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'World on the brink,' warns Munich Security Report

Matthias von Hein | Lewis Sanders IV
February 8, 2018

With the US's international role waning, Europe must define its own future, says a highly anticipated report. This assessment sets the agenda for leaders in the run-up to Germany's pre-eminent conference on security.

Helicopter with a rising full moon in the background
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/J. D. Ake

Security experts are rarely optimists and security reports rarely optimistic. That holds true for the latest Munich Security Report published on Thursday. Titled "To the Brink — and Back?" it forecasts a new era of uncertainty on the horizon.

"In the last year, the world has gotten closer — much too close — to the brink of a significant conflict," wrote Munich Security Conference (MSC) Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, who has served as Germany's former ambassador to the US and UK.

Ischinger pointed to ever-louder saber rattling between the US and North Korea, the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and ongoing tensions between Russia and NATO in Europe.

Read more: Germany's Angela Merkel needs a Donald Trump strategy

American 'sabotage'

The latest MSC report followed up on last year's forecast that the United States under President Donald Trump could forfeit its established role as the guarantor of international security by acting unilaterally and furthering an American-centric vision at the cost of its traditional allies.

Under Trump, the US has given up on policies based on shared values, showing little interest in developing regional or global institutions that shape international relations, and instead favoring bilateral ties that serves its own interests, according to the report's assessment.

That attitude goes hand-in-hand with the White House's lack of interest in advancing diplomacy. The budget at the US State Department has been mercilessly slashed since Trump came into office while defense spending has increased significantly.

"The world's most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created," the report said, quoting John Ikenberry, a US foreign policy expert at Princeton University.

A new era for Europe

For Europeans, the US's policy shift means doing more to provide for their own security, including rethinking defense spending, streamlining capabilities and defining a defense union.

If EU member states and Norway would abide by NATO's so-called "2-percent rule" and invest 2 percent of their GDP in defense, it would translate into a spending increase of nearly 50 percent, taking total expenditures up to roughly $386 billion (€314 billion).

But if the EU's militaries are to become more efficient, they will need to become better connected. The report's authors pointed to what they describe as the "interconnectedness and digitization gap" in Europe. However, to close this gap, EU countries would need to commit even more funds. Meanwhile, a consolidation of Europe's scattered defense industry would be crucial to securing the continent's own capabilities.

Read more: What would Europe's 'fate' be without the US?

Even with such challenges, the report managed to identify a few positives on the horizon. One is that European states are growing closer to one another in some respects. For instance, 25 states have decided to coordinate their defense and security policy on an EU-wide basis in what is known as the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO.

Meanwhile, France and Germany have declared their desire to design and build a new generation of fighter aircraft. Moreover, the idea of a joint European army has found a major supporter in French President Emmanuel Macron.

The report quotes German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a reminder of Europe's newfound predicament: "The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over … We Europeans will have to take our fate into our own hands."

Climate change, conflict, migration

While the report detailed traditional and non-traditional threats to liberal order and international relations, it noted that climate change should continue to be a major factor when states consider security risks. The report pointed out that 2017, which was one of the hottest years ever recorded was marked by catastrophic storms, droughts and floods.

Moreover, the US's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and its decision to remove climate change as a security threat from its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) is a step in the wrong direction, according to the report.

Climate change's impact on international relations will also go beyond natural disasters. "While climate change will affect economic, security and political systems all over the world, it will mainly act as a 'threat multiplier' in those states with limited capacities to deal with it," the report said.

Read more: The world at 3 degrees: What it means for five cities

Notably, low-income countries will be hit hardest. Climate disasters, especially droughts, will continue to have a knock-on effect, especially in parts of Asia and Africa, where it has the potential to fuel conflict and, consequently, displacement.

For Europe, which has witnessed hundreds of thousands of migrants make the dangerous journey from Africa to its shores each year since 2015, that means taking decisive action on how to re-position its development strategy south of the Mediterranean.

Understanding the interconnected nature of today's threats and how to stop them from snowballing will continue to be a core challenge for the international community, especially in the years to come.