FOTAR 2020 – the State of the Transatlantic Relationship

Prof Dr Markus Kotzur, President, Stiftung Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, opens the conference.

I attended FOTAR – the Forum on Translantic Relations – on 30th January 2020. The topic: “The Transatlantic Security Partnership in Turbulent Times.” Three detailed expert discussions served as an excellent update on the state of NATO, how to deal with an ascendant China, and cybersecurity. Here are my notes – the intent behind which is to capture the issues raised, rather than be a comprehensive account of who said what.

Is NATO Dead?

Emmanuel Macron recently declared it “brain dead” and Trump has signalled America’s cooling enthusiasm for the alliance. The panel was generally well balanced, with optimism about the future as well as realism regarding its limitations.

Danielle Pletka, Senior Fellow for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, opened by commenting that NATO has been considered “in crisis” since the start of this century. Perhaps it’s a victim of its own success, having been invented as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. Pletka drew attention to parts of NATO that people, she says, avoid talking about. She noted Turkey’s affronts to the alliance: going shopping for heavy weaponry in Russia, holding Germany to ransom over refugees and siding with Russia in Syria. France, she says, has strayed from the path of righteousness itself through its interventions in Libya, for which it sought no mandate from NATO partners and sided with Russia too.

Pletka said NATO is endangered by European nations dragging their feet on military spending: it is becoming more of an ideological construct than a military alliance. If people stop believing it can protect them, then it’s in trouble.

She later sacrificed some credibility by saying the German greens are seeking to return Germany to a pre-industrial age, which everyone I spoke to in the breaks thought was a crass oversimplification.

Janusz Reiter – Chairman of the Board and Founder of the Centre for International Relations (Warsaw) and former Polish Ambassador to Germany and the US – was more upbeat about the alliance’s future. He says America abandoning NATO would be like the Pope losing faith in the Catholic church: it would be dead. However, Trump’s rhetoric is one thing but his behaviour is another.

Although there is a dichotomy between policy elites (who favour holding on to the established order) and the population at large (who are wary of NATO), he cited various polls that he says show an appetite in Germany for increased defence spending so long as it takes place within a European framework. However, he says, the idea that Germany could cower under a common nuclear umbrella with France is dangerous: this “Europeanised Europe” would abandon countries nearer the periphery and risk splitting the continent. Similarly, some Poles fawn over the idea of a bilateral alliance with the USA, which would make them the (by far) junior partner with much less influence than they have over the EU. The Atlantic alliance, he says, is central to keeping Europe together and there is enough flexibility within it for European ambitions. He proposed German spending on Polish forces to protect the Baltic. This, he says, could take place under the auspices of NATO but nevertheless be a truly European project and be in all of Europe’s interest.

Responding to Pletka’s pessimism, Dr. Henning Riecke – Democracy and International Order, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) – countered that German spending on defence has increased by 40% and will meet targets by 2031. He said there are many signs that the US is still committed to Europe, including US public approval for NATO at around 75% and Congress passing bills making their support clear.

However, he said, NATO must find a way of launching more limited and successful missions, rather than the never-ending engagement in Afghanistan, for example.

Dr Henning Riecke, Janusz Reiter, Danielle Pletka; chaired by Dr Andreas Grimmel, Research Director, Institute for European Integration, Europa-Kolleg
Dr Henning Riecke, Janusz Reiter, Danielle Pletka; chaired by Dr Andreas Grimmel, Research Director, Institute for European Integration, Europa-Kolleg

How to Deal with a Rising China?

Will the 21st century be Chinese? Will China eclipse the USA as the world hegemon? That was the topic of the second panel.

Prof Dr Eberhard Sandschneider, Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin, poured cold water on the idea that it’s possible to second-guess China’s future direction. In the past, he said, people never expected a Communist government to deliver wealth and prosperity but they been surprised. Then people assumed the market economy would culminate in democracy, but it never did. Now, the assumption is that China will rise to dominate the world. Sandschneider says he believes the 21st century will become more multinational, and China won’t rise to full dominance.

