European security in its winter of discontent

This year’s Munich Security Conference was held amid an atmosphere of deep foreboding. It became a meeting that was not so much about western security as about the West itself.

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The mood

Though there are participants and speakers from China, Russia, Iran and elsewhere outside the western alliance system, this is primarily a gathering of the Euro-Atlantic security community – its political leaders, policy makers and strategic analysts. From year to year, the focus and tone of the conference vary according to international circumstances and conditions. In 2016, the main issues were relations with Russia, conflict in Syria and rising concern about the capabilities of the Western group of states.  Did they, speakers asked, have the capability to counter an increasingly assertive Russia? Could they find a way to decisively influence developments in Syria?

This year, that concern consolidated into a meeting about the West. What is it? Is it under threat? Can it endure? The conference special Security Times from the Die Zeit stable captured the mood with its front page wrecking ball cartoon.

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The Trump

Part of the reason for this, of course, is America. There’s a new US administration, which means heightened interest among the Munich crowd. And this is not just any new administration.

Uncertainty about President Trump runs deep in many quarters, as is well known. This elite community is no exception. Many perceive in him an absence of the presidential voice and demeanour. They share the rising tide of disdain for his disregard for facts. Many have deep concerns about his and his close associates’ views on and links with Russia. They wonder if the US will continue to oppose Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. More generally, they ask how much the new President really cares about European security as they understand it, and if he still thinks NATO is ‘obsolete’.

Beyond that, Trump’s description of the news media as ‘the enemy of the American People’ quickly generated genuine concern about how far his administration shares values such as freedom of the press. One of the moments of the conference was when a German participant asked American senators what they thought about their President’s use of that grimly evocative phrase – enemy of the people.

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In short, many members of the Euro-Atlantic security world are not sure of the US commitment to Europe and some have twinges of doubt as to how committed they can be to this version of the US.

The politics

There is a further dimension of concern. It is not just about Trump. Now we turn to Brexit and to the much discussed populist shift in European politics – Marine le Pen in France, Sweden Democrats, UKIP and the rest, not to mention Geert Wilders in the Netherlands launching his election campaign with references to ‘Moroccan scum’. They draw in part on the same well of feeling as did Trump’s successful election campaign. The politics of today reflect widespread, palpable, almost tangible discontent and disillusion with a distant political and social elite. The latter is not described in specific detail and indeed takes a different shape from one populist politician to the next, one speech to the next. That vagueness, however, is irrelevant; in the gut, tens of millions of citizens know who they are talking about, whom they blame and revile, whose guidance and norms no longer satisfy.

This is by no means the rebellion of the under-privileged. It is certainly not the rebellion of the young. And it is self-evidently not a rebellion coming from the left. It is, however, a withdrawal of consent to authority of the kind we are used to, and to the range of political choice that has been on offer.

And it is sending shivers down the spines of those who have been carrying out the business of government in Europe and beyond.

The teasing

Among those who look after the security portfolio, this general malaise translates into a deep foreboding, feeling assailed in the east and undermined at home, anxious about their big ally.  This year’s Munich Security Report locked onto the ill ease with its sub-title: Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to pick up on this, referring to a new post-West world order on Saturday. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif followed suit on Sunday morning. You could not escape the impression they felt comfortable teasing the West about it. It remains a fascinating aspect of the high-level Chinese participation at both Davos and Munich that they do not join in the fun at the West’s expense. Rather, they speak for some parts of the West’s enterprise of globalisation. How the geopolitical and geo-strategic meaning of that distinction between Russian and Chinese positions unfolds will be one of the determinants of world politics in the decade to come.

The message

So Western Europe’s leaders waited to hear what US Vice-President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis had to say in Munich. Their job was both to give assurance and simultaneously to drive home US insistence that NATO Europe increase military spending.

That is not just the demand of President Trump, it was also the policy of President Obama, and also of NATO as confirmed at its 2014 summit meeting. In fact, successive US administrations have made this demand since at least the 1970s. But perhaps President Trump does it more loudly and forcefully than his predecessors.

The effort to reassure was evident: ‘The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance,’ Pence said. ‘Under President Trump we will always keep faith with you.’ The spending message was also clear: ‘For most,’ said Pence, ‘the time has come to do more.’

The audience reception seemed warm enough in the conference hall though not surprisingly a bit cooler when the spending issue was raised. But the impact was likely less than it seemed. Speaking either side of Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign  Minister Sigmar Gabriel both raised queries over important elements of the message, including on willingness to spend more on the military.

One problem was that Pence and Mattis were strong on fine words but weak on specifics.

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For example, on an issue of high priority among European leaders, Pence insisted, ‘The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found.’ A common reaction afterwards could be summed up as, ‘Yes, but how do you plan to do both?’ Perhaps the problem is simply that a vacuum exists where there should be a policy on NATO, Europe and much else. No specifics were offered because, perhaps, there are none to offer. Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault coolly tweeted that Pence managed to speak about the US alliance with Europe without mentioning the EU.

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In other words, it was not only the detail that was lacking.

Accompanying Americans also ensured everything was not as clear as the administration hoped. The speech by Republican Senator John McCain on Friday was widely interpreted as a rejection of Trump’s worldview. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said that assessing Trump’s policy is not possible when there is no policy.

The Munich Security Conference ended with as many doubts and uncertainties, as many open and unsettling questions as it began.

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