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The value of Europe

Richard A. Fuchs
February 16, 2017

Trump, Brexit, EU and NATO crises – international politics are currently being turned on their head. All eyes are now on the Munich Security Conference, where US Vice President Mike Pence is expected to arrive on Friday.

München Sicherheitskonferenz - Moshe Yaalon
Image: Reuters/M. Dalder

More than 500 participants are expected to attend the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC), which officially begins on Friday (17.02.2017). The world has changed radically since the last meeting in the Hotel Bayrischer Hof just one year ago.

From Brexit to "fake news" and the election of Donald Trump as US president, the cooperation between Europe and the United States is on tenuous ground. Potential trade wars loom on the horizon. US cooperation with NATO is being fundamentally questioned. Trump has declared the North Atlantic military alliance "obsolete" in its current form, rocking the very foundations of the community of Western values. And Trump's unclear policy with regard to Russia is fueling primordial fears in many European countries.

As a result of this insecurity, the conference halls in Munich will be packed. Wolfgang Ischinger, a German diplomat with decades of experience and the main organizer of the three-day event, said in Berlin on Monday that he had never seen such a rush to register. "There have never been as many question marks around foreign policy issues as there are today," he explained.

Conference hopes to provide clarity on US policy

München Sicherheitskonferenz - Wolfgang Ischinger
Wolfgang IschingerImage: Getty Images/L. Preiss

47 foreign ministers, 30 defense ministers and 90 parliamentarians are due to attend. The presidents of Ukraine and Poland are already there, as is the new Secretary General of the UN, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, and the NATO General Secretary. "The only ones we didn't invite were the North Koreans," said Ischinger. "We weren't bold enough for that."

All eyes are on the American government delegation, which includes Vice-President Mike Pence. Pence is making his foreign policy debut in Munich with a keenly anticipated keynote speech. Ischinger predicts that the queue outside Pence's conference room will be correspondingly long.

In addition to Pence, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is supposed to attend. The US Congress will be represented by, among others, Senator John McCain. McCain, a Republican, is one of the fiercest critics of the first steps taken by the Trump administration. Wolfgang Ischinger anticipates that America will commit to NATO in principle, but that this is sure to be part of a harsh stance that will demand more financial and military commitment from the Europeans.

'Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and a number of German ministers are, of course, also taking part. Merkel's speech is keenly anticipated as a counterweight to Trump's doctrine of "America first." All around the world Merkel is repeatedly cited as a steadfast politician who champions open and liberal democracy. But with the revival of nationalist movements all over Europe, this political model is being strongly questioned.

München Sicherheitskonferenz - John McCain
Long-time attendee: US Senator John McCainImage: Reuters/M. Dalder

As things stand, the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) will almost certainly enter the federal parliament after the German election in September. Populist parties in France and the Netherlands that want their countries to leave the EU are also predicted to do very well in national elections this spring.

At the kick-off event in Berlin on Monday, the organizers also presented the Munich Security Report 2017, entitled "Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?" The authors link the development of anti-globalization movements with data about growing inequality in Western societies, as well as with increasing skepticism about Muslim immigration and a general loss of confidence in democratic institutions.

'Nationalism is Europe's path to irrelevance'

This is why Wolfgang Ischinger believes that one of the most important tasks for this conference is explaining the value and the resilience of European integration to the new US administration. If Trump's way of thinking were to prevail, Ischinger says, it would be "a disaster for transatlantic relations." Trump welcomed the Brexit decision and encouraged other EU states to follow Britain's example. According to this experienced diplomat, "That would be, without weapons, a declaration of war.".

Deutschland | Wahl des Bundespräsidenten | Norbert Lammert
German Bundestag President Norbert LammertImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Norbert Lammert (CDU), President of the German Bundestag, has issued an urgent appeal to European citizens and politicians in Berlin to counter the growing strength of nationalist-populist movements with facts and tenacity. It was obvious, he said, that no European national state was in a position to overcome the challenges of globalization alone; it was therefore irresponsible for nationalist, isolationist sentiments to be gaining popularity all over Europe. Renationalization of the kind France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen or the Dutch anti-Islam activist Geert Wilders are calling for was, said Lammert, the path towards the "unplanned but foreseeable irrelevance of Europe."

Wide range of topics

In addition to defining the position of Europe and the transatlantic alliance, the conference also plans to address other topics. 140 side events offer the organizers a platform for debate about the countless crises and conflicts around the world. Syria, Yemen and Ukraine will be discussed; Russia's power politics and the growing threat of Islamist terrorism will be at the top of the agenda.

That's a wide range of topics for a conference that began in 1963 as an informal meeting between German and American partners. In this sense, as Ischinger commented, the Munich Security Conference is now returning to its roots. With the election of Donald Trump, there is once again a great deal at stake when it comes to the transatlantic relationship.