Despite not being a democracy, even China’s elite is dependent for its power on being seen to deliver for its people. This is an important change: whereas legitimacy used to derive from ideology, now it is drawn from delivery. Since 1989, it hasn’t put many feet wrong.

When the topic turned to the Corona virus, Dr. Yu Jie – Senior Research Fellow on China, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House – said that this could cause problems for President Xi Jinping if it were seen to be mishandled. Jinping has pushed centralisation of power in China, and the outbreak went unnoticed at first because there are strict rules regarding what level in the hierarchy has to be informed and how. Local authorities played it safe, not passing the message up the chain, leading to a delayed response.

A later article in the FAZ explains this too. It also says doctors who warned about the virus were initially arrested for speaking out, accused of spreading rumours. During the Sars outbreak, the Chinese state was slow to react, worried about its reputation if news spread. It appears to be making the same mistakes, so if the experts are right, these incidents could be destabilising for the ruling party.

Belt and Road Initiative

Zachary M. Hosford, Deputy Director of the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, explained that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been in the headlines recently because of fears it will extend Chinese dominance while making poorer countries dependent on their loans, is as yet rather unclearly defined, with no overarching strategy or uniform loan structure. Suffice to say it’s a programme for investing in infrastructure such as digital and logistics. It’s generally in pursuit of Chinese interests – for example a corridor down through Pakistan to secure their oil supply for the growing industry, or an attempt to establish influence across the whole of the Eurasian continent – but all in all it’s very pragmatic and, so far, China is simply putting its money where its mouth is, unlike other nations.

Sandschneider waspishly commented that BRI will retrospectively be defined to include the successful projects and conveniently ignore those that are less so.

On China generally, Hosford said the European approach has been different from America’s: the Europeans were very eager to exploit China as a large market for its goods, so took a purely economic perspective on China. But the Americans were warier of geopolitical implications. The issue of Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks is a case in point: the US is hesitant to allow China to gain dominance here, whereas European countries (including the UK) are more sanguine.

The Europeans soon found out that they had underestimated China’s capabilities and ambitions. Rather than just stealing intellectual property and manufacturing outsourced goods, the Chinese have started competing through their own businesses and innovations. Varta, he said, is a good example. They were riding high in the stock markets last year because of their ability to build pretty unique microbatteries, central to small devices such as Apple’s AirPods. But suddenly it became clear that Chinese competitors are catching up, which triggered an abrupt slump. It had been hovering just above €120 per share through December, but on 7th January took a dive to €80 and is (on 1st February) below that.

Climate Change

The biggest challenge facing humanity, which one might have thought warranted a dedicated panel, hasn’t passed China by. Tempting as it may be to boss developing nations around on climate change, Sandschneider says this won’t work. However, according to Yu Jie, the central government has issued CO2 targets for the regions. Air quality is improving in big cities, and Jinping has declared pollution reduction one of his three major challenges alongside eradicating absolute poverty and reducing financial risk. Whether, as growth slows, this will remain a priority is a moot point.

Zachary M Hosford, Prof Dr Eberhard Sandschneider, Dr Yu Jie; chaired by Dr Julia Strasheim, Deputy Managing Director, Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung
Zachary M Hosford, Prof Dr Eberhard Sandschneider, Dr Yu Jie; chaired by Dr Julia Strasheim, Deputy Managing Director, Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung


The final panel was the only topic I could somehow pass off as being work-related, and for me the one I was most looking forward to. The room emptied out significantly before this panel, which may be due to people feeling intimidated (or bored) by the topic but it could have been that people had to catch trains.

Similar to the first panel, there was a divide between an American participant who was rather pessimistic, and Europeans being more upbeat.

Wolfram von Heynitz, Head of the Cyber Policy Coordination Staff, German Federal Foreign Office, started by reminding us all to have strong passwords, as individual resilience is a plank within the German government’s strategy. He says the internet is no longer seen as a place where laws don’t apply, and strategies are being put in place to bring the internet within the norm-based international order that was spoken of so often during the day. Deterrance is part of that strategy, and a cyberdiplomacy toolbox has been created to help European states deal with cyberthreats.

