February 27, 2017

“There Is Massive Uncertainty”: The 2017 Munich Security Conference (MSC) amid Unprecedented Volatility

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the 53rd Munich Security Conference speaks at the opening in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2017.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the 53rd Munich Security Conference speaks at the opening in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2017.

“Today’s international security environment is more volatile than it’s been at any point that I can remember in my career. There is massive uncertainty”.

These opening remarks at the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) by conference chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger set the tone of the event by spelling out the gravity of the situation. Indeed, it has become hard to predict the evolution of American foreign and security policy. Ambassador Ischinger’s blunt and honest remarks were addressed almost directly to the representatives of the new US Administration; indeed, the MSC chairman made it clear that there was particular “massive uncertainty” concerning the transatlantic relationship.

To explain this massive uncertainty, one needs to go back to the 43rd Munich Security Conference in 2007. Ten years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin delivered a momentous speech in which he rejected what he called a “unipolar” world led by the US and the West, accusing the latter of savaging international law and stability through NATO expansion and military intervention. Retrospectively, the statement was used as a justification for Russia’s subsequent military interventionism. The past decade has seen Russia violating the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity with blatant use of force against its immediate neighbours. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed the 2017 MSC by demanding a new “post-West” world order, in which international relations would be guided solely by national interests, rather than by a commonly agreed set of rules and principles.

The West is now being challenged. Events in Europe and the United States give a hint of what could turn to be an “illiberal moment”. The liberal democratic order is under attack from both within and without. Populism and cultural anxiety in western democracies are pushing illiberal political forces to the forefront, while the war in Syria and the refugee crisis are stretching European liberal values and solidarity. From the outside, meanwhile, Russia is stepping on the foundational principles of peace in Europe and the liberal rules-based order. These challenges have combined to bring about a shift in the sources of geopolitical risk. The war in Ukraine is a cruel reminder of this situation while the West offers a divided attitude and the transatlantic relationship is suffering an unprecedented confidence crisis.

2007 – 2017: an international order turned upside down?

During the past decade, the international order appears to have turned upside down. In 2007, it was hard to reasonably consider the United States or western liberal democracies to be a source of geopolitical risk as such. Now consider Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the prospect of a number of illiberal governments and political forces grabbing power in Europe. In 2007, the western liberal order was soon to be challenged by the global financial crisis whose political consequences continue to be felt. Globalization and European integration are perceived with increasing scepticism by the electorate, while “cultural insecurity” is becoming a popular electoral theme. Ten years ago, the West was a source of stability and critical voices were by then far from positions of political responsibility.

Addressing the 2017 MSC, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov railed against “democratization” and against NATO, to which he applied the classic label “Cold War institution”. Another significant aspect of the address was when the Foreign Minister meaningfully welcomed the success of “certain” politicians in the US and in Europe. Lavrov described his proposed “post-West” world order, a classically realist system of competing powers. It seems that over the course of a decade, Russia has managed to elaborate a seemingly plausible alternative model to that of liberal democracies.

The sources of geopolitical risk have shifted. Paradoxically, political regimes in Russia and in China look more stable and durable than those in the West, notably the United States—where an “insurgent”1 Trump in the White House has cast doubt on America’s willingness to fulfil its international commitments. This past decade has shed a cruel light on the difficulties faced by liberal international institutions to manage and resolve conflicts. The failures of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and the inability to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria left a vacuum that Russia eagerly filled, pushing moral thresholds to an unprecedented low—while its actions in Eastern Europe have seriously undermined the European rules-based order.

Ukraine: war in Europe

There is indeed massive uncertainty in Europe, not least because of the prolonged conflict in Ukraine, which has already claimed more than 10,000 lives and ravaged a region home to nearly 5 million people. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has currently reached a stalemate—a situation that brings with it the real risk of creating a lawless zone with a massive destabilization potential for the continent. Despite the diplomatic momentum that led to the brokering of the second Minsk Agreements in February 2015, the conflict is far from frozen. OSCE observers report ceasefire violations from both sides on a daily basis, and have frequently noted the entry into Ukraine of barely disguised Russian military personnel. At Munich, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned conference participants about Russian expansionism and called for unity and the maintenance of a solid transatlantic bond.

