The Munich Security Conference's theme for 2015 was the question "Collapsing Order, Reluctant Guardians." Giving color to that theme was the main topic of discussion: Ukraine. A few days after the conference ended, on Feb. 12, negotiations on the conflict in Ukraine conflict culminated with what the media have termed the Second Minsk Agreement, an uncertain cease-fire, and an equally uncertain hope for peace.
Despite the immediacy of events in Ukraine, the most important topic discussed at the conference by far was the status of the Transatlantic alliance.
Germany's readiness to lead Europe was the opening topic. In her speech, German Defense minister Ursula von Der Leyen sought to give an answer. She emphasized that Germany views leadership as being built around a partnership of equals. Germany is seen as the European Union's de-facto leader. Yet conference speakers noted that if the Franco-German partnership acts on behalf of Europe and, in the words of European Parliament President Martin Schultz, is "backed by the Poles and the Italians," the bloc can most effectively forge a common view on foreign affairs. This stresses the core problem that the European Union has today: the increasing lack of unity on foreign policy, and even on common policies regarding the Union's future. As Schultz was saying, "the EU is powerful when united and the problem is that the EU is more divided than united".
Changes in the European power ecology
The Franco-German duo has evolved over time. While Germany rose to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, France now faces growing socio-economic problems. Charles De Gaulle's vision of European integration as a project meant to give France a platform to project its power worldwide has shifted. The creation of the eurozone seems to have contributed to France's lack of competitiveness and its growing trade imbalances, and it is Germany that benefits most from the free trade zone. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has led to social problems that along with troubling demographics and rising immigration have spurred a rise in nationalistic feelings throughout the Continent. In the aftermath of January's terrorist attacks in Paris, talk has picked up about a potential renewal of border controls.
Amid this confluence of events, protectionist measures could soon be seen viable in European nations. Not only would this have negative effects for the European free trade area, but it could also undermine the stability of the global system as we understand it. And so we might enter a period of greater insecurity - both in economics and in defense.
The world economy is networked and interconnected. Technological progress is only one of the catalysts of globalization. The drive to ease trade relations among countries, and to integrate trade flows while diminishing barriers, is another. It was trade liberalization, especially between the United States and Europe, that won the Cold War, showing the advantages of the democratic, market economy-based system against the fenced-in Communist system. Schultz said during the Munich Security Conference that Transatlantic cooperation is not as strong as it was in the past, yet is more necessary now than ever. Schultz cited the common values shared by the two parties and outlined the world actors that compete against and are enemies to those values. Negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership peppered the speeches of European leaders, all of whom characterized the TTIP as necessary to ensure long-term stability and security in Europe.
But taking into account the European Union's current problems, the TTIP is regarded as as more of a challenge than an opportunity. As concluded in a recent academic paper: The "TTIP will shape the EU integration process itself, constituting an opportunity for accelerating the process of policy consolidation, delegating more competences at the EC level". The pact seems designed to create the basis for stability and future growth - keeping the European Union whole as a party at the negotiating table.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden mentioned the importance of Europe to U.S. security in the very first lines of his speech. Addressing European leaders in the room, Biden said that "Europe is the cornerstone of U.S. engagement around the world. You're America's partners, not of just last resort, but of first resort when challenges arise in Europe and other parts of the world." Biden then also referred to the TTIP, pointing out that "it's not just economic benefits that will flow from such an agreement, but the geopolitical benefits that flow from a 21st century set of rules".
Biden explained that the TTIP is an economic analogue to NATO: a boost to the global trading system that would reinforce the Transatlantic community just as the military alliance reinforces the norms of global security.
Considering the interconnectedness of the 21st Century world, and reflecting on the oft-discussed topic of hybrid warfare, I realized that beyond enhancing the Transatlantic free trade zone, the TTIP is an element of the West's defense strategy. Economics is one angle of the geopolitical triangle - politics and military are the others. The gap between civil technology products and military products has shrunk in recent years, with cyber attacks serving as tangible proof of the increasing threats that our current defense system faces. Establishing norms for trading and investment between the two most important commercial blocks allows coherence and compatibility between systems that are fighting the same adversaries.
The crises Europe faces - from socio-economic distress to the conflict in Ukraine - have exposed the shortcomings of the European Union in particular, and of the Transatlantic and international system in general. The developments in world affairs in recent months resemble a process of "creative destruction" of the global order. In the marketplace, companies win when they go through such processes and transform crises into opportunities to move ahead of their competitors. It is said that alliances also become stronger through such challenges. It remains to be seen whether international organizations such as the European Union and NATO - and their constituent countries - can face this test of "creative destruction" and emerge stronger in the geopolitical marketplace.