One year after Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious sparring match at an international security conference in Germany with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the fighting words have ceased, but the tensions continue to simmer.
U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (left) and German Foreign Minister Fischer in Munich
"Any monkey looking down from Mars on Earth knows that ... we're the bulk of the democracies in the world, and we have common interests," said United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, referring to North American and the rest of the NATO countries, including Germany.
Straight-shooting words are characteristic of the Munich International Security Conference which, like no other event, reflects the current tensions in the Western world. The atmosphere at last year’s conference was especially charged in the run up to the Iraq war. "I am not convinced of the reasons for war," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer declared at the time as he met with the American defense secretary. For his part, Rumsfeld openly mocked the pacifist position of the German government.
Fischer and Rumsfeld stood across from each other once again this year, but this time they were more composed. But the concerns remained the same: Rumsfeld defended the invasion of Iraq and Fischer rejected it. In other words, there was little new in the lasting clinch between Germany and the United States.
However, the competition over the best plans for the Near and Middle East entered into a new round this weekend. According to Rumsfeld, the fall of Saddam Hussein has had a positive effect on the entire region. The defense minister spoke, somewhat pathetically, about the "seeds of freedom" that would now be spread. Fischer, on the contrary, doesn’t automatically believe that the region is calibrated for a democratic transformation.
For that reason Fischer has proposed a transatlantic initiative for the Near and Middle East -- a though that he first clearly formulated here in Munich. The central point of the plan is clearly articulated: it should be civilian rather than military.
With his plan, Fischer apparently wants to present a timely European position before Washington seizes the issue at the upcoming NATO summit in June. The U.S. government is also planning for NATO to increase its cooperation with Mediterranean countries, but so far these efforts have been fruitless. Whereas Europe has taken on considerably more competencies in this area, a role Fischer has now offered to expand.
If the Americans and the Europeans attend to the Near and Middle East together, so goes the thinking, two things can be achieved. The threat of terrorism can be reduced in the long-term and multilateralism will again be given a platform. However, Rumsfeld offered a reserved reaction to this approach, which would focus on dialogue and cooperation. But nothing else could have been expected.
After all, the security conference in Munich reflects, on a micro level, what largely applies to German-American relations: The atmosphere is better again, but the conflicts still remain.