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European defense, trans-Atlantic relations key at Munich Security Conference

German Federal President Joachim Gauck during the opening speech at the 50th Munich Security Conference.

MUNICH — The Munich Security Conference kicked off Friday with Germany’s president calling out his country for not doing enough to confront global threats, saying 70-year-old guilt over World War II should not be used as a “shield for laziness.”

“Are we doing what we can to stabilize our neighborhood? In the east and in Africa? Are we willing to bear our fair share of the risk?” asked German Federal President Joachim Gauck. “Germany must be ready to do more to guarantee the security others have provided it with for decades.”

“Restraint can thus be taken too far,” he said.

And so began the 50th Munich Security Conference, where heads of state and numerous defense ministers are taking part in three days of talks on a range of security challenges.

Expected to dominate the agenda are the civil war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the political upheaval in Ukraine. Cybersecurity, privacy and surveillance also are issues to be examined.

Still, the trans-Atlantic relationship and the role of Europe in the face of instability and the growth of regionalized terror groups in Africa and the Middle East remain prime areas of focus.

Relations between the U.S. and its European allies have been strained recently following revelations of U.S. spying, most notably allegations the U.S. hacked the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Part of Friday afternoon’s opening sessions was spent on “rebooting trust” between the U.S. and allies over the leaks from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Gauck said it is right for allies to call attention to disagreements with the U.S. over spying, but also called out allies for an underinvestment in their own intelligence-gathering capabilities that has created an overreliance on the U.S.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he recognized trust concerns over the NSA, though he chided Europeans for not zeroing in on what he considered the main threats associated with cybersecurity, such as spying and cyberattacks from China and Iran.

“If you think that (the NSA) is the problem, we’re all fooling ourselves,” Rogers said.

Rogers also cautioned surveillance critics that the conflict in Syria could ripple into Europe and that surveillance will be needed.

“Let’s walk ourselves back,” Rogers said. “There are hundreds of Europeans getting battle-trained in Syria who will come home. They will use European networks” to finance and plan operations, he said.

Meanwhile, with unrest across the Middle East and bloody ethnic disputes and terrorism concerns in parts of Africa, Gauck said Europe can’t afford “navel gazing.”

“I don’t believe Germany can carry on as before in the face of these developments,” he said.

Gauck said Germany should not as a rule oppose interventions, but added it would never support any purely military solution, and any deployment of troops would have to coincide with diplomacy.

Germany contributes more than 3,000 troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. However, for the U.S. and other allies, Germany’s reluctance to engage in NATO operations, such as the 2011 air campaign in Libya, has been a sore spot.

U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also have scolded Europe for underinvesting in defense. On Saturday, Europe’s role in security operations and the trans-Atlantic relationship will be examined in panel discussions that will include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Top military representatives attending include Supreme Allied Commander and European Command chief Gen. Philip Breedlove and Africa Command leader Gen. David Rodriguez.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also will attend and is expected to meet on the sidelines with Kerry, who will likely discuss the international effort to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, which is behind schedule.

Several U.S. lawmakers also are in Munich, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was recently in Ukraine to meet with members of the opposition there. Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion and now a leader of the opposition movement in Ukraine, also will address the conference.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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