MUNICH — As international leaders gathered here to weigh the security challenges shaping U.S.-Europe relations, one topic noticeably absent from their discussions was the 11-year war in Afghanistan.
Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa dominated panel discussions at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of international leaders devoted to Euro-Atlantic cooperation.
The U.S. and Iran separately expressed a willingness to enter bilateral talks, and regional leaders grappled with the war in Syria, where more than 60,000 people are estimated to have died. France explained the decision-making process behind its intervention in Mali, and European officials considered the urgency of addressing the impact of declining military spending on the Continent.
Vice President Joe Biden captured the mood in a Saturday speech here, telling attendees, “Today we’re in the process of turning the page on more than a decade of conflict following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.”
Afghanistan is already in the rear-view mirror. None of the speakers or weekend panels focused on the war, where more than 100,000 international troops remain deployed and where a NATO force is committed through 2014.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen instead looked to the future of the alliance, after Afghanistan. Calling for a “re-balancing” of militaries, he envisioned better burden-sharing among alliance members and joint efforts in training and purchasing much-needed equipment in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strategic airlift.
The concept of pooling and sharing defense resources among European nations and NATO members generated discussion Saturday during a panel of ministers and experts, many of whom noted the hurdles to such efforts.
“International cooperation is all too often seen as a challenge to sovereignty and control,” said Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
For some, France’s unilateral intervention in Mali also generated questions about Europe’s collective security outside of NATO. Jean-Claude Mallet, of the French Defense Ministry, told an audience that France doubted a European Union battlegroup could have responded quickly enough in Mali. However, he criticized those who suggested France’s allies were shorting France by offering only logistical assets like airlift.
“Saying that these are secondary operations means you don’t know how these operations work,” Mallet said.
Adding urgency to the European mission of improving the continent’s defense capabilities is the shift in U.S. foreign policy toward an emphasis on the Pacific.
The U.S. military is removing 11,000 troops from Europe, including two heavy infantry combat brigades from Germany, one of which has already inactivated.
The U.S. military is “turning a strategic corner” from the past decade and trying to become more agile and flexible, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said.
Cyberwarfare, special operations and intelligence-surveillance and reconnaissance are emphases in the future, Carter said.
“We need to look up from the foxhole we’ve been in, so to speak,” he said.
Carter also compared the cuts looming over the Department of Defense to the substantial cuts in European defense budgets in recent years. In both cases, he said, politicians have failed to realize the perils of cutting security funding.
Much of the weekend focused on the crisis in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program, both the subjects of prior international conferences and much diplomatic hand-wringing.
The attendance of major players in the international discussion on Syria lead to speculation of multilateral talks on the sidelines of the conference. But while Biden met separately with U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib, and al-Khatib held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the four never appeared to meet together.
Lavrov invited al-Khatib to Moscow, according to media reports, and he sought to assure attendees that Russia was keeping a close eye on the Syrian government’s chemical weapons, a major concern for the international community.
Notably, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, tacitly acknowledged his country’s attack of a Syrian convoy believed to be carrying weapons.
“That’s another proof that when we say something we mean it,” he told an interviewer at the conference on Sunday, after being asked about the strike.
In a Sunday panel on Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced new talks with major powers later this month in Kazakhstan, and he said he was open to bilateral talks with the U.S., although under unspecified conditions.
“We are ready for engagement, but only when it is on equal footing, equal ground,” he said.
Biden reiterated Saturday the U.S. position that it would be willing to enter direct talks with Iran when senior leadership in the country gets “serious.”
“But it must be real and tangible, and there has to be an agenda that they’re prepared to speak to,” he said. “We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise.”