Shaky security balances on Munich Conference agenda

Shaky security balances on Munich Conference agenda

Before the official opening of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg answered reporters’ questions in a press conference. 

He had to (patiently) answer four similar questions on members spending more on their contributions to NATO, saying it was not only the decision of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis but also of all NATO members, and stressing that this does not mean that Europe is “bowing to the U.S.” as some EU officials believe.

But the insistent questions of the European journalists clearly showed the level of concern. New U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said European democracies can no longer take a “free ride” on the powerful and expensive American defense mechanism.

It is not only NATO, European security, Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia that are likely to be redefined under Trump. It is also the Pacific, relations with China, Australia, and Japan, as well as migration, terrorism, and hot spots like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

It was interesting, for example, to see a representative of the Syrian opposition, Anas al-Abde invited to the Munich conference, where his address was listed as “Istanbul, Turkey.”

Almost everyone represented at the conference is in search of a new future amid winds of change – particularly related to the security environment – under Trump.

The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, the foreign ministers and heads of state of all European countries, the secretary generals of the United Nations and NATO, and almost all high-ranking voices of the EU are represented in Munich. 

So it is more than just a conference – it is a meeting point where out-of-sight bilateral contacts, trilateral and multilateral meetings take place in the rooms of the Bayericher Hof Hotel.

For example, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is scheduled to meet U.S. Vice President Michael Pence in Munich, one day after U.S. Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford’s meeting with his Turkish host General Hulusi Akar at the strategic Incirlik air base about the future Syria strategy and the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Also in Munich, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık is joining his British, French, Dutch and Canadian counterparts, as well as the commander of the U.S. European Forces, to discuss whether the Western defense alliance NATO will either become “obsolete” or “more important” in the future.

In two sessions before those meetings, participants discussed what kind of future awaits the EU after Brexit, and whether “the West” will see a “comeback.”

Another session is titled “Old crisis, new Middle East,” which will be a very interesting panel to follow as it will include Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - a very rare combination to find under other circumstances.

People are discussing the issues sincerely, trying to find answers. After all, nobody knows what lies ahead - even in the near future - as Trump clarifies his policies step by step.