The Munich Security Conference, a major meeting of global leaders and experts that takes place every February, historically serves as a bellwether of today's trans-Atlantic mood as well as an indicator of which big topics worry European and U.S. policymakers the most. As in 2017, the wide range of represented heads of state, foreign ministers, journalists and experts on hand at this year's conference overwhelmingly focused their attention on the widening rift between Europe and the United States.
Most observers noted that there was more friction at this meeting than in previous years. The conference has traditionally been a gathering of convinced Atlanticists — people such as the late U.S. Senator John McCain — who expressed blunt opinions, but at the end of the day reaffirmed the need for the United States and Europe to work together, not only for common interests but for common values.
That era is clearly over.
The Unilateral-Multilateral Divide
In the present-day context, two distinct messages were presented loud and clear for the world community to take notice of:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported multilateralism, and meant it.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence supported unilateralism, and meant it.
Indeed, more members of the U.S. Congress attended this year's conference than at any time in the past — more than 50 this year. But across the plenary sessions, differences drowned out similarities. Pence called for the Europeans to join the United States in exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran; Merkel and other leaders reinforced their support for the pact. Many observers, looking at the unquestionable unilateralist-multilateralist divide across the Atlantic, noted in dismay that this new reality could only help those in Moscow and elsewhere who want to see a wider split among traditional allies in the West.
If the old days of hearty solidarity across the pond are now over, what then is on the agenda?
Europeans are seriously thinking about their low level of defense spending (a topic that has been around since the days of the Cold War, but which is now taken much more seriously), the looming threat of catastrophic cyberattack and the prospect of Chinese dominance of 5G technology.
Assessment and Action
There was a time, not long ago, when European leaders had plans for the East (integration of countries such as Ukraine into Western institutions) and South (developmental aid to Africa and the Middle East). Now, rather than acting in step with their neighbors, a more reactive stance has been adopted to threats coming from the East (the Russia-Ukraine crisis) and from the South (disastrous effects of climate change, population growth in Africa, refugees, and the monumental task of establishing stability in post-conflict Syria at a time when Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence seems more prevalent than ever). Europeans shake their heads about Brexit and lament the United Kingdom's exit from world affairs, and expect that absence to continue as Britain sorts out its future.
Yes, NATO's future and its capabilities matter. But political leaders need to break out of the handwringing mode and seek answers to these questions, not just lament the rise of populism or the erosion of trans-Atlantic solidarity.
More important than any particular policy problem, however, is the underlying question about confidence and institutions. Europeans ask: If indeed differences with the Americans or the phenomenon of Brexit are signs of the times (effects, if you will, rather than causes), what then are the causes of the current situation?
Is it the failure of institutions, such as the European Union, to convince non-elites that the institutions are legitimate, or at the very least, able to listen to what the people want? Is it the inability of the architects of the post-Cold War world to adjust to the impact of globalization, or to recognize that the rest of the world (above all, Asia) has changed massively? Or is it, as pessimists warn, a reversion to the true state of affairs in Europe that 70 years of Pax Americana muffled but did not eradicate?
This cannot be left to the old uniformed experts who attended this conference decades ago when it was called "Wehrkunde" — the craft of military science. Yes, NATO's future and its capabilities matter. But political leaders need to break out of the handwringing mode and seek answers to these questions, not just lament the rise of populism or the erosion of trans-Atlantic solidarity.
There's something to be said for a little humility after a period of perhaps too much hubris. But there's also something to be said about faith in the ability of the West to surmount this current period of discord — not by wishing for a magical return to some status quo ante, but by assessing and acting on these challenges.
The message from Munich was loud and clear. Now the question is whether the ensuing debates will prompt a thorough, sober and purposeful assessment as to how to tackle the trans-Atlantic rift and all of its consequences.