Highlights from the 2013 Members’ Conference

A World in Transition

Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe kicked off the 2013 Members’ Conference by welcoming everyone to the Council’s new headquarters and setting the tone for the day’s theme: A World in Transition. This year’s conference was designed to highlight the Council’s in-house experts and brief members on the policy work across the Council’s ten programs. The day included a briefing on the Atlantic Council’s strategy and new initiatives and featured debates on the hot topics facing the Atlantic community, from Syria and Iran to transatlantic trade and future warfare. After a final panel featuring three former national security advisors, the day concluded with an open house reception welcoming the Atlantic Council’s closest constituents to its new offices.

Syria & Iran: Breakthrough or Breakdown?

The first plenary session convened a panel of distinguished Council fellows to discuss the current diplomatic landscape regarding Syria and Iran. Moderated by Michele Dunne, vice president and director of the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the plenary featured Frederic C. Hof, Syria expert and senior fellow; Faysal Itani, Council fellow focused on the political economy of the Levant; and Barbara Slavin, senior fellow and Iran expert with the Council’s South Asia Center.

Panelists addressed the September agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, pointing out that although the agreement is a positive step in itself, chemical disarmament is just one aspect of a much larger violent conflict. The proposed Geneva II conference, advocated as a possible diplomatic solution by the United States, faces significant dissent from Syria’s allies, including Russia, over the central notion of political transition in Syria and the fate of President Assad. Syria has not reached a point of stalemate as the combatants believe they can still achieve military victory causing a divided opposition and a lack of a cohesive structure that continues to pose significant obstacles.

The recent Iranian diplomatic overtures have shed new light on relations with between Iran and the West. As mentioned in an August analysis, Iran may be a “bright spot” in the region as its newly elected leadership looks to regain a place in the international community. However, panelists warn of the role that Iranian, Israeli, and other regional nations’ perceived existential threats play in continuing to support a proxy war in Syria.

What Does the World Want From the United States?

In reference to the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 Report, Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe moderated a plenary session addressing projected trends for the future of the United States’ role in the world, beginning with remarks from Mathew Burrows, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, on the strategic implications of the United States’ placement in the new global order. Atlantic Council program directors Shuja Nawaz, J. Peter Pham, and Peter Schechter, from the Council’s South Asia, Africa, and Latin America centers, respectively, identified forthcoming trends in their respective regions of expertise, as well as the greatest risks and opportunities for US engagement.

The greatest risks for the United States to consider in its engagement with Africa include the security challenges associated with terrorism in East Africa and the Sahel, but perhaps more importantly, the potential missed opportunity of recognizing the remarkable economic opportunities in the region. US strategy in Africa must systematically prioritize issues of strategic interest in light of fiscal constraints while also recognizing the growing role of new actors, including Brazil, Turkey, India, Malaysia, and China, which in 2008 surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trade partner. Latin America has seen a full transformation in the past ten to fifteen years, including the rise of sixty million out of poverty, improvements in governance and democratic liberties, and the development of major multinational corporations. Going forward, a key theme in Latin America is its assent as an economic and political actor, as well as its potential for foreign direct investment and trade. Although there is great potential for the United States to pursue a global legacy in South Asia, increasing US focus on domestic political and economic challenges may divert attention from this opportunity.

Future Warfare: New Actors, Targets, and Technologies

Following a networking lunch, Steven Grundman, M.A. and George Lund Fellow for Emerging Defense Challenges in the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, moderated a panel focused on a variety of strategic considerations regarding both civilian and military megatrends that have the potential to substantially alter the battlefield of the future. The panel featured James E. Cartwright, Harold Brown Chair in Defense at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Jason Healey, director, of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative; and Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

A major contributing factor to the changing security landscape has been the United States’ power shift to Asia, fueled by a need to have a symmetric adversary. In addition, the rapid rise of the global middle class can lead to massive future demand and heightened tensions over control of vital resources. The exponential growth of technology will also play a crucial role in future warfare. Developments such as tremendous data storage capabilities, advanced robotics, and biotech are already altering defense strategies. 4D printing has the potential to introduce into the battlefield materials that self-program into new shapes as needed. These new developments will bring future challenges to traditional defense including a relative decrease in US global power, a rapid rise in military capabilities of other state and non-state actors, and the potential for new and innovative surprise tactics.

Cyber conflict may also bring new dimensions to future warfare. New ways to conduct espionage, covert operations, and non-state attacks are a few possible threats. Unlike conventional warfare, the cyber battlefield is one controlled by the private sector. However, the ongoing trend of automation will continue to produce better, more fuel-efficient, remote controlled military vehicles that will rely on humans for strategic decisions, but not computational ones.

Where is Europe Going?

Atlantic Council Vice President and Transatlantic Relations Program Director Fran Burwell moderated a panel to explore Europe’s path within the changing landscape of the global community. Panelists included C. Boyden Gray, founding partner of Boyden Gray & Associates; Ana Palacio former foreign minister of Spain; Ross Wilson, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center; and Damon Wilson executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.

Following the euro crisis, Europe has become increasingly internally focused. As the economic and social implications of the crisis reverberate, Europe will be faced with numerous challenges moving forward. Leaders must be prepared to address necessary banking reform, immigration challenges, and perhaps most importantly, the new generation of Europeans that do not view the Union as a security necessity. Despite these internal challenges, Europe remains the most important ally to the United States. The strategic partnership has weathered many economic, security, and political obstacles over the past twenty years, and this partnership must continue to be strengthened. One important tool to this end is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Atlantic Council published a report explaining in detail just how much the United States would benefit from this agreement. While such TTIP has significant merit, many challenges remain. Specifically, the inclusion of financial services in the agreement is seen as necessary by many individuals on both sides of the Atlantic, however opposition by the Treasury Department and perceived ambivalence by the White House can be problematic.

As an EU-candidate country and important friend of the United States, the future of the transatlantic relationship with Turkey will also be significant albeit rocky. Complicated by decisive differences between the US and Turkish stance on several key issues and the very slow moving EU accession process, the United States will need to manage the upcoming challenges carefully. Increased leadership, political will, and capabilities are the keys to achieving this goal.

US Strategy in a World in Transition

Three former US national security advisors came together for the final session to offer their perspectives on issues ranging from the Syrian uprising, the pivot to Asia, and the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, to the big question of what kind of strategy the United States needs in a world in transition. Moderated by Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe, members heard from Zbigniew Brzezinski, counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Stephen J. Hadley, founding partner of RiceHadleyGates LLC; and Brent Scowcroft, interim chairman of the Atlantic Council.

The final panel of the day was on the record and open to press. A full recap with video is availble here.

Atlantic Council Open House

Members joined journalists, government officials, business and nonprofit leaders, dignitaries, and supporters for the Atlantic Council’s open house after the conference. View the full photo gallery here.