The Unwinding: Reflections on the Munich Security Conference
The cauldron of crises on display at the recent Munich Security Conference may have been familiar to some who have been engaged in transatlantic relations over the past fifty years. After all, the post-World War II era was marked by conflicts overshadowed by the threat of thousands of nuclear weapons. But at this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), the cauldron of contemporary disorder was overflowing. Even references made to the summer of 1914 or to the Cold War seemed to fall short in capturing the despondent mood. In some ways, references to the seventeenth century appeared more apt. The resemblance surrounding the Thirty Years’ War—a period marked by weak states, armed militias, and terrorist groups roaming Europe embroiled in a clash of religious and communal identities, powerful local actors engaged in conflict unbridled by borders, and no one able to stabilize the region—rang familiar today. In fact, the theme of the MSC summed up the challenge: Boundless Crises, Reckless Spoilers, Helpless Guardians.
The lament in Munich had a common refrain: there are too many crises today, and they are happening all at once and are all related to each other: from terrorism, to instability in the Middle East, to Russian aggression, to the refugee crisis, to European disintegration. The challenge for the transatlantic community it to meet these crises before they boil over.
The Middle East
The promise of a ceasefire agreement in Syria seems more like a promise than a pact. The country is in the center of the Middle East conflagration, where stability has been undermined by a tradition of corrupt (often illegitimate) governments, weak civil society, exploited energy resources without reinvestment, lack of educational systems, and religious and sectarian clashes between moderates and radicals, all framed within porous and precarious national borders. The region is also the epicenter of ISIS, whose tentacles are extending far beyond national borders. Forging any kind of a consensus is a challenge under any circumstances. The continuing efforts to stop the killing are dependent now not only on the main regional players, but increasingly on Russian engagement and negotiations with Washington. The outlook is bleak but there are no options other than ongoing talks while both the violence and increasing refugee crisis continues.
The Russian Challenge
Further north, Vladimir Putin appears intent on challenging the current European and global order as a Western plot against Russia and has aimed his diminishing resources at creating an alternate system of governance and military force based on aggressive nationalism and oligarchical control. His annexation of Crimea and the continuing crisis in Ukraine is but one manifestation of his ambitions. The recent intervention in Syria to shore up a fellow dictator is another.
Even though Putin’s Russia appeals primarily to ethnic Russians, he is attempting to exploit instability in Europe by stoking the anxiety of Europeans in their efforts to deal with a mounting refugee crisis that threatens the foundations of the European Union. Apart from helping to finance the right-wing groups emerging within several EU member states, Russian media propaganda is actively feeding the fears of those in Europe afraid of the surge of migrants. With no end in sight in the conflict-ridden countries of the Middle East and Africa, more refugees are on the way. It is not surprising that Putin’s stand-in at the Munich Security Conference, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, resurfaced the specter of a new Cold War to enhance Europeans’ perception of these issues as threats to their own security—clearly with the intention of diverting attention away from renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine but tactics of military intimidation directed at NATO allies.
A European Tipping Point?
And then there is the threat of a UK decision to file for divorce from the EU, a move without precedent. The reaction to the refugee crisis has resulted in an upending of the Schengen Agreement, as member states raise fences and checkpoints on their borders to hold back the refugee tide. After years of upheaval, the crisis of the euro system is still not cured. And the anger and resentment fueling the blowback against Brussels is contagious.
Of course, there are crises beyond and connected to these three. If one wants more depressing news, look to Africa, where instability and insecurity is multiplying and where the future wave of refugees is already assembling. Or try focusing on Asia, where countries with ambitious identities, growing economies, increasing military budgets, unresolved territorial disputes, and indeed serious clashes over historical memories reflect the same potential for conflict as is visible elsewhere on this troubled globe. With issues ranging from North Korean nuclear ambitions to Chinese weapons on artificial islands in the South China Sea to China’s increasing hold on contested airspace, seas, or territory, the potential for conflict is anything but coherent.
While Europe is having a tough time holding itself together, the United States is not without its own difficulties. Many references to the decline of American primacy in a post-Cold War era were made in Munich. That primacy was based on American power and American influence. It required both a willingness and an expectation—often publicly criticized while secretly desired—to accept the United States’ leadership in crises and in cooperation. There is no question that in 2016 American influence has been weakened in the wake of perceived failures or errors in both overreach and under-reach, whether it be dealing with economic affairs at home, aggressive security policies abroad, or a picture of domestic political dysfunction. There are challenges to the models of liberal democracy and market economy that have been the core of the transatlantic relationship. American engagement, especially in the Middle East, has left behind doubts about American judgment and the reliability of the U.S.’ threats and promises. While the U.S. remains indispensable in many ways on the global stage and its absolute strength remains considerable, its influence has diminished. There were in Munich many who worried about that development, with compelling critique from former Syrian prime minister Riyad Farid Hijab. The Syrian people, he said, have “been shredded and abandoned by the international community” over the past five years and have not seen any “leadership, specifically by the United States of America.” He was not alone in this criticism.
While the current world turbulence will not recede, it could become worse if the United States and Europe prove unable to combine their efforts to confront challenges and make serious choices. The challenges facing both sides of the Atlantic involve similar problems.
The Way Forward
Europe and the U.S. need to shape their domestic political and economic policies toward securing both trust in government and confidence in dealing with multiple crises. In Europe, the primary and immediate challenge is dealing with the refugee issue in an effective way that can restore capacity and confidence in its solution. The centrifugal forces pulling the European Union apart can only be successfully confronted within a stronger and shared European framework. That will take leadership—a quality that is now more the exception than the rule in many European capitals in which domestic forces are drowning out the message. The bickering within Europe over the euro, the sanctions on Moscow, or the refugee problem have all become fodder for those who wish to undermine the stability and momentum of the European project. That has a direct bearing on the capacity of Europe to act on the global stage. Effective policies—both foreign and domestic—must be designed to be mutually reinforcing. Europe’s stability depends on a stable global arena. In today’s world, there is no such thing as time-outs to be called on the field.
The same holds true for the United States. A successful domestic situation can best be created by nurturing the resources needed to exercise American leadership—leadership that remains central to dealing with the cauldron of crises. As is clearly illustrated in the current highly-charged political atmosphere of the presidential campaign, making this case plausibly and convincingly is extra difficult given the tendency toward hyperbole. The country is debating hard questions involving national consensus on domestic and foreign policy and it is abundantly clear to the rest of the world that a large portion of the American public is questioning America’s global responsibilities and the demands on its leadership. In light of both economic challenges at home and the record of recent U.S. interventions abroad, that may be understandable. But whoever is elected as the next president in November assumes the duty of persuading the American public that there is no alternative to an active foreign policy that serves the purposes of domestic security.
Those gathered in Munich were confronted by the obvious: we are witnessing an unwinding of a world order, one being reshaped by a diffusion of power, a multiplication of forces complicating decision-making, and a corresponding degree of anxiety among those don’t know how to understand the changes around them. The question is not whether the world will continue to transform in all these directions, but rather how fast, how far, and how we deal with the challenge.
How we will be able to accommodate the many differing and clashing versions of what the future should look like, while staying focused on securing global stability, is the central question. The Munich Security Conference’s agenda has again reflected that enlarged stage and that enormous challenge that was captured in the famous lines in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”