The annual gathering of the Munich Security Conference provides a useful barometer for the health of the transatlantic relationship. Two years ago, Europeans were reeling from the first year of the Trump administration. Last year, they were resigned to that reality and determined to press ahead. This past weekend, everyone was searching for a savior to address critical challenges amid a lack of global leadership.
President Donald Trump’s name was rarely uttered. At last year’s conference, Vice President Mike Pence articulated Trump’s vision of leadership that required Europeans to do America’s bidding. This year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted a more inclusive approach, arguing: “The West is winning, and we’re winning together.” Yet his defense of national sovereignty sounded to European ears like an attack on their cherished multilateral institutions. (Given Trump’s claim a week prior that the EU “was really formed so they could treat us badly,” this is a reasonable interpretation.)
Europeans widely expect Trump to be re-elected this fall. After their shock at his 2016 victory, they seem to be bracing for the worst, but remain unprepared for the consequences. They inquired about Democratic presidential candidates, asking what Bernie Sanders would mean for Europe and whether Michael Bloomberg was a good compromise for moderates.
While curious about American politics, Germans struggled to explain the leadership woes facing Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who delivered a passionate defense of multilateralism last year, skipped the gathering. Her heir-apparent, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known by her initials AKK), stepped down a week ago as party leader. The decision followed the shocking development in the eastern German region of Thuringia, where their party entered an informal alliance with the far-right Alliance for Germany (AfD). When President Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened the conference, he lamented how the current U.S. administration “rejects the very concept of the international community…‘Great again’ but at the expense of neighbors and partners.” Meanwhile, the German Greens — who are scoring high in the polls ahead of next year’s elections — were out in force. Annalena Baerbock, the party’s co-leader, enjoyed main stage billing where she called for stronger German engagement in and for Europe.
Britain, which left the EU two weeks ago, was notably absent. The government did not send any senior ministers to the conference, though it dispatched several high-level civil servants. The official reason was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet on the eve of the meeting, which required personnel to remain in London to learn their fate; yet neither the foreign secretary nor the defense secretary were affected by the changes. The more likely explanation is that the government still needs to develop its plan for “Global Britain.” National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill represented the government on the main stage, emphasizing the other European institutions in which Britain will remain an active player but failing to describe any policy goals.
Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for the EU to “develop an appetite for power” and a willingness for action rather than commentary. He called on European leaders to abandon the unanimity requirement for foreign policy decisionmaking, though was unclear where and how the EU should act. (In a small victory, the EU agreed the day after the conference to launch a new naval and air mission to enforce their arms embargo in Libya.) He raised American and European eyebrows by suggesting that Poland enjoys freedom because of the Vatican and U.S., whereas he lived under dictatorship in Spain as a result of those same forces.
This left French President Emmanuel Macron as the only Western leader articulating a vision. Citing “a certain weakness in the West,” he called for European unity in defining interests and warned against seeing every security issue “through American eyes.” He called on Europeans to exercise “strategic autonomy” by freeing themselves from dependence on the U.S.; yet he emphasized the importance of Franco-German cooperation (despite his impatience at stasis in Berlin) and explained that an EU defense capability would complement rather than weaken NATO. Although some American attendees swooned over his style and sensibility, many Europeans — especially Germans — complained about his Gaullist approach, worried about the feasibility of acting alone, and questioned his enthusiasm for engaging Russia.
Amid this leadership vacuum, the Munich Security Conference highlighted pressing problems. Climate change featured prominently among side events, with the issue’s urgency underscored by the spring-like weather. Technology was also a significant theme, including a main stage chat with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Several side events focused on Europe’s most intractable problems: Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi discussed the Western Balkans; Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan debated the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh; and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Russia to end the war in eastern Ukraine and return the Crimean peninsula. None of them seemed closer to a solution. There was notably little discussion about the impending humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria.
The most recurrent topic was China, which was almost entirely absent at last year’s gathering. Discussion centered on European debates about allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei to operate in commercial 5G networks; Britain recently announced its decision to give the firm a limited role, while the EU published a toolbox that allows higher-risk vendors with restrictions. China was the sole focus of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s speech, which argued the country is undermining the West’s values. He called for a transatlantic response, warning that European cooperation with Huawei could affect U.S. intelligence sharing and making explicit the need to choose between global systems. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s main stage appearance underscored bipartisan concern, as she cautioned that working with Huawei was like “choosing autocracy over democracy on the information highway.” Yet the equation is complicated for Europe, which lacks cost-effective and readily-available alternatives for much-needed technology upgrades and worries about economic retaliation from Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the comments of American officials as “lies.”
The official theme of the conference was “Westlessness,” which German organizers defined as “a widespread feeling of uneasiness and restlessness in the face of increasing uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West.” This topic prompted political theorizing, as some participants disputed the utility of “the West” as a concept while Francis Fukuyama revisited his post-1989 “end of history” thesis on the meeting’s margins. Europeans seem to assume the continuation of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach. And although they want to exert more unity and strength on the world stage, they currently lack the vision and consensus to do so.