The Clouds of Munich

Every February, top diplomats and defense ministers meet for a weekend in the Bavarian capital, with presidents, ministers and specialists coming from all over, not just from the West, but from China and Russia, too.

In Munich over the years, we have consistently heard words of agreement about “world peace,” and “a great equilibrium” but also surprisingly frank (verbal!) sparring, giving a good idea of strategic imbalances, new rivalries and tomorrow’s conflicts.

This year was the fourth conference of the Donald Trump era. In 2017, the rest of the world, still in shock over the November 2016 election, reassured itself by noting that “the adults in the room” were still in Munich representing the United States (namely, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, now distant memories).

These “adults” were said to be coaching the new president and keeping him from doing something stupid, for example, like withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal.

In 2018, reality caught up with them, the turbulent Trump had not stumbled, but foreign officials told themselves all the same that the worst was behind them. Emmanuel Macron still thought that, with pats on the back and a broad smile, he could overcome the unpredictable occupant of the White House.

In 2019, the idea that from a European point of view, Trump’s United States was no longer a reliable partner started to take root, but we still wondered what we would have to do to confront this new reality.

In 2020, the Munich conference had a realistic theme—“A Less Western World”—submitted by the Germans. Under fairly somber auspices, the French president, the Canadian prime minister, the U.S. secretary of state and the foreign affairs ministers of China and Russia were all present.

Pessimism was also present. Speaking frankly, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the United States had unabashedly rejected “even the idea of an international community” and that Europe must thus take note of the withdrawal of American leadership in matters of world security.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign affairs minister, declared that “the future of the Middle East is also being decided in Astana [in Kazakhstan] and Sochi, instead of in Geneva or New York.” It was a manner of saying that facing a growing number of serious strategic questions, Europeans and North Americans appear to be out of the game in 2020.

Macron again presented his idea of a Europe with an autonomous defense (under the French nuclear umbrella), while the Germans, who have not completely come to terms with the end of “America as the protector,” remained lukewarm. Franco-German disagreement is also very strong in economic matters; the former would like to boost Europe through public spending, the latter do not want to hear anything about that.

At a basic level of recognition, Europeans are starting to see what is happening at home more clearly, and to acknowledge a decline that is coming both from within (economic stagnation, unstable governments and an uncertain Union) and from the outside (United States and Russia), even if they are still incapable of agreeing on a common strategy.

But in Munich, they were astonished by foreign representatives who told them that they were dreaming, that they were wrong, even in terms of what they were observing. The immovable Sergey Lavrov, Russian minister of foreign affairs, mocked those who saw “the phantom of the Russian threat” as an explanation for European ills.

And in a strange echo of Lavrov’s words, Secretary of State Pompeo, for his part, went with a planned speech, where he seriously suggested that “the death of the trans-Atlantic alliance is grossly overexaggerated” and that “The West is winning, and we’re winning together.”

The next Munich Security Conference will take place in February 2021. It will either be full of (possibly naïve) hope in welcoming a new Democratic president … or confirmation that after the turbulence of the 2017-2020 period, we will not have seen anything yet.

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