President Barack Obama's advisers spent days puzzling over the question of who to send to represent America's new administration at the three-day Munich Conference on Security Policy, which begins on Friday of next week. The closely watched and prestigious conference is a place where the Americans could, for example, enjoy an informal chat with the Iranians -- the kind of dialogue which Obama recently, and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, said he was willing to have.
And a lot is in fact possible in Munich. When it goes well, the conference is a no-nonsense event where decision-makers can talk frankly about current international hot spots. This year 73 big-name delegates have been announced, including prime ministers and presidents, foreign and defense ministers, ambassadors and members of parliament. A summit in its own right, which resembles the G-20 more than the G-8, this year's Munich security conference is overshadowing its competitor in Davos, which is focusing on the global economic crisis.
Of course it would be nice if Obama himself attended, but no US president has yet graced the Munich get-together with his presence. The natural choice would therefore seem to be Robert Gates, who was defense minister under George W. Bush and is keeping his job in the Obama administration. But he won't be attending, because the White House wants a new, more Obama, face in Munich. And so Vice President Joseph Biden is getting the honor of representing the new America.
Every word that Biden says at the conference will be closely analyzed, whether he's talking about Iran, Afghanistan or the Middle East. As a delegate, Biden, who will be making his first trip abroad as vice president, is not without charm: He is a good speaker who prefers to adopt a conversational tone -- even if he is famous for his gaffes.
The Americans are coming in force. Accompanying Biden will be General David Petraeus, who managed to calm Iraq down somewhat and is now trying to do the same in Afghanistan. He will take part in a roundtable discussion on the Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has lost some of his luster lately. Also attending is Richard Holbrooke, Obama's new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, perhaps the most dangerous region in the world due to its nuclear weapons, its instability and its terrorists. Holbrooke is very American: He exudes the US's superpower status in his demeanor and his words.
The American delegation also includes old Munich hands John McCain, John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, three influential senators who all once wanted to be president. Kerry, who would have liked to have had Hillary Clinton's job as secretary of state, is now chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will decide whether Obama's ideas on disarmament agreements with Russia are pushed forward. And James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, is coming too. The general in the White House was a surprising choice for the post -- even for Obama, who is known for his surprises.
When the White House announced at around 11 p.m. local time Tuesday that the vice president would be coming to the security conference, the news caused much musing in Moscow. Russia's planned delegate was Sergei Ivanov, a former defense minister and current deputy prime minister who speaks fluent English. But that choice no longer looks quite so satisfactory. So now Moscow is re-considering who should lead its delegation. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could be tricky -- he was the star guest last year in Munich and has just opened the conference in Davos. An alternative would be the president, Dmitri Medvedev. Whatever the Kremlin decides, the choice will be very symbolic.
As hosts, the Germans will naturally be present in large numbers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble will all be there, as well as members of the German parliament, the Bundestag.
Merkel apparently intends to take the stage as a double act with French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- Mr. and Mrs. Europe, if you will. That would be a new development for the chancellor and the president, who have had little good to say about each other recently. The two leaders' appearance with Vice President Biden on the Saturday afternoon is expected to be the highlight of the conference. Biden's remarks will have been written down for him by Jones -- just to be on the safe side.
Traces of the Cold War
The name "security conference" actually no longer reflects the nature of the event. It comes from the old days of the Cold War, when experts gathered here to enthusiastically discuss first and second strike capability, intercontinental missiles with multiple warheads and the benefits of cruise missiles. At the time, Munich was a synonym for a small closed circle of strategic defense experts. Today Munich is host to a rather large political meeting, whose scope is continually expanding.
Among other things, it addresses of course the issue of disarmament. This year, the question "Is Zero Possible?" is being asked -- in other words, is it possible to have a world without nuclear weapons? Because many things are in flux, disarmament, unlike during the Cold War, is not being left just to the experts. In the near future, Obama must decide whether to once again sign up to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which his predecessor Bush, in a snub against the Russians, unilaterally withdrew. He also needs to make clear his position on the planned missile shield system in the Czech Republic and Poland -- an issue which will shape America's relations with Russia.
Connoisseurs of the Munich conference distinguish between "operational" discussions and "exploratory" talks. By operational, they mean sessions such as when Karzai, Petraeus and Holbrooke discuss "Afghanistan and the Future of the Alliance." That session will be looking at whether the country can push back the Taliban and become more stable through a new twin-track strategy which combines tough military action with offers of negotiations. A mammoth session on "NATO, Russia, Oil, Gas and the Middle East" is likely to produce fewer concrete results.
Delegates prefer to hold the so-called exploratory talks on the sidelines of the conference. Such informal discussions are facilitated by the venue, the intimate luxury hotel Bayerischer Hof. Obama has already announced he is willing to hold direct talks with Iran, and his representatives may try to find out at the conference just what is possible. Tehran is sending Ali Larijani, a former top nuclear negotiator who has now been slightly demoted to parliament speaker. He is an interesting man who could still have a future in Tehran.
It's possible that after Munich we will have a better idea of how international relations will look in the wake of the economic crisis -- whether relations between Russia and America will improve, whether progress will happen in Afghanistan, what is possible in the Middle East and what America intends to do to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program.
Incidentally, the conference also has a new face this year. Horst Teltschik, who was foreign policy advisor to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has stepped down after a nine-year stint as chairman. He is succeeded by Wolfgang Ischinger, a German career diplomat with excellent international contacts. Ischinger was a deputy minister in the Foreign Ministry at the time of the Kosovo war and had his share of disagreements with then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Later, during the period between the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, he was Germany's ambassador first to Washington and then to London. He knows all this year's big names personally, including Petraeus, Holbrooke, Karzai, Biden and Jones, as well as, naturally, Angela Merkel, who appointed him as head of the security conference.
Our current, terribly interesting, times ensure that this year's Munich conference will attract unprecedented international attention. It will provide pointers as to what will be possible during Obama's first year in office -- and what not.