Striking balance between defense and dialogue

Maciej Kuziemski in conversation with Wolfgang Ischinger – Chairman of Munich Security Conference

Maciej Kuziemski, Wolfgang Ischinger
9 lipca 2016

Maciej Kuziemski: As we’re meeting on the sidelines of the much awaited NATO Summit in Warsaw, please tell me how can we make global institutions more inclusive, resistant to populism and prepared for digital change?

Wolfgang Ischinger: This is, unfortunately, one of the more challenging tasks with the international community. Efforts, for example, to reform the United Nations, or more specifically the Security Council as the decision-making organ of the United Nations, have failed to take effect, failed to take us anywhere, even though lots of energy has gone into it.

My own view is that this challenge of reforming global and regional institutions is a priority task for the European Union. There is no other group of countries the values of which practically demand from us that we should commit ourselves to strengthening, to the extent possible, existing institutions, or create new ones where that is necessary or appropriate, and thereby to strengthen the rule of law on a global, but also on a regional basis. I think this is, historically speaking, an important opportunity for the European Union. It’s not something the United States, unfortunately, is likely to take up.

Would it be a wise assumption that European Union should try to develop its own institutions that would be resistant to the fluctuations of populism and other alarming trends in the national states, or should it be still a primarily interstate institution?

Interstate solutions are sometimes, as we have seen in the recent series of crises in the European Union, the necessary, inevitable solution. But they’re never the perfect solution. The more perfect solution is embedded in the original idea of European integration, namely to create, if you wish, supranational bodies. The best example is the EU Commission.

Hated by the citizens, not accountable to anyone…

Maybe hated by the citizens, but not because it’s a supranational institution, but because the EU Commission has been seen by too many citizens as a bureaucratic institution that does all sorts of things, but does not do much for the citizens. So I think the challenge is to rethink the list of priorities and the agenda for the EU Commission.

If the EU Commission, and the other bodies of the EU, such as the European Council, but also the European Parliament, they can be seen by the voter – whether it’s in Poland or in Spain, or Germany or elsewhere – as providing services which the voter would love to see, for example more domestic security, and also more international security. I think that is, according to all polls I know, a common desire and an expectation around the European Union, even in – there’s a recent poll by the Pew organization – even in the United Kingdom. There is a majority of people who would love to see a more active European Union in the role of security.

What would be a safe part of the portfolio that could push the European community forward and let it integrate more in the face of currents crises? Which area do you find to be most consensual for European leaders today?

Politically the easiest part, in my list, would be the continuation and the completion of a true internal market. The internal market is incomplete. We still have large white spots in it. Just think, for example, of the internal digital market – great and huge opportunity. Doesn’t exist yet, should be created.

Second, I think that what is waiting to happen in the European Union, and if not all 28 countries are willing to move forward, maybe some would like to move forward, which is possible under the Lisbon treaty, is to create more pooling and sharing to make use of significantly more synergy effects in the area of security and defense.


We are spending our defense euros or pounds – or zlotys, for that manner – in a terribly inefficient way. Because each one of us orders our own airplanes, our own guns and our own ammunition, at too high a price. We produce far too many models of everything, from airplanes to handguns. We have 6 times more models of weapons than the United States. So there is enormous room for improvement in terms of pooling and sharing. And we don’t even need, at this moment, to decide the question: do we wish to commit ourselves to a European army in the future. Let’s leave that for the next period. But at this moment I think the task is to create a European Union that can actually have a meaningful military capability. At the moment we are extremely weak, and without the constant presence and help and support – in terms of communication, intelligence, etc. – of the United States, we are nothing, which is not good.

Especially in the wake of the probable result of the next presidential cycle..


Let’s jump to NATO. You said earlier today about two pillars – deterrence and dialogue. When we hear that in Central Europe it is always frowned upon and considered a way to bypass unity of NATO countries. How to balance economic interests of national states and solidarity within the European community, within NATO?

