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Letter from Munich - World’s Security “On the Brink”?

Letter from Munich - World’s Security “On the Brink”?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

"To the Brink and Back?" Such was the theme of this year's Security Conference, which is organized every year in Munich since the 1960s.

Over 500 participants, including heads of state and government, as well as many ministers and senior officials, gathered once again, from 16 to 18 February, in the Bayerischer Hof’s stilted lounges. Westerners, in what used to be called the Wehrkunde, had long dealt with tensions specific to the Cold War. The main concern until the end of the 1990s was the strength of the transatlantic relation.

"General McMaster, said that Russian interference in the US presidential elections was now "incontrovertible""

Then, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the range of topics was broadened and the "Security Davos" in Munich was also opened to representatives from countries outside the transatlantic zone. One of Munich’s most memorable speeches was that of President Putin in 2007, as, for the first time since the end of the USSR, the Russian leader embarked on a rant against the Western domination of the world, before announcing that Russia was launching the resistance.

The 2018 edition of the Security Conference oddly experienced a resurgence of many aspects of the Cold War atmosphere. First, because of the rise of tensions between Russia and America and its allies. Indeed, President Poroshenko, as per usual, fiercely denounced the Russian intervention in Ukraine. More unexpectedly, and in the context of the "Mueller Report" published by the US Department of Justice, the US National Security Advisor, General McMaster, said that Russian interference in the US presidential elections was now "incontrovertible". He was later reprimanded by a tweet from @realDonaldTrump.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov naturally labeled the Mueller report’s content as "fake news". In his presentation of world politics, as in those of other Russian speakers, appeared the Manichaeism and intransigence characteristic of a past era.

"Theresa May advocated for a strong security relationship between the UK and the EU once the Brexit process is completed"

There was yet another throwback to the Cold War, brought on by the debate on European defense. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called on Europeans to take concrete action, while mentioning the progress made in the last few months with the European Intervention Initiative and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defense for instance. Nonetheless, his claim of the necessary "strategic autonomy" of Europe was met with manifest skepticism by many European and American participants. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and others, drawing on a decades-long repertoire of arguments, warned against a "duplication risk" with NATO.

As always under Munich’s great barnum, small dramas occured within the main plot. Behind the façade of a smooth cooperation appeared some dissonances between the French and German defence ministers, Mrs. Parly and Mrs. Van der Leyden. British Prime Minister Theresa May advocated for a strong security relationship between the UK and the EU once the Brexit process is completed. She however seemed to introduce an element of conditionality, which triggered uncompromising retorts from certain Europeans (including Mr. Juncker).

One of the conference’s highlights was former Vice President Joe Biden’s particularly solemn intervention - he has been a long-time attendee of the meeting -, with ongoing rumors on his ambition to run for President in 2020 circulating in the background. While Vice President Mike Pence was at best politely welcomed last year, Joe Biden received very warm greetings. This contrast perfectly reflects the current gap between Europeans and the Trump administration. Joe Biden delivered a topical message: six years ago, he came to Munich to announce a “reset” in the relationship between the U.S. and Russia; this year, his intention was to “reassert” transatlantic solidarity. 

"Do not test Israel's resolve"

However, real tensions arose with regards to Middle Eastern issues. The day before, General McMaster had been very tough on Iran’s policy, calling on the Allies to impose severe sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Israeli Prime Minister, who was attending the conference for the first time, demonstrated his determination in what seemed like threats. He warned Iran’s Foreign Minister that Israel “will act without hesitation to defend [itself]. And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself”. Then, holding a piece of the Iranian drone taken down in Israeli territory eight days earlier, he theatrically asked: “Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? [...] Do not test Israel's resolve”. The Iranian Foreign Minister then took the stage, mainly to develop his idea - already shared last year in the same circumstances - of an institution for dialogue and security in the Gulf region, which was considered unsuited to today’s realities by many observers. As per usual, the Minister blamed Saudi Arabia for all of the region’s troubles. Answering questions, Mr. Zarif also refused to acknowledge Israel’s existence. 

Debates on Syria similarly led to a juxtaposition of opposing points of view. The disagreements between Turkey and its European and American allies were mentioned without any hint of a potential resolution. On another level, discussions about the potential end of the international liberal order remained inconclusive. Surely, the performance occurring in the Bayerischer Hof’s conference rooms is accompanied by many confidential meetings set behind closed-doors between officials or unofficials of various backgrounds. Thus, an Iranian delegation met with officials of the external action service of the European Union, while the representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Libya conducted discreet consultations.

Beyond what will come out of these - always useful - backstage discussions, the main observation emerging from this meeting is the rise of tensions, without any real quest for common ground. The master of the house, Ambassador Ischinger, concluded by saying that problems had been identified, but that ways of dealing with them had yet not been defined. "To the brink- and back?". It must be acknowledged that, at the moment, instances or channels for dialogue enabling major international actors to avoid the "edge of the cliff" that lies before us are nowhere to be found.


Photo : Munich Security Conference

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