However, in the face of Russian aggression, the Western consensus is beginning to crack. The war in Ukraine has undermined the foundation of European security and the Helsinki core principles. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 not only violated central principles of international law but also the specific commitment to refrain from threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity made by Russia in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and reaffirmed in 2009 – namely, the US, the UK, the Russian Federation and Ukraine committed to respect the “independence and territorial integrity and existing borders of Ukraine” upon Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Russia and the wave of Russian counter-sanctions created a confrontational situation in which the main benefit has been to present Russia with a unified response. However, some divergent voices in Europe—including some EU member states—have already called for easing the sanctions and resuming a better economic dialogue with Russia.

The international environment does not seem to be favourable to a lasting peace agreement in Ukraine. At Munich, Foreign Minister Lavrov meaningfully characterized the war in Ukraine as an internal conflict, avoiding any mention of Russian involvement. Russia’s interest in creating an ongoing climate of uncertainty for the West is crystal clear. Russia has a free hand to block implementation of the ceasefire while retaining the ability to revive it, should it serve its interests. Meanwhile, there are worrisome signs of a new American attitude towards Russia. Despite the recent statement from the new US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in response to the increase in violence in eastern Ukraine, President Trump has consistently repeated his intention to strike “deals” with the Russian leadership and hinted he might dissociate economic sanctions from the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.

European Security and the cracking transatlantic alliance

With massive uncertainty and a highly volatile security situation, 2017 should be the time for America and its European allies to stand firm together and reaffirm the essence of their alliance. That was Ambassador Ischinger’s point when he reminded the delegates of the importance of the transatlantic bond. He quoted Richard Holbrooke, negotiator of the 1995 Dayton Agreements in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to remind the audience that a strong transatlantic relationship is paramount to both American and European security interests. Despite their formulaic addresses, the representatives of the new US administration did not manage to reassure Europe about President Trump’s intentions.

Vice-President Pence stated that American support to NATO was “unwavering” while Secretary of Defence James Mattis offered a rather ambiguous vision of NATO’s future. For Mattis, the main priority of the Alliance is to adapt to emerging threats in its southern environment. That, in his opinion, is the only way to keep NATO strategically relevant and fit for action. The recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, which are linked to an unpredictable situation in the Middle East and North Africa, were cited to justify that vision.

What was striking in the defence secretary’s speech was what was left unspoken. Mattis made no mention of Russia nor of threats in NATO’s eastern neighbourhood. Considering the recent surge in NATO troops in the Baltics and in Poland, this silence is deafening. Europe should get it right. For President Trump, Russia may not be a major security concern. President Trump’s repeated priority on the so-called Islamic State shows that the focus on terrorism seems to have prevailed over the strategic challenge posed by an increasingly assertive Russia in Europe.

The situation of the transatlantic bond looks rather contentious since Europe and the US are simply not on the same page. American representatives reasserted the long-heard complaint about Europe not paying its fair share for its own defence. But the United Nations Secretary General provided Europeans with a strong line of counterargument. Global security challenges are intricate and multidimensional. Any meaningful response to those crises cannot be solely military. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that spending on development aid, cooperation programs and soft resilience building measures was acutely relevant to preventing and managing crises. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini went further to explain that smart spending should be channelled through EU instruments. Earlier, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker paved the way for his European colleagues to contest the US charges before the Conference. He strongly expressed his reticence to “let[] ourselves be pushed into this and argued that when comparing US and European defence spending, soft measures such as humanitarian aid and development cooperation should be taken into greater account—and would offer a rather different picture.

There is surely massive uncertainty within the transatlantic community. The relationship between Europe and America seems to be looser than it has been in many years. Russia’s assertive foreign and security policy is undermining the international rules-based order in general and European security in particular—but faces only a mitigated response in return. Finally and perhaps most importantly, western democracies are divided. You might think that this is nothing new. Western democracies have already been enduringly divided over the Second Gulf War. What has changed this time is that existential doubts add up to substantial divisions. The title of the Munich Security Conference 2017 report “Post-truth, post-west, post-order?” expresses this general disarray. For the first time in many years, the future is truly blurred.
1 “America’s President: an Insurgent in the White House”, The Economist, February 4th 2017

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