First of all, it is of course true that there are quite different majority views held in a number of NATO countries about how best to deal with Russia. The closer you come to the Russian border, the more you hear the words ‘defense’ and ‘deterrence’, and the further away you come from the Russian border, more or less, the more often you hear about cooperation and dialogue. That’s normal.

I think this NATO summit, which will take place as we speak, will be a very interesting and positive demonstration of the fact that among these NATO states, from the United Sates all the way to the small Baltic countries, that we can agree on a line, on a strategic line which is acceptable to everyone – to the defense proponents as much as to the détente proponents.

Quite naturally my own country, Germany, because of its own history, we feel that we’re guilty for the death of tens of millions of Soviet citizens and soldiers during World War II, we feel guilty in the same way vis-à-vis Ukrainians and others, which is why we have this strong interest in, to the extent that it is possible, in maintaining dialogue and overcoming dividing lines. Look, the day Germany was united, the 3rd of October 1990, the head of state of Germany then, Richard von Weizsäcker, said: the important historic task for us is, now that the wall in Berlin is disappearing, that we make sure that there will not be a new wall erected on the Eastern border of Poland also.

I think this remains to this day an important vision, which is for us historically, for obvious reasons, maybe more a priority item than for some others. But finding the right balance between those who live close to the Russian border and those who feel slightly less threatened at this moment has been possible in the run-up to this current NATO summit, and I think that we are actually going to have a response to the current challenge from Moscow, which is just right. We don’t overdo the defense part, and we also don’t overdo the dialogue and cooperation.

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Yet, that being said, Russia is not present at this summit, which I understand you think is a bad thing, right?

What I think is that, historically speaking, we are of course experiencing a setback in the development of relations with Russia, which is not our fault, because we didn’t annex Crimea and we didn’t send our troops into eastern Ukraine. But it is true that there were earlier NATO summits where the president of Russia was invited as a guest. So I think it is a useful idea to try to demonstrate our western willingness to transparency and communication and openness by at least entertaining the best possible briefing and information strategy, and as far as I’m concerned, one of our leaders should travel to Moscow right after the summit to make sure that Russia cannot complain about decisions which they may interpret in a way that is not our intention.

Do you envision any particular leader of the European or American community that would be a proper messenger for such a task?

If you ask me what my dream team would be – but I think this is quite unrealistic at the moment – it would be for the POTUS to finally have a one on one meeting – a substantive meeting, not just a photo opportunity – with the president of the Russian Federation. Why do I think that? Not to make mister Putin happy, but because I think that if and when president Putin wishes to strike a deal with the West, to get rid of some of the problems that he created for himself, his costly involvement in Syria, his costly involvement in Ukraine, having created out of Ukraine a country that is now fearful of Russia, instead of a neighbor and partner and close friend… If and when president Putin is willing to strike such a deal, to get rid of some of these problems which burden Russia greatly currently, I think he would want to strike that kind of deal not with president Duda of Poland or chancellor Merkel or Jean-Claude Juncker, but with the White House.

Which is why I think that, generally speaking, we need a bit of strategic patience, this is a year of elections in the United States, and maybe we will have to wait until after the US election, until a kind of communication, a meaningful communication, between Washington and Moscow can be established. We used to have very intense contacts at so many different levels, in so many different areas – between the US and Russia, between Germany and Russia. Not only on arms control and security measures, also on technology issues, on climate related issues, etc. And most of that of course is now not being continued. I believe that given the size of the Russian Federation…

And its shrinking economy…

…and its shrinking economy, it is not our interest to have a Russian neighbor who is so frustrated and weak that he must constantly look for outside adventures. So I think our interest is to have a stable Russia, that is satisfied with its position and which does not try to destabilize its own neighbors.


Wolfgang Ischinger is a Chairman of a Munich Security Conference.

Maciej Kuziemski is an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow 2016/17 and Res Publica Nowa board member.

This interview is brought to you as part of Visegrad Insight coverage of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. For more updates follow us on Twitter.