Feb 17, 2020

Europe Must Show Willingness to Lead

Review of the Munich Security Conference 2020
Bild: Emmanuel Macron bei der MSC 2020
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The Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2020 put problems and risks on the table. A great deal of intellectual effort went into analyzing how complex and risky the global security situation is. Discussions about future security risks, for example in cyberspace; the rapid development of dual-use technologies; or climate change and its consequences are rightly becoming more specialized. What is worrying, however, is how little aligned political energy is available to meet these challenges.



The presentations on the MSC’s main stage in the ballroom of the Bayerischer Hof clearly demonstrated who can formulate clear goals and is willing to use the necessary means to achieve them – and who is not. The bad news is that the situation in Germany and Europe still looks bleak despite a new European Commission; a French president who is willing to act; and a transatlantic partnership, which is supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties in the US. Consequently, in some of the statements from that stage, but especially in the discussions that took place on the sidelines of the official program, a good deal of impatience was palpable – with Europe and, above all, with Germany.

The West Crumbles, the West Wins

Anyone who listened to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has to acknowledge that opinions on the state of “the West” could not be more different. The German president saw the unity of the West in danger. Steinmeier emphasized the importance of international organizations and regulations – especially those of the United Nations – and stressed the risk of their disintegration. He urgently warned against retreating into the national.

As in 2014, Germany’s president, its foreign minister, and its minister of defense all spoke at this year’s meeting. Six years ago, their call was unanimous: Germany must take on more responsibility. Last weekend, many must have been thinking how good that would have been. Because, in 2020, the defensive message from the political leadership in Berlin was: “You should be worried about the West; something is going very wrong here, even in our own country.”

US Applies Bipartisan Pressure Against Huawei

Pompeo, however, did not share the concerns of Germany’s leadership about the West. Rather, he presented his vision for a clear foreign and economic policy based on national interests. He did not show any awareness of problems stemming from European concerns about the existing world order – and, thus, also about the NATO defense alliance. When Pompeo postulated “The West will win, we will win together,” the hall remained silent. The lack of applause symbolized the low level of confidence with which Europe is looking to Washington barely nine months before the next US presidential election.

A different tone was adopted by the Democratic members of the US Congress attending the conference. This year’s MSC was peppered with transatlantic roundtables, in which, among other things, a European-American agenda for the aftermath of a widely hoped-for change of power in the White House was considered. As a whole, the US delegation was the second largest in MSC history. Democrat Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, said that it had come to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with Europe and Germany.

At MSC 2020, impatience was palpable – with Europe and, above all, with Germany

The US delegation was united across party lines on the subject of technology policy. Pelosi reiterated that the US is expecting decisions by its partners on 5G network expansion to under no circumstances be made in favor of the Chinese supplier Huawei. Questions of technological sovereignty ran like a red thread through the three days of the MSC. The perception that the world is being divided into technological spheres of influence has become even more concrete.

China determined the discussions, including the speech by US Defense Minister Mark Esper, so much that the subject of Russia played a comparatively minor role in Munich – despite the dramatic developments around the Syrian city of Idlib, where a Russian-backed offensive by the troops of President Bashar al-Assad has triggered the largest movement of flight since the beginning of the country’s civil war. These developments underscored the need for an explanation by French President Emmanuel Macron of his country’s call for a new relationship with Moscow to both its European partners and the United States.

Macron Pushes, Germany Brakes

The topic of the Franco-German relationship and its implications for Europe was also omnipresent. Macron openly voiced his impatience and explained his ideas for European cooperation on nuclear deterrence. The German government’s reaction to his well publicized speech on security policy at the École de Guerre, which took place one week before the MSC, was meager. Since then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been silent, and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has not had the opportunity to shake his hand. These muted reactions stem from the fact that the German government sees NATO as responsible for defending Europe, not France. Especially given its current political tensions domestically, Germany would like to avoid reopening the debate on alternatives to nuclear deterrence. Germany’s lack of positioning on several strategically relevant topics caused astonishment, particularly among international participants.

In terms of German and European foreign policy, the conclusions of the MSC 2020 are sobering. Anyone who fails to formulate clear goals other than the desire to adhere to the “old order” has no credible claim to leadership. Adhering to the values and principles of this old order seems to be normatively correct. Nevertheless, it is important not to miss connecting it to a “new order” – and the opportunity to help shape this new order.

Bibliographic data

DGAP Commentary Nr. 1, February 18, 2020