Revamping transatlantic ties at the Munich Security Conference

Revamping transatlantic ties at the Munich Security Conference

The Munich Security Conference (MSC), one of the world’s most prestigious geopolitical gatherings, convened from Feb. 17 to 19. Since 1963, the MSC has been serving as an important platform for policymakers and experts to engage in open and fruitful discussions about the planet’s most pressing security issues. The debates, as well as the diplomatic brokering behind the scenes, are considered crucial in terms of understanding the new parameters of global security architecture. 

Amid perhaps the most uncertain times in world politics, this year’s conference has acquired the utmost significance. Even the title of the Munich Security Report 2017, “Post-truth, post-west, post-order?” which was presented prior to the conference, reflected the complexity of the challenges confronting the international community.

In his welcoming remarks, MSC Chair Wolfgang Ischinger asserted that the fundamental pillars of the liberal international order had ostensibly weakened. 

“Liberal democracies are proven to be vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. Many in Western countries believe less and less that democratic systems are adequately able to deliver for them. They favor nationalist solutions and closed borders over global approaches… The willingness and the ability of the West to shape the international order is declining. Are we on the brink of a post-Western age? If so, what consequences would that entail for our security?” said Ischinger, leaving his remarks hanging in the air.

There were many important topics to tackle in the conference such as Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Russia’s power politics, radical Islamism, the human catastrophe caused by the flow of refugees and cybersecurity. 

Against this background, however, the future of transatlantic relations put its mark on the conference in terms of questions about how the West will go about dealing with these aforementioned challenges. 

Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the rest of the world has been trying to comprehend the new administration’s foreign policy orientation. Given Trump’s mixed signals about the U.S. commitment to NATO and the European Union, transatlantic relations stand on tenuous ground. However, the huge U.S. delegation sent to the conference, which included Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other senior officials and diplomats, was perceived as a positive sign of Washington’s continuing commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

The MSC did, in this sense, enable allies to renew their wedding wows. 

Mattis stated that NATO’s Article 5 on collective defense was rock solid. Likewise, Vice President Pence emphasized U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense in comments the next day. In response, European leaders seemed to recognize the U.S. demand for burden sharing as entirely fair and thus pledged to increase their percentage of defense spending. 

Maintaining NATO has acquired more importance at a time when the EU, the European integration project that aimed at preserving peace and stability on the continent for decades, is on the verge of unraveling with the United Kingdom’s Brexit decision. Therefore, another hot issue centered on whether or not Trump would continue to encourage EU members to follow the Brexit example and abandon the bloc. According to Ischinger, such an approach would amount to a “non-military declaration of war.”

“What we need is more collaboration and more integration in and around the EU,” says Ischinger, underlining the role of the EU as the cement of the international liberal order.

The outcome of upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany this year will be crucial in terms of determining the fate of the EU, given the possible victory of ascendant populist parties espousing a clear anti-EU agenda. “If we manage to [get things to] work our way this year, then Europe might emerge from this crisis strengthened and with more resolve,” asserts Ischinger.

Last year, the main focus of the conference was U.S. disengagement overseas, whereas this year, it is whether the U.S. is still willing to lead the Western alliance and uphold liberal values and institutions. 

The MSC, in this respect, provided some clarity on what to expect from the Trump administration regarding Europe, Ukraine and relations with Russia and China. Will the U.S. remain loyal to its promises? That’s something that cannot be taken for granted.