Prof Dr Robin Geiß, Chair of International Law and Security, University of Glasgow, Director of the Glasgow Centre for International Law and Security (GCILS), was also quite upbeat. He says states are getting better at dealing with cybersecurity.

Melissa Hathaway, President, Hathaway Global Strategies, LLC – a former adviser to both Bush and Obama – painted a much darker picture. She quickly recapped the history of the interet (started 50 years ago as a research project to provide a resilient communications network in the event of nuclear strike; was never designed for commercial use but started booming in 1985 when the first .com domains were issued; fatally flawed in terms of security; and now the internet of things is coming and so many devices are utterly insecure. Only around the time of the Y2K bug did a discussion on security begin.) She criticised the tech scene’s mentality of putting out products and patching them up as security bugs arise. 100 US cities were ransomewared last year alone.

In an op ed directed at Trump, she said she advised him to concentrate on three priorities:

  • Electricity
  • Financial systems
  • Communications

If any of these go down, a nation is in big trouble because everything depends on them. At one point, she said the army should teach recruits to navigate by the stars again, because the consequences of cyberattacks could take out all their equipment.

Apparently, Maersk (the shipping company) was hit by a devastating attack that took them offline for weeks. This had passed me by – I wish I hadn’t stopped listening to Security Now for so long – but Hathaway says the company is responsible for 7% of Norway’s GDP. In her view, because this was fallout from the Ukraine conflict, there should have been a claim for war reparations.

There was some talk about the Huawei issue. Melissa Hathaway was, again, on the pessimistic side. Involving Huawei in infrastructure would, she says, allow them to divert, intercept and block traffic – and nobody knows how close the company is to the Chinese state. The US, she says, is not promoting its own companies here (because no-one can compete with Huawei on the technology required) but suggests Ericsson and Nokia as alternatives. The argument did bleed beyond cybersecurity, though, with considerations of economic dependency on the Chinese if Europe and the US aren’t able to establish their own capacity to build such infrastructure.

I have to say, I’m a little sceptical of the cybersecurity case against involving Huawei. Today, traffic can be intercepted quite easily if a foreign government wants to spy on you but we rely on encryption, which (as far as we know) is strong enough to protect us. Business people travelling to China rely on it, we rely on it in VPNs when we’re in public wifi networks (or should), and we networks with all manner of insecure devices. So infiltrating us would probably not be made that much easier by having Huawei equipment at the centre of the network.

Given the threat of quantum computers making current decryption defunct, one way or another there’s a big challenge on the horizon.

The various names of treaties and initiatives passed me by somewhat (it was getting late in the day), but there was an interesting discussion about how to apprehend criminals abroad, including those who are supported or tolerated by states. One suggestion was to make states responsible for bringing to justice anyone who commits transgressions on their territory, or using hardware that is located there. It sounds like a good idea, but – despite some panellists’ assurances – I’m not sure attribution is an exact science. Take the Bezos affair: there’s still no smoking gun, just supposition. And making states responsible in this way would be an excellent fig-leaf for them to outlaw encryption and pursue dissidents.

Left to right: Prof Dr Robin Geiß, Melissa Hathaway, Prof Dr Jörg Philipp Terhechte (chair; Vice-President, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg), Wolfram von Heynitz
Left to right: Prof Dr Robin Geiß, Melissa Hathaway, Prof Dr Jörg Philipp Terhechte (chair; Vice-President, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg), Wolfram von Heynitz

Evening Reception in the Rathaus

The day was rounded off by an evening reception in the opulent Kaisersaal of the Rathaus, hosted by the First Mayor, Peter Tschentscher. This was followed by informal chats over canapés and a couple of glasses of wine.

Like last year’s “Rethinking Europe” event, this conference was inspiring and informing. It’s great that Hamburg, despite not being a capital city, can offer this calibre of events throughout the year. Next stop: Europacamp.