1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

SIPRI chief: Trump represents 'uncertainty'

Matthias von Hein
February 14, 2017

The Munich Security Conference has been used as a platform for dialogue on the world's security challenges. DW spoke with SIPRI director Dan Smith to examine the prospects of international security ahead of the event.

USA America seen from abroad
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

DW: The 2017 Munich Security Report, "Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?", is out, and it paints a rather bleak picture. "The international security environment is arguably more volatile than at any time since World War II," Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), wrote in the foreword. What is your take on that assessment and the report's title?

Dan Smith: The first thing is that Wolfgang Ischinger is making a very bold historical claim. If you look at the late 1940s in particular - the period of the Berlin crisis, the airlift, the lead-up to the formation of NATO, the time of the fallout of the US Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction, the famines and the hardships that were there in Europe during the winters of that time, the imposition of Soviet control in Eastern Europe - I think that you could also argue that was a highly volatile period.

Dan Smith Director SIPRI
Smith is the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and has a long record of research and publications on a wide range of conflict and peace issues, including nationalism, armed conflicts and peace buildingImage: DW/T. Meheretu

So, I think that, at the very least, Wolfgang Ischinger is making a comparison between that period and this one. And this is what I think is interesting about the question mark in the title of the MSR. Is this "post-order"? Or is it a process of transitioning to a new order? I think that is, in some ways, the key question about our current time.

You were at the conference in 2016. When we look at the most important shifts in global security over the past year, what do you regard as the most striking changes?

It is important to realize that the international security environment can change through small steps which are not necessarily very dramatic ones each year but over several years add up to something quite big. But, if you are looking at the things that happened in 2016 in particular, then I think it is pretty obvious - although everybody is talking about this, so it feels as if one is talking a cliche now - that the election of Donald Trump as American president has, at the very least, brought out into the open several important question marks about the international order as we are used to seeing it.

His different attitudes towards NATO and the EU compared to his predecessors, his different attitude towards Russia compared to his predecessors, his much more assertive naming of China as the No. 1 problem that the US faces in the world - all of these are taking a lot of assumptions that we have held for many years and throwing them up into the air.

The issue now is that we don't really know how those cards he has thrown in the air will all fall down. We don't know what pattern will emerge when they reach the floor again. So, this is a time of uncertainty in any case. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, we would have had a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainties. If we think back to the Munich Security Report a year ago, it was not a particularly optimistic one. It talked about irresponsibility and uncertainty at the highest levels. So I think the election of Trump is a big one.

I think another one is that the situation in the Middle East has potentially changed quite significantly. It is not just a humanitarian crisis, which we have seen in Aleppo and across Syria. It is also a shift in the strategic lineup in the Middle East, for the moment anyway. So much so that Russia has a much bigger role than it has had before and Iran also has a very solid role. Saudi Arabia is very much on the back foot. The US also has some choices to make there about how to react to that. And so do the Europeans - because it is right on our doorstep.

The third thing, which I will point to on a much more optimistic note, I think that the agreement between FARC and the government in Colombia, although it does not completely end the violence and civil war in the country, is a massively positive step forward and could be the precursor for Latin America finally becoming a peaceful continent. Couple that by consolidating the democratic gains in the last 25 to 30 years, and with that also them becoming more prosperous and so on.

You mentioned a number of difficult issues with question marks. Do you expect the MSC to help find some answers, given that a number of key players will be present?

It would be nice to think so. But I think, with the Trump administration so early in its life and with China still figuring what its reaction is or might be to whatever it is that the US could or will do, I think it is going to take some time before the new international order, if indeed we are moving into one, starts to take real shape. I think that maybe some of the question marks might shift around a little bit while we are in Munich. But I am sure we will come out with almost as many question marks as we have going in.

What kind of panel or what kind of meeting are you looking forward to especially?

I think the sort of megatopic, the overarching question which I am particularly interested in at the moment, is the balance or perhaps even a conflict between particularism on the one hand and the rule of law on the other.

Do the big powers - the US, Russia, China and other rising powers in the world - do they stand for the rule of law and for strong international institutions? Or do they stand for their interest first above everybody else and above everything else? And that seems to me to be an extremely important issue: to find out what the balance is going to be. Big powers of course always want a system that favors them and always want to take best advantage of the system for their own interest, but have also in years past had an investment in the world system, even as it was actually during the Cold War period. Is that going to be the same now? Or is it going to be different? I think that is one big megatopic, and I will be looking for answers to that.

The other thing - and this is what I really appreciate about the Munich Security Conference - is the chance for open exchanges. There is a degree of confidence about these challenging questions. The world does feel very insecure to most experts, observers and policymakers at the moment. Good, open, honest exchange about what the dilemmas, risks and problems are is something that we can only benefit from.