The Munich Security Conference – to the brink

The Munich Security Conference – to the brink

The theme of the Munich Security Conference this year was “To the Brink – and Back?” Amid a decline in US diplomatic leadership, and with no clear European successor, the conference failed to reassure those concerned by heightened inter-state tension. 

The annual Munich Security Conference has traditionally been dominated by transatlantic voices. Transatlantic relations are not only practical, but have for decades been premised in an understanding that the promotion of values of the post-WWII international order – such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – should be a priority for both transatlantic countries and the international community as a whole. However, at the 2018 conference, it was apparent that these relations are strained, and that real diplomatic and value-based leadership is lacking.

Analyses rather than strategies

The US sent a VIP delegation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, but failed to shake the general feeling of uncertainty over the direction of US foreign policy that has proliferated since President Donald Trump’s election. A few hours after McMaster said in a speech that evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was “incontrovertible”, Trump tweeted “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians”. Meanwhile, Mattis opted not to give a speech or interviews at all. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel opined that Germans feel they are being left to decipher American policy from “words, deeds and tweets”.

While this vacuum of clear, strategic leadership could potentially be filled by a strong, united Europe, this did not materialize either. UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s speech focused heavily on guaranteeing existing UK-EU cooperation post-Brexit, and Britain’s attempts to maintain a level of status quo in its relations with its European neighbors are likely to absorb much of its political energy in the medium-term. The German and French Defense Ministers opened the conference, but while French Defense Minister Florence Parly demonstrated enthusiasm for robust European defense, concrete developments in cohesive pan-European strategy remained elusive.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at Munich. Source: Bloomberg News.

Germany is not only currently struggling to form a governing coalition, but also to meet existing defense targets. German defense spending – at 1.2% of GDP – still lags significantly behind its 2% of GDP NATO goal, and attempts to modernize the German army have been fraught with difficulty. In one highly-publicized example, severe equipment shortages in 2014 led to the German army using broomsticks painted black instead of machine guns during a joint NATO exercise. Meanwhile, Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz’s insistence during the conference on the importance of the EU’s “Christian and Jewish heritage” drew attention to the slide to the right in many EU countries. This is a concern for EU unity and even stability, with fears that the Czech Republic and Poland could hold referenda on bloc membership in the near future.

Tobias Bunde, the Head of Policy and Analysis at the Munich Security Conference, summarized: “to many in Munich, the US increasingly looks like a rudderless ship, and the Europeans mostly offer analyses rather than strategies”. While the transatlantic security relationship continues to grow on a practical level – Carnegie Europe Director Tomas Valasik noted that American funding to the Europeans for deterrence has nearly tripled over the last 18 months, primarily to counter Russian aggression – the US appears to have abdicated its role of value leaderships and lacks a convincing overall strategy. Gone is former President Barack Obama’s vision of the US as a “global force for good”. Instead, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has noted that promoting values is often “an obstacle” to advancing US interests.

A strategic vacuum

In the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the US government notes its key concern as being the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition – notably from China and Russia – that would promote authoritarian and aggressive norms in a direct threat to the post-WWII international order created by the US and its allies. The weakening front of transatlantic leadership on show at the conference will do nothing to assuage these concerns, as competitors are certain to attempt to exploit a fracturing international order to further their interests. Indeed, the conference report itself argues that waning US value leadership may hasten the emergence of a multi-polar world with competing value systems.

As well as a more general threat to the post-WWII international order, specific international tensions were on show at the 2018 Munich Security Conference. In a few dramatic examples, both Ukraine and the US attacked Russian actions and intentions, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested some Europeans were tolerating Nazi revisionism, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up an alleged part of an Iranian drone shot down over Israeli airspace and asked if Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recognized it. As the conference report notes, “the rhetoric between the US and North Korea has escalated, the rift in the Gulf has deepened, not only between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and major arms control treaties are at stake. In the last year, the world got closer – much too close – to the brink of significant conflict.”

Rhetoric at the conference still appeared to be saber rattling rather than an indication of imminent conflict. However, with the traditional bastions of the liberal international order in relative disarray, and a US government that appears to prefer military responses over diplomacy it is hard to imagine that key tensions will cool significantly in the near future. US-Russian arms treaties that have governed nuclear policy for over 30 years are under threat as both countries threaten tit-for-tat escalation in weapon development; US-North Korea relations continue to deteriorate, with Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho suggesting at the conference that Trump has the ability at his fingertips to make good on his threats of annihilation; and tensions between Iran and Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively continue to increase, even while Chinese and Russian international involvement – covert or explicit – will remain a key concern for many in the West.

As the end of the conference, former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, summarized in his closing remarks: “I was hoping … that, in concluding the conference, I would be able to say we can delete the question mark. In other words: ‘We are back from the brink’ … I’m actually not sure we can say that.”

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Molly McParland

Molly McParland is a business strategist who has consulted for companies across the globe allowing them to incorporate international political, economic, regulatory and security risks and opportunities into their decision-making. After completing a Masters degree in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford, Molly worked as a transnational risk analyst for Control Risks in London, before moving to lead international strategy and expansion projects in the technology sector.