of the event, Wolfang Ischinger, explains in an interview with t-online why the participation of the new US president is so important – and what expectations he has.
The security conference with heads of state and government, ministers and security experts from all over the world usually takes place in Munich in February. But the pandemic does not allow the big appearance. As an alternative to the huge event, this time a video conference will serve, to which US President Joe Biden can also be connected. He is the first incumbent President to attend this traditional conference.
t-online: Mr. Ischinger, instead of the big security conference, a virtual conference is taking place today, in which an American president is taking part for the first time. How did you get Joe Biden to do it?
One thing is important in diplomacy: trust. Joe Biden knows the Munich Security Conference very well. He was there for the first time in 1980, and most recently in 2019. He appreciates the dialogue platform, as I find his way around, and he trusts my team and me.
How does it work – the president gives a speech and then you ask him questions?
We will see a mixture of speeches, discussions and question-and-answer segments. President Biden decided to give a quarter of an hour speech.
Wolfgang Ischinger: “We had to choose one or two topics.” (Source: Jürgen Heinrich / imago images)
So no discussion with the Chancellor or Emmanuel Macron either?
According to the current plan, Biden, Merkel and Macron will appear one after the other, but separately.
Wolfgang Ischinger, 74, spent many years of his life in the USA and is an excellent expert on world power and its actors. Joe Biden has been a regular guest at the Munich Security Conference, which Ischinger has been leading since 2008.
At the last moment, Boris Johnson also joined in
Determined to join the video conference. Amazing there
The British have made themselves rather rare in Munich in recent years.
I am delighted that we were able to win the Prime Minister over to our conference at the last minute. He’s right when he thinks he shouldn’t be missing there!
Ursula von der Leyen and UN Secretary-General Ańtonio Guterres complete this security conference. Have you been able to determine the participants?
Yes I could. But of course this project depends on the American president. He’s been in office for just a month. It was clear to the other speakers that I wanted the United Nations, the European Union and NATO to have their say in addition to the Chancellor. It is wonderful that we were able to convince Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson, two key foreign policy partners in these institutions – especially now after Great Britain left the EU.
The West remains to itself, that is noticeable. There are no representatives from China or Russia, the Middle East or Africa. Of course, a virtual conference is limited, but why is the circle of participants so narrow in the West?
Originally we had planned two hours for the conference. During this period of time, not all current crises can be dealt with as in the almost three-day security conference under normal circumstances. So we had to choose one or two topics – and it should be clear to everyone that Joe Biden now opens up great and new transatlantic opportunities. That has priority number one. As soon as we can organize a normal conference again, China, Russia and many other countries will have their say as usual. I have expressly assured the Russian ambassador that I am.
For you it is a coup that Joe Biden gives his first speech at the security conference and not in London or Paris or at the UN. What message will he send?
I’m pretty sure he will say that America’s power is also built on its partnerships and alliances, and most importantly, on mutual trust. There are quite a few things to repair after the last four years.
This first phase is about calming the minds and reaffirming alliances and agreements. But isn’t it an illusion to believe that harmony is breaking out now? Biden should also expect that the NATO member states should, for example, fulfill the promise to pay in two percent of their gross domestic product.
There is no question that the points of friction – for example Nord Stream 2, burden sharing in the alliance, export duties – will not be removed by magic. But now you can confidently try to find compromises. In any case, we can’t just put our hands on our laps and assume that Joe Biden will fix it. The EU and Germany should approach America with their own constructive ideas.
The biggest problem between Germany and America is Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Vyborg to Lubmin over 1,200 kilometers. It is almost finished, but the US Congress has imposed sanctions on the companies involved, even in a non-partisan way, and the Baltic countries such as Poland are also decidedly against the project. Biden is perhaps more accommodating in tone than his predecessor, but hardly indulgent in the matter.
There are signals for negotiations on both sides. Talking is always better than sanctioning the best partners.
The federal government takes the position that it is an economic project. That doesn’t convince anyone.
In fact, the geostrategic importance of such energy-political projects is recognized everywhere, but we like to brush that off the table. Foreign energy policy must become an integral part of a coherent EU foreign policy.
Dealing with Alexey Navalny has become a symbol of Putin’s injustice regime, comparable to the way he used to deal with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Macron and Merkel have protested against this. How can you react politically to this?
Russia is currently locking itself up, which was also evident during the visit of Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs representative, to the Kremlin, when three Western diplomats were expelled at the same time without any warning. Only long-term thinking and patient persistence will help here. Constant dripping wears away the stone. Wooden hammer methods would probably only lead to further hardening in the Kremlin, which we should have no interest in.
What advice would you give the federal government for Nord Stream 2 – finish building, but don’t switch on?
I don’t believe in enforcing a construction stop by threatening sanctions or in building a billion-dollar building ruin in the Baltic Sea. But the federal government could play the buck back to Russia. For example, by telling the Kremlin in strict confidence that the foreign and domestic political pressure on it has grown so much that it is unable to start operating the gas pipeline as long as the atmosphere has not relaxed, and that is entirely natural Russian hands. For example, Putin could not release Navalny until 2023 or even later, but rather next year. Or Moscow could proactively help solve the murder in the zoo. Or Moscow could withdraw Russian soldiers from Donbass.
What course will President Biden take towards Russia?
He will speak plainly to Vladimir Putin, but not just seek confrontation. On the contrary, both of them have already taken constructive steps when they recently extended the New Start Agreement, the last major disarmament treaty on strategic nuclear weapons. There are many other options – just think of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Barack Obama once said little diplomatically about Russia that it was only a regional power. Does Biden see things the same way?
It didn’t help to put it that way in public.
America had been preoccupied with itself since January 6th, which continued with the impeachment. How do you think these events affect Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?
One will try to test the new President Biden. Does he have America behind? Does he appear as a world power? This could lead to dangerous misunderstandings.
In a second phase, Joe Biden should go to rehabilitate America on the world stage. Are reliability and predictability sufficient as goodwill maxims?
America must prove that, despite domestic polarization, it has the energy and determination that make a world power.
Does this include easing the trade war with China?
This includes realpolitical weighing and balancing of one’s own interests, including commercial ones. Waging a trade war for the sole reason of showing strength and going on a confrontation does not help in the long run.
Should the withdrawal of soldiers from Afghanistan be delayed for this? In this case, the Taliban threaten to resume attacks on US troops.
Yes, because withdrawing all US troops would wipe out 20 years. Biden will strive for a middle ground.
Does this include an attempt to revive the nuclear deal with Iran?
Yes, although this problem is as complex as it is important. I hope Joe Biden will say something about this in his speech at the security conference today. We need a rational negotiating atmosphere with Iran.
The security conference today will last a little over three hours. Will there be a proper conference in Munich this year if the pandemic has subsided?
We absolutely want that. The virtual conference is now the first step on the way to a normal conference in Munich.
Mr. Ischinger, thank you very much for this interview.