For a third time I had the opportunity to attend the Global Security forum at Bratislava from 15 to 17th April. This forum came into being ten years ago. Since then, it has developed into the most high-profile security conference in Central Europe. It is sponsored by the governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia and is supported by NATO and a host of companies in the defense and security business.
Feelings of insecurity are high globally with the many changes underway, simultaneously: the rise of China, slowing global growth, the return of Russia to the global stage, the fractious lead-up to the presidential election in the U.S., disunity in the European Union, the turbulence in the Middle East and heightened fears of terrorism. Too many to analyse at once, so discussions in Bratislava focused on the threat perceptions close to home: those of the new east European members of NATO particularly the Visegrad group of countries – Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary. Unsurprisingly Russia has been seen as the principle threat since differences over the association of Ukraine to the European Union and membership of NATO slid into violent protests, over the Russian takeover of the Crimea and continued ceasefire violations in Ukraine’s Eastern provinces.
This year the eruption of Daesh (Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria and the consequent outflow of refugees from Syria became subjects of special concern as the differences over handling them were felt to be contributing to the fragmentation of the overlapping EU and NATO memberships. Other issues discussed were Brexit and the future of U.S. leadership after Obama – themselves symptomatic of the crises internal to democracies. Along with other security related panels were parallel discussions on the challenge from China, the return of Iran to the mainstream, the dilemmas for Ukraine and how much longer Russia can afford its disastrous foreign policy.
The opening keynote address by Ursula Von der Leyen, the Defence Minister of Germany was harsh on Russia stating explicitly that it was “up to Russia to reform” and implicitly underlining the need to maintain economic sanctions against Moscow even as Russia-NATO talks are resuming after a gap of two years. That she felt the need to call on all members of NATO to stay united in the face of threats from Russia, refugees from Syria and terrorism, of which she wrongly claimed that Europe is the “focal point”, would imply that disaffection and differences among the overlapping NATO/EU countries are becoming a matter of concern.
Van der Leyen tried to reassure the newer members of NATO of the organization’s commitment to their security through the ‘permanent rotational presence of allies especially for the Baltic countries and Poland.’ The very term “permanent rotational” is such a misnomer that it fails to reassure any country. This became evident in the panel of Visegrad countries where it was pointed out that although they face the greatest threat from Russia most of the NATO installations and deployments were concentrated in Western Europe.
The session of Visegrad foreign ministers stood out for their pleadings to NATO and the EU that although they were on the frontline against Russia, their different perceptions and views such as taking in assigned quotas of Syrian refugees, as well as their need for Russian gas and access to Russian markets, should not be ignored. Nor were they in favour of the complete isolation of Russia, even though they are the ones most in need of security assurance from NATO This was understood to mean that they would prefer to soften economic sanctions against Russia – a point reinforced by a representative of German business who admitted that 80% of their business in Russia could be continued despite the sanctions.
Every year the GLOBSEC forum honours one European and an American who has contributed to the economic and political security of Central Europe. By honouring former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the forum brought the rightward shift in Europe to the centre of discussion relating to the crises confronting democracies, new and established, in a disorderly world. The underlying concerns about stability were presented in a different way by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Jordan, when he spoke about the need to support regimes in countries like his. Jordan is hosting a deluge of refugees from Syria and needs economic assistance and political support in global forums, to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers: In a country with a population of under 5 million, there are now nearly a million refugees there.
In a dinner session focused on China, the principal speakers from India and Japan faced off with a Chinese academic. The gist of the conversation was that although old wounds have not healed, it is possible to work towards non-conflictual relations with sincerity.
There were other interesting subjects discussed at other panels. But the absence of speakers from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, made the conversations one-sided. The organizers do try to include the widest possible representation, but lacuna appear, sometimes because no-one is invited – as with Syria this year – or because of lack of response from some countries which may find themselves bearing the brunt of criticism.
Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.
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