The future of the transatlantic relationship has been called into question in the past year, from the trade deal negotiations that started between the US and the EU last July, the close foreign policy collaboration concerning the interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear dossier, to the tensions after the revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection program. On Wednesday, February 19th 2014, ISIS participated in the Transatlantic Conference, “Moving beyond polemics: The real value of the transatlantic relationship” in Brussels.
In a bid to assess the current status of the transatlantic relations, the AJC Transatlantic Institute and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Foundation co-hosted the Transatlantic Conference, proposing two discussion panels, Panel I – Can the West trust Iran? The interim deal and the prospect for a final one, and Panel II – I spy with my little eye: Strengthening transatlantic data protection. Among the panelists, noted experts and analysts focused on a common theme running through the presentations and the following discussions – rebuilding trust in the transatlantic relations after the NSA spying scandal in light of the impeding EU-US trade deal and, more specifically, the rampant mistrust between the West and Iran during the current diplomatic negotiations.
In the first discussion panel centering on the interim agreement between the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, Russia, China, UK, and France, plus Germany) and Iran, the role of trust was recurrently mentioned throughout the entire debate. Weight was given to Iran’s untrustworthy posture during the negotiations and its tendency to exploit the West’s dwindling regime of biting sanctions. Moderated by Mr. Jan Techau, Director of Carnegie Europe, the panel started with a brief introduction assessing the illusive nature of trust in the diplomatic negotiations and it further progressed with a discussion on Iran’s rationality and predictability in its hard-bargaining with the P5+1. The diplomatic talks in Geneva last year to solve the Iranian nuclear dossier have strained both parties in an effort to bring about a negotiated settlement or build more confidence between the international community and Iran. Furthermore, Iran was considered to be making headway in curtailing its nuclear-weapons capabilities, but reality spells a grimmer picture concerning Iran’s real intentions and willingness to compromise. The current biting sanctions have been the West’s best leveraging tool at the negotiations table, but it is far from crippling the Iranian economy or deterring Tehran’s ruling elite to continue the research and development of highly-capable centrifuges.
Dr. Emily B. Landau, Director of Arms Control and Regional Security Project and Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, stressed the fact that it would be a “huge mistake” to forget past interactions with Iran and its willingness to lie, cheat, and manipulate the grey areas of ambiguity in tactical negotiations. According to Dr. Landau, Iran will not agree to dismantle its nuclear program unless it is presented with clear-cut criteria for failure and no-choice scenarios that could even amount to threats of military force or military force per se. It is thus paramount to recognise that Iran is using its nuclear agreement with the P5+1 to delay sanctions, but it is neither prepared nor desperate enough to compromise on its advanced centrifuges program. Dr. Landau further emphasised the fact that the West should have realistic expectations about the efficacy of a dwindling regime of sanctions and its capacity to deter Iran’s “tactical game” in pursuing the nuclear agenda. During the discussions with the audience, Dr. Landau mentioned that even though Iran is following a “zero-sum” logic in the negotiations, there is no chance that either the US or Israel will engage in a war while the international community is conducting diplomatic talks.
Mr. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – Washington, continued the discussion by pointing out the internal dynamics of the Iranian political regime and by passionately criticising the inefficiency of the sanctions regime as a successful deterrent during negotiations. He highlighted the fact that the sanctions are not a good solution because Iran’s revolutionary class has seen worse and are not genuinely hurt by the economic restrictions. On the contrary, the nuclear agenda has enjoyed an almost universal support from the Iranian ruling class, who live under the wrong impression that a strong nuclear program consolidates Iran internally and forestalls possible internal upheavals. Another poignant observation made by Mr. Gerecht referred to the nature of the transatlantic relations and the consolidation of the EU3 formula (UK, France, and Germany). He commended the strong role of France during the negotiations with Iran and anecdotally mentioned the fact that the EU3 was initially brought together because it feared another axis of evil scenario from George W. Bush. During the questions from de audience, Mr. Gerecht underlined the need for a strong sanctions regime to successfully contain and deter Iran, a country counting on the fact that presently no one is willing to go to war.
The second panel shed light on another dimension of the transatlantic relationship, taking on the potential challenge posed by the NSA data collection program to the negotiations between the US and the EU for a comprehensive free-trade deal that started last July. Mr. Jason Isaacson, Director of Government and International Affairs – AJC, as moderator of the debate, underscored the fact that the NSA spying scandal has put a major dent in the trust relationship, which could spill-over into the trade deal negotiations and intelligence sharing protocols between the partners. The current tension has provoked a long overdue and serious discussion among allies about the proper balance between security and liberty, and even prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss with French President Francois Hollande new rules for sharing intelligence data with the US. A balance has to be reached between national security interests and the privacy of individual, the most challenging goal on the agenda being the strengthening of transatlantic data protection.
Sir Graham Watson, MEP Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, raised the issue of data collection programs without democratic oversight such as the PRISM surveillance system launched by the NSA in 2007. Its existence was leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who then warned that mass surveillance was not only limited to criminal and terrorist activities. Sir Watson further discussed the European Parliament’s position on the trade deal with the US, as well as the Civil Liberties Committees’ preliminary conclusions of its inquiry into the surveillance of EU citizens by the NSA and EU member states. The Committee recommended that the European Parliament should withhold consent on the trade deal unless adequate solutions for data protections are agreed upon. Nevertheless, during the questions from the audience, Sir Watson stressed the fact that the two issues should be decoupled, as trade negotiators should not handle issues pertaining to the realm of Justice and Home Affairs. Dr. Alan Mendoza, Executive Director – Henry Jackson Society, debated the problematic philosophical difference between the US’s and the EU’s perspectives on the right of privacy and security. He highlighted the fact that it is a terrible error from the EU to impose moral restrictions on the US in terms of prioritising the right of privacy over security. According to Dr. Mendoza, Snowden is not a hero or whistleblower but a high security operations risk and reminded the audience that the US may take trade elsewhere if human rights restrictions from the EU are put in place. Lastly, Mr. William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, Europe, Middle East and Africa – Google, painted a worrying picture concerning the rise of governmental involvement in data gathering without any democratic oversight all around Europe, mentioning the cases of France, The Netherlands, Germany, UK, and Turkey. He further went on to suggest that the fall-out of such practices is serious, affecting issues related to the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of speech.
The future of transatlantic relations and the trust among the allies is dependent upon both parties’ willingness to continue their historical cooperation and to find new mutually agreed upon benchmarks of interaction. The collapse of the transatlantic cooperation is a likely possibility, albeit one that will make itself apparent in the long run and due to further evidence of mistrust. There is a high demand for re-branding the nature of transatlantic relations in the 21st century.