Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger talks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
I spent last weekend in snowy Munich for the international security conference that brings together defense and security officials from around the world. The conference heard from the leaders of Britain, France, Israel, Qatar, the Netherlands, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries, the heads of the European Commission, NATO, and the United Nations, and scores of foreign and defense ministers from around the world.
I once dubbed this annual gathering “the Oscars of security policy wonks,” and this year was no exception. The discussions and debates were wide-ranging, covering the gamut of European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and global security concerns. Side events added in-depth considerations of technology and the digital revolution’s impact on individual, national, and global security. There was a lot to learn, a lot of people to see, and a lot to digest.
I came away, though, with two overriding impressions. One is that we face a host of significant problems, many of which can spiral out of control very quickly, and not a lot of solutions. Take the situation in Syria. It has a distinctly 1914 feel to it—outside powers are all playing for advantage, backing various factions, and now increasingly intervening militarily themselves. Turkey is after the Kurdish forces backed by the United States. Israel is after Hezbollah and other forces backed by Iran. Russia is backing Syrian forces that are seeking to wrest control from forces backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the United States. The rhetoric on all sides is escalating along with the fighting. In Munich, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, a NATO ally, accused the United States of supporting terrorism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew comparisons between Nazi Germany and Iran, and threatened to attack the country directly. Sadly, no one provided a positive vision, or even a possible answer, for how to get out of this spiraling situation.
What was true for Syria was true more generally. Munich this year was full of complaining, of listing problems, but lacked any sense of how things might improve. Missing in Munich were the kind of strong statements of vision, powerful calls to action, and new ideas for addressing common challenges that have been the hallmark of years past. This year, leaders came to complain, even threaten each other, not to offer a positive vision for the future.
That wasn’t the only thing missing in Munich this year. America was also missing in action. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, spoke to the gathering, providing an overview of the National Security Strategy released months ago. The Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats joined a panel discussion on terrorism, and the Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was on an arms control panel. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in Munich but, in a first, decided not to speak. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew directly over Munich on his way back from Turkey, but decided not to stop and use the occasion to meet many of his counterparts or speak to the largest international security crowd gathered in one place each year.
America’s absence in the conference hall represented a metaphor for America’s absence from the world scene more generally. In year’s past, American diplomats and leaders would be out there in the world trying to address the big problems, shaping solutions, and advancing the common values and interests that have for so long united many of those who attend the Munich Security Conference. Not this year. And one has to wonder whether it will next year.
Not all Americans were missing, however. As in years past, there was a large, bipartisan congressional delegation, which is one of the welcome features of this conference. Unfortunately, the longtime leader of the delegation, Senator John McCain, was unable to be there. His wife Cyndi came to accept an award on his behalf, and read a moving speech by the senator, whose closing words recalled the true spirit of Munich:
“I am counting on all of you, my friends, to honor the precious, beautiful things that are still entrusted to our care. I am counting on you to be brave. I am counting on you to be useful. I am counting on you to keep the faith, and never give up—though the true radiance of our world may at times seem obscured, though we will suffer adversity and setbacks and misfortune—never, ever stop fighting for all that is good, and just, and decent about our world, and each other.”
John McCain—and his indomitable spirit—were also missing in Munich.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.
US Revives Concerns About European Defense Plans, Rattling NATO Allies
Steven Erlanger / The New York Times
After years of encouraging European nations to work together to provide more of their own defense, the United States is having second thoughts, driven by concerns about NATO and possible protectionism in defense industries. Writing from Munich, Erlanger noted that the new American skepticism has been the big surprise at the conference. And it has puzzled and disconcerted NATO officials, who have welcomed the European Union’s new commitment, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, to do more for its own defense. “It is a mistake for the US to make this an issue,” Nicholas Burns, former US Ambassador to NATO argued. The real task is getting Europeans to spend more efficiently and usefully on defense, he said, given the threats from Russia. “But the E.U. is incapable of creating a competitive structure to NATO,” he added.
