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Opinion: Germany’s Security and Schmidt’s Cigarette | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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German President Joachim Gauck speaks during the opening of the 50th Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Friday, January 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The Munich Security Conference is one of the most important gatherings of the year, both in terms of the attendees and the nature of the issues on discussion.

The conference, or forum, which focuses on—especially transatlantic—security issues, entered its 50th year on Friday, attended by heads of state, senior government delegations in the fields of foreign relations and defense, in addition to businessmen and experts in security affairs.

What distinguishes this conference from others is that for decades it has become an event where unofficial meetings between warring states take place on the fringes of the main sessions. It has thus become a place for discussing disputed issues between countries, parties and political leaders—all facing difficult times—away from the media spotlight and the pressures of official protocols.

And so, the discussions which are held in the side halls may introduce you to personalities such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, all in a place which has a capacity of no more than 100 seats. You could stop John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov or Mohammad Javad Zarif and quiz them about what just happened during the latest meeting held in the next hall.

The founder of the conference, publisher Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, organized an international forum at the height of the Cold War to discuss a subject which was ignored until 1963: the future security of West Germany during a period filled with the fear of an impending nuclear war—not to mention the struggles between the global super powers, threatening international security. It is also noticeable that the subject of the future security of Germany was the main focus of German President Joachim Gauck’s speech opening the conference.

At first glance, one would think the position of federal president is just one of protocol. But Gauck’s speech touched openly on weighty matters: the concept of German security, and the feelings of guilt the nation has harbored since the Second World War. It reflected the social argument taking place in German political corridors regarding the importance of escaping the constraints of the past and finding alternatives to the total reliance for security on the United States and NATO, which have both overseen the relationship between Germans and the outside world, though at the same time providing a safe environment that allowed the country to rebuild itself and become a global industrial and economic player—now the fourth-largest economy in the world, with an unemployment level below 5.3 percent.

President Gauck criticizes his country’s politicians who avoid foreign policy issues and military intervention in any international conflict. More than 61 percent of Germans oppose sending troops out of the country whatever the reason. One of the things Gauck said was: “We criticize their spying on us—the Americans—but we rely on their cooperation to provide our security.”

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also made a speech in which she said Germany intended to increase its military activity in Africa, especially by sending more instructors to Mali, in addition to providing support for French intervention in Central Africa. The minister, who has been in office for one month and is the first woman to hold the post, added that with the increase in conflicts, it has become imperative that Germans and Europeans review their defense policies.

Of course, when you talk to German officials about the issues of Libya and Syria, they admit that “comparison is difficult” and that Chancellor Angela Merkel is not about to change the country’s defensive political policy “because that requires public support which is not currently available, as well as additional budgets which are not about to be introduced in the foreseeable future.”

There are of course those who propose the recent Japanese model and the ongoing arguments there about amending the constitution to allow the Japanese to repel any military threat. However, there are differences, according to observers, between the German and Japanese situations, where the Chinese–Japanese disagreement has requirements and considerations which do not apply to Germany.

Back at the conference, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt lights up his cigarette on the platform, beside him presidents and senior politicians, indifferent to the rules of the new world and its conventions. He sat on the same platform 50 years ago, but this time, he called on Germans and Europeans to look to the future instead of living in the past, or even fear an American withdrawal from the Middle East and Asia—or fear for “the future of NATO.”

Schmidt, puffing out the smoke from his third cigarette, says: “If there was no NATO in 10 years, it would have no bearing on the internal challenges. The problem of the Europeans is that they exaggerate their importance and express pride in their achievements instead of facing the problems of the future. What concerns me is that Europeans will not represent more than 7 percent of the world population by 2050.”