Some years the Munich Security Conference is more than a series of speeches and background discussions. Sometimes it becomes a stage for sensations, real diplomatic breakthroughs or relentlessly honest position statements.
2007 was such a year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply criticized NATO’s eastward expansion in a much-noticed speech and announced that he would challenge the “monopoly world domination” of the United States. This speech was to be followed by the invasion of Russian troops into Georgia and later the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law and the military occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine.
2014 was also such a year. At that time, Federal President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, under the impact of the wars in Ukraine and Syria, announced that Germany would have to live up to its responsibility and make a more decisive and substantial contribution in the future. This was followed, after all, by a tentative intensification of German efforts to defend the Alliance in general and the operational capability of its own armed forces in particular. From the point of view of many Allies, this was still far too little – but the “Munich Consensus” still serves as a benchmark for German foreign and security policy today.
2020 was not Such a Year
The organizers around Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger had apparently come to the conclusion, in their choice of motto for this year’s event, that the world was still moving towards the abyss and not away from it (2018: “to the brink – and back?”), that no one had yet been found to pick up the pieces (2019: “Who picks up the pieces?”) and that the West now lacked a sense of belonging and attraction (2020: “Westlessness”).
As the term “westlessness” suggests, two major issues were raised by the keynote speakers: the state of transatlantic relations, which has not improved as a result of the recent escalation in Iraq and Iran; and European security and defence policy, which has been significantly weakened by the British withdrawal from the European Union.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented these two issues in his opening speech. With regard to transatlantic relations, he noted that “the United States of America (…) under the present administration itself has rejected the idea of an international community”. To justify his criticism, he listed, among other things, the US withdrawals from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the nuclear agreement with Iran. NATO nevertheless remains an important pillar of European security, as does the European Union. The latter, however, should not be seen by the Germans as an option, but as their “strongest, most elementary national interest”.
Steinmeier found an enthusiastic listener in French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron expressed that he would have found himself very well represented in the German President’s opening speech. He renewed his invitation to Berlin and the other European capitals to work on a genuine common defence policy. He had underlined this ambition only a week earlier when he had called on his European counterparts to engage in a strategic dialogue on the role of the French nuclear forces. Until then, the French Government had always insisted that the French bomb was only for the sake of France’s nuclear protection. Any mention of the adjective “European” had always been rejected by the French in this context.
The conference motto and Steinmeier’s speech triggered strong opposition from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In his speech, he emphasized how successful the liberal social model still was worldwide and how strongly his government would invest in the security of Europe. He referred, among other things, to the largest military deployment exercise in 20 years, the Defender 2020 maneuver, and to his country’s financial support for individual Eastern European states. However, the eight-fold repetition of the sentence “The West is winning” seemed as if he wanted to brush aside criticism of the state of the West simply by exaggerating.
However, both Republicans and Democrats underscored their interest in a close partnership with Europe through the participation of a considerable number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate – in contrast to the United Kingdom, which had just left the European Union and was represented only by its national security advisor, not by a senior member of government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had declined the invitation.
Political sensations, breakthroughs and new definitions failed to materialize. The speeches that received the most attention reflected what had already been extensively discussed over the past few months: The lack of strategic coordination in the North Atlantic Alliance, exaggerated by Emmanuel Macron in his famous “brain-death” interview in the Economist, again intensively discussed at the unofficial NATO summit in December and most recently lamented after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani in January; Macron’s invitation to Berlin to work together to reshape European foreign and security policy, first formulated in the Sorbonne speech in summer 2017, since then repeatedly renewed but never really answered, probably open until a successor for Chancellor Angela Merkel is found.
Perhaps only every seventh edition of the Munich Security Conference produces sensations, breakthroughs and new regulations? After 2007 and 2014 it would be time again next year. At least one would hope so, since the numerous wars and crises in and around Europe urgently call for solutions.
Head of the FNF Security Hub in Brussels.