“It’s going to be damned hard for us as the only vegetarians in a world of carnivores,” warned German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, at this year’s Munich Security Conference. It was a welcome recognition that Germany needs to do more on the world today. Gabriel’s comments were echoed by defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, who promised increased spending on defense. But the reality does not quite match the rhetoric. Germany has been focused inward since the G-20 summit in Hamburg concluded last July, first to focus on the elections and since then on finding a governing coalition. Gabriel didn’t even stay in Munich for a meeting on Ukraine, instead flying to Berlin to greet the return of a journalist imprisoned by Turkey. And German defense spending, while finally increasing after years of neglect, is insufficient to keep even current equipment going, let alone investing in much-needed new capabilities.
There’s a Lot to Be Optimistic about These Days. And Then There’s the Middle East
Fareed Zakaria / The Washington Post
The ongoing situation in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq epitomize the Middle East’s omnipresent instability. The Trump administration’s strategy to the region assumes that Iran is the main reason for this instability. But the underlying cause, Middle East scholar Vali Nasr argues, is the disruption of the regional balance of power as a result of 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Iran has exploited the resulting imbalance, while the Arab world remains on its back feet. “The most striking reality about the power struggle in the Middle East these days,” Nasr said, “is the absence of the Arabs. Look at the recent fighting. It is all non-Arab powers — Iranians, Turks, Russians, Israelis and Americans — engaged in combat operations to determine who will shape the Arab world.”
Iran, Deeply Embedded in Syria, Expands ‘Axis of Resistance’
Ben Hubbard, Isabel Kershner, and Anne Barnard / The New York Times
Following the downing of an Israeli jet after it bombed sites in Syria in response to an Iranian drone flight over its territory, new attention is being paid to the growing Iranian presence near Israel’s borders. The skirmishes heighten the possibility of a larger regional war. On the one side, Tehran has clearly expanded its ties with allies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon “in an effort to build a united front in the event of a new war.” On the other, Israel is making clear that it will not accept this growing influence, and will act militarily if others do not respond to mitigate the threat.
The War America Isn’t Fighting
Susan B. Glasser / POLITICO Magazine
For all the attention to Russia’s actions during the 2016 elections, a larger threat looms in Russia’s growing military power and influence in Europe and the Middle East. When Ash Carter became President Obama’s secretary of defense in 2015, there was “no campaign plan for countering Russia of the kind that I lived with all during the time I was working in the Cold War defense,” Carter tells Susan Glasser. “The NATO plans, and the US plans for the defense of Germany against Warsaw Pact invasion; all that stuff went away when the Wall came down, and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and we didn’t think anything like that was necessary.” That changed under Carter, but the plans that were developed by the Pentagon to push back against Moscow didn’t get put into effect, largely because America’s counter-terrorism focus continues to take priority.
In Laws, Rhetoric and Acts of Violence, Europe Is Rewriting Dark Chapters of Its Past
Griff Witte, James McAuley and Luisa Beck / The Washington Post
The president of Poland recently signed a law criminalizing anyone who suggests Polish citizens were perpetrators of the Holocaust. This is but the latest instance of a return to right-wing, nationalist, and often anti-semitic stirrings across the continent. The reasons are varied: A revival of nationalism. A surge in prejudiced thinking about and behavior toward minorities following the mass migration over the past few years. A social media culture that spreads information and disinformation alike with startling speed. But whatever the underlying reason, there is an unmistakable sense that something large is amiss in Europe.
Pence Was Set to Meet with North Korean Official during the Olympics before Last-Minute Cancellation
Ashley Parker / The Washington Post
Vice President Mike Pence was set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, and North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, during his visit to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. After days of Pence publicly announcing further sanctions on North Korea and denouncing its nuclear actions, the meeting was cancelled by North Korea. The US goal of the private meeting was not to open negotiations, but to reiterate the Trump administration’s “tough stance face-to-face.” Was an opportunity missed to begin a dialogue?
Russia’s Real Goal: Continue Democracy’s Decline
Gerald F. Seib / The Wall Street Journal
Freedom House, an independent organization, released an annual democracy index revealing troubling statistics about the state of American and global democracy. In 2017, 71 countries suffered “net declines in political rights and civil liberties.” Additionally, the annual democracy index from the Economist magazine found that 89 of 167 countries received lower scores in 2017 than they had in the year before. The decline in democracy worldwide, is matched by political paralysis here at home and the end of America’s longstanding policy of promoting democracy abroad. In such a world, the real winners are a China that is filling the vacuum and a Russia that continues to do what it can to undermine confidence in democracy.