Over the past fifty years, the Munich Security Conference has provided U.S. senators and representatives with an important means of projecting American Congressional views to a wide audience of security policy experts from around the globe.  From John Tower to Bill Cohen and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to John Glenn and Joe Biden, American parliamentarians have traditionally been the stars of the show.   

This year’s conference, which begins on February 12, will be one of the most important of these gatherings in several years. New challenges to Western security, be they in Europe, the Middle East or Asia are becoming increasing dramatic. With much of American public interest focused on the upcoming election campaign, an injection of continuity from the Congressional standpoint could deliver an important message to a world waiting for insights into future American behavior. 

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What should this message entail? Above all, that America understands it responsibilities in the world and that it will continue to fulfill them. There seems to be little doubt about this fact among the major contenders for the presidential nomination, but a bipartisan Congressional message is needed to calm fears that the raucous campaign debate is undermining this important consensus.   

Since the conference is taking place in Europe, a highlight of the discussion will be how to deal with Russia, its continued aggression in Ukraine and Putin’s abrogation of the security arrangements concluded at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Putin is sending both his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to the Conference, and we can expect a full and aggressive exposition of Russian views. Their message will be one of anger and disappointment. They will claim that the West cheated Russia after 1990 by enlarging NATO and the EU and not taking account of Russia’s special security interests in its parts of the world. 

Unfortunately, this Russian message is gaining credence among important segments of European public opinion, especially in Germany.  The crushing burden resulting from the arrival of a million or more refugees from the Middle East has increased the vain hope that lessening the pressure on Russia can help find a way to work with Moscow in Syria.  That Russia itself is one of the causes of the Syria disaster has been lost on governments desperate for movement. Only a strong, independent congressional voice can offer a stiff opposition to this Russian campaign. 

Like many things in Europe these days, much of this sentiment originates in Germany.  The German political establishment yearns for a return to the 1970s Ostpolitik, which sought to build peace in Europe through an orderly “European security structure.”  Such a structure did help Russia deal with the end of the Cold War, but it is poorly adapted to the multi-dimensional world of the 21st century.  And Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made clear in his press conference on January 25 that there can be no “business as usual” based on the existing “unequal” agreements forced upon Russia 25 years ago.

The goals that Foreign Minister Steinmeier outlined for Germany’s current chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are illustrative. As the OSCE’s chairman-in-office, Steinmeier issued a statement a few weeks ago that emphasizes the need to renew dialogue and rebuild trust. But what’s omitted is far more significant than what’s included. Steinmeier made no mention of violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity. He made no mention of civil society. And he only once referenced human rights, which was notably listed as the last goal.

The chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, shares Steinmeier’s perspective. He has expanded his moderator’s role in Munich to include discussions focused on restarting such a dialogue with Russia.  That is why this year’s Congressional participants at the conference will play a particularly important role. The discussions in Munich may devolve into an anti-U.S., anti-sanctions debate that would amplify divisions in the EU and weaken the unified Western approach to Putin’s acts of aggression.

Lavrov’s comments show why both the United States and Europe must get Russia right. His alternative to “business as usual” is a so-called mutual security system that Prime Minister Medvedev proposed in a speech in Berlin nearly ten years ago.  Under such an arrangement, Russia would be ceded the right to maintain security in its parts of the world – essentially the former Soviet Union.  This would also entail the right to abrogate the Helsinki principles and interfere in the internal affairs of neighbors. Human rights and civil society would be a thing of the past. 

The fact is, no new initiatives are needed. The Helsinki Final Act provides all of the arrangement necessary to build lasting peace in Europe.  Western determination to oppose Russia aggression helped end the Cold War and it is again the best means of moving Russia in the right direction.  Clarity from the American Congressional delegations at this year’s Munich Security Conference can play an important role in establishing these truths.

Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and former assistant secretary of state for European affairs, is senior counselor for Noerr LLP law firm in Berlin. Vajdich, former lead staffer for Europe and Eurasia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and president of Yorktown Solutions LLC.