Event Reports

“A joint response to strategic challenges”

by Philipp Dienstbier

Continuation of the Adenauer Conference with expert discussions on the EU and the transatlantic relations

After the conference opening with the Minister of Defence, day two and three of the digital 8th Adenauer Conference on Germany’s role in international security policy were devoted to the security and defence policy priorities of the German Presidency of the EU Council and the implications of the upcoming US presidential elections.

The opening talk of June 16:

Priorities for European security policy

After Federal Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Prof. Dr Norbert Lammert, KAS Chairman, discussed the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for security policy and other critical security policy issues during the opening discussion on Tuesday, 16 June, the Adenauer Conference continued on Wednesday, 17 June, with a panel on the defence and security policy priorities of the German Presidency of the EU Council. Participants in the discussion were Michael Gahler, MEP, Spokesman of the EPP Group on Foreign Affairs, Tjorven Bellmann, Director for Security Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, and Prof. Dr Marina Henke, Director of the Centre for International Security at Hertie School of Governance.

Gahler affirmed at the beginning what the minister had already stressed on Tuesday: “Security and defence policy challenges have not diminished as a result of COVID-19.” Instead, the consequences of the crisis had led to a more unstable situation in and around Europe. Therefore the ambition cherished by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to convert her institution into a “geopolitical Commission” continued to be right and important. However, the MEP cautioned, with that aspiration one also needed capabilities for hard power – as a last resort.

The EU had already laid a foundation for the European defence union with PESCO, the European Defence Fund and other instruments. Yet, at this stage, it was important that “these measures are also backed by the durable political will of the member states”. The world had become less stable due to the consequences of COVID-19 making it necessary that the EU finally put its resolutions into practice.

Agenda for the German Presidency of the EU Council

Tjorven Bellmann emphasised in her input that it was the priority of the German EU Presidency to advance the strengthening of the EU instruments that contribute towards the aim of European sovereignty. That also included a debate about where the EU was heading in its strive for more security policy autonomy and why it was pursuing that goal. She also pointed to the fact that missions in Europe’s neighbourhood were increasingly taking place under European leadership, but outside the EU structures, by coalitions of the willing. It had to be discussed whether it should not be the EU’s ambition to be able to realise such operations as CSDP missions. The Director for Security Policy mentioned the situation in Mali as an example of how crises were now being tackled under the auspices of Europe and without American leadership. Nonetheless it was apparent that, for many capabilities, there was still a strong dependency on the United States.

Bellmann highlighted capacity building in third countries and the establishment of a related EU financial instrument by the end of the presidency as further priorities of the German Presidency of the EU Council. Moreover, PESCO and the possibility of third-country participation had to be reviewed, and a European centre of excellence for civil crisis management would be established in Berlin.

A grand strategy for Europe

Marina Henke underlined in that context that individual political initiatives alone did not yet make a strategy. She stated: “What Europe needs most urgently these days is a grand strategy.” The strategy would have to define a coherent framework that enables the EU to specify where it wanted to be in ten to twenty years from now. The professor outlined three options in that regard for Europe: First, the EU could commit itself to the renewal of the transatlantic Alliance by not only carrying a greater part of the financial burden, but also by providing more political and military support to American policy in the Pacific region. Second, the EU could strive for a sovereign and independent Europe. Then, however, the EU could no longer focus exclusively on crisis management in its security policy, but would have to take on other defence policy tasks that are currently performed by the US – like nuclear deterrence, for example. Finally, the EU also had the option of being “only” a civil power in the future and of remaining neutral.

Henke pointed to the fact that Europe couldn’t afford doing a little bit of everything, but had to consistently pursue a strategy. “The risk that we get stuck somewhere in the middle has to be minimised”, said the professor. Gahler replied in that context that he preferred a combination of the first two options. That implied strengthening the European pillar of NATO, on the one hand, but it also meant for the EU to remain able to act effectively and autonomously in Europe’s immediate vicinity, on the other hand. Bellmann announced that Germany would start a debate on guidelines for the CSDP, in the context of the strategic compass. At the same time, a threat assessment was going to be implemented at the beginning of the EU Council Presidency which would offer basic strategic orientation.

