How about Munich Security Conference

How about Munich Security Conference

Insight into the Future of Transatlantic Relations

03/2017  | Reading time: 8 minutes

At the Munich Security Conference, from February 17 to 19, 2017, over 450 senior decision-makers gathered for the world’s premier discussion and debates about security challenges. This year’s event occurred nearly a month after President Trump’s inauguration, which is notable because of the potentially drastic shift the new administration represents in US foreign policy particularly in terms of transatlantic relations.  In an interview in January, Trump remarked, “you look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the UK was so smart in getting out.”  

Angela Merkel is addressing the participants of the Munich Security Conference 2017. 
Source: MSC 2017

Such critical statements worry proponents of a stronger EU, especially amidst rising Euro-skeptic politicians. For example, Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the MSC, wrote an op-ed that illustrates the worries about the future of NATO, EU, Russian aggression, and Western democracy more broadly. He criticizes Trump’s equating his trust of Merkel and Putin, his twitter style, and his dismissal of EU institutions and partnerships. Despite Ischinger’s criticism, he urges Europeans to focus on cooperation with Americans who do not share Trump’s outlook. The speeches at the conference, particularly from US leaders, paint a broader picture of the Trump administration’s approach to transatlantic relations than solely viewing Trump’s statements and tweets.   

Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis provided a more reassuring perspective on the US commitment to shared security concerns, thereby diverging from Ischinger’s analysis.  During his speech at the conference, Pence stressed the new administration’s commitment to NATO, transatlantic partnerships, and reflected on the past experiences of communism and war. He declared, “we are separated by an ocean but we are joined by a common heritage, and common commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law.” Secretary Mattis underscored NATO member’s shared threats and declared “security is always best when provided by a team.”

Donald Trump and Mike Pence shake hands at a Thank You rally.
Source: Shutterstock

Senator John McCain echoed the US commitment to NATO and transatlantic alliance.  However, he provided an attack aimed at Trump by condemning trends towards authoritarianism, resentment against immigrants, and distortion of the truth. He noted that the founders of the Munich Security Conference would be most alarmed by the “sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West, that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without, and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it's unclear whether we have the will.”  McCain differed from his American colleagues by omitting any reassurance of the Trump administration’s commitments.  He remains a harsh critic of Russia, supporting sanctions and urging the US to provide defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine. 

Some European leaders expressed disdain for Pence’s “refusal” to utter the phrase European Union.  Given Trump’s statements and tweets, they viewed the speeches at the conference as incomplete or inadequate representations of the new administration’s perspective. Politico’s Matthew Kaminski noted that “Pence didn’t say anything kind about Merkel, much less pay tribute to the German host, the most powerful European leader who has been a frequent target of Trump’s barbs.” In response to the push for increased defense spending by NATO members, Merkel argued for the importance of considering development spending and that spending is futile without more cooperation among countries. Conversely, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about a new “post-western world order” in which “each country is defined by its own sovereignty.”

The conference raises the question of whether Trump’s statements or his top advisers’ reveal a more accurate prediction of the future of transatlantic relations. Cooperation with Russia remains an uncertainty in American foreign policy under Trump. Is support of Europe and NATO compatible with increased cooperation with Russia? Lavrov’s strong statement implicitly negates the very basis of the EU and NATO.  However, it is unlikely that Mattis and Pence, essential decision-makers in the Trump administration, believe in a post-western order.    

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