Implications of the US presidential elections

At the third and last panel of the Adenauer Conference on Thursday, 18 June, Jürgen Hardt, Foreign Policy Spokesman of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag, and Peter Rough, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, took a look at the upcoming US presidential elections.

With a view to a possible change of leadership in the White House, Jürgen Hardt stated at the beginning that America’s stronger orientation towards the Pacific region was not caused by Trump alone, but originated from the Obama administration. And it would certainly also be expected by a President Joe Biden that Germany should bear a greater part of the burden of NATO. “Every American president will rightfully demand that we honour our pledges within NATO in accordance with our economic power”, affirmed the member of the Bundestag.

With regard to the outcome of the elections, Peter Rough concluded that “if elections were held in the USA today or tomorrow, the next President of the United States would be Joe Biden”. Yet he pointed to the fact that the electoral campaign was only just beginning and that the current political situation was characterised by high volatility. It was true, from his point of view, that a President Biden would adopt a different rhetorical approach. For example, he would take a more positive stance with regard to the EU and might support stronger links between EU and NATO. Nevertheless, the expert agreed with the view of the previous speaker that some continuity had to be expected from Biden, with a view to transatlantic relations.

More European responsibility

Against the backdrop of that outlook, Hardt stressed that Germany needed to take a stronger, more self-reliant role in its neighbourhood, especially in Africa. That pertains for example to the Sahel. Germany had to have a more in-depth debate on that issue, and it had to be made even clearer that stability there was in its national interest.

Rough confirmed that the US wished Europe “would do more” in its vicinity, too. He mainly referred to the conflict in Libya where essential European interests are at stake. After the US had withdrawn from the country to a certain extent, only Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were playing a central role there nowadays. Therefore the Europeans were now called upon to take up more responsibility in Libya – also within NATO’s structures. Hardt agreed that Europe had an interest in Libya, namely “to prevent it from becoming a second Syria”. Yet, he also pointed to the fact that Germany had already taken a leading role in finding a solution to the conflict. Early this year, Germany had organised a Libya Conference in Berlin, with the aim of limiting support by external parties to the conflict.

Strategic challenges facing NATO

Subsequently, the speakers discussed a series of strategic challenges facing NATO, in particular the increasing strategic competition with Russia and China. In that context Rough emphasised American concerns over a stronger Sino-Russian co-operation. As revisionist powers, both countries pursued similar interests, even though they had differences of opinion on certain subjects and Russia was clearly the junior partner in that relationship. “Whether or not these two countries are seen as allies, is still a source of disagreement in Washington”, was his conclusion.

NATO’s response to new Russian cruise missiles was also a topic of the discussion. A day before the event, NATO Ministers of Defence had debated about new measures of deterrence against Russia. Rough praised NATO’s united stance and concerted action in response to Russia’s arms build-up. With a view to the strategic competition, Hardt stated that the first step for Europe was “that we identify a joint response to this strategic challenge”. Europeans had started to do so much too late and were now required to expedite the development of a common China strategy.

Political debate on nuclear sharing

Towards the end of this year’s Adenauer Conference the discussion moved towards Germany’s nuclear sharing role. Rough pointed out that Germany tended to underestimate the importance of the country’s decisions on security affairs for the Alliance and Europe, such as its decision regarding nuclear sharing. Therefore it was important “that Germany – as key actor in Europe’s security policy – also continuously has the interests of its allies in mind”. Hardt said he did not understand the discussion in the SPD on nuclear sharing. It was “certainly popular to be against nuclear weapons” but, with a view to the current situation in Europe, “we need effective – also nuclear – deterrence”, affirmed the member of the Bundestag. Changes in the nuclear threat environment made it absolutely necessary to consider how NATO could respond to them.

This report has been translated from German.

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Philipp Dienstbier

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June 17, 2020
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The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, its educational institutions, centres and foreign offices, offer several thousand events on various subjects each year. We provide up to date and exclusive reports on selected conferences, events and symposia at In addition to a summary of the contents, you can also find additional material such as pictures, speeches, videos or audio clips.