The Munich Security Conference has had many memorable milestones over the last half century; I have been privileged to experience several. The famous “I am not convinced” exchange between Joschka Fischer and Donald Rumsfeld in 2003; the gauntlet directed at the U.S. by Vladimir Putin in 2007; Joachim Gauck’s challenge to Germany for it to rethink its responsibility on the global stage in 2014—these are just three times that the transatlantic community found itself at a crossroads in Munich.
Another such moment can be expected at the Munich Security Conference in 2017.
The MSC’s theme for 2017 is “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order”—three challenges we’re seeing today. A new White House administration will present its views to an international audience, a good part of which is unsettled by what it has heard so far.
Trump’s team will present its vision of “America first,” emphasizing nationalist priorities for action in the global arena and posing a challenge to multilateral institutions that the United States and its allies have constructed over decades. So far, that presentation has been anything but coherent. This reflects both the frenetic style of President Trump and the clash of interests surrounding his presidency. The fact that there are different signals being sent from the White House and its Cabinet to both friends and foes is an illustration of confusion about priorities set by domestic politics versus foreign policy demands and interests.
And while Trump successfully campaigned on the premise that he is a disrupter of the status quo, his initial weeks in office have demonstrated perhaps unanticipated levels of disruption in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas.
What does that mean for America’s allies across the Atlantic? The web of transatlantic relations is both deep and wide, unique in its closeness and, despite multiple areas of conflicts, there has always been a belief that the sum of shared goals and shared threats was greater than its parts.
But now that equation seems to be less predictable and more combustible. Part of that has to do with domestic changes in the U.S. and in Europe. Part of it also has to do with the larger disarray in the global arena.
The struggle of liberal democracies to cope with political and economic challenges and to meet their citizens’ expectations has been exacerbated by the impact of globalization and its threats to jobs and ways of life. It has unleashed a populist backlash against governing elites, corporate figures, and multinational institutions, with the resulting emergence of nationalist forces and leaders who articulate them. In Europe, Brexit is the prime illustration of this trend, but other countries are seeing a similar development. It risks upending the six decades of European integration efforts, which have the distinct danger of implosion.
In the U.S., the election of Donald Trump and his “America first” philosophy suggests an isolationist and nationalist reaction to and rejection of the global network of institutions that has marked the past decades of U.S. foreign policy. That policy was shaped by a belief that the U.S.’ investment in building a global order is a core interest in securing peace and stability. The bargain struck by the U.S. with its allies was providing security within a stable global economy with stakeholders doing their share to support it—even if it was an asymmetric equation. While that combination of interest and support might be evolving, there are still fundamental beliefs attached to it that remain intact.
Still more uncertainty stems from the emergence of a backlash in some countries that want to challenge the global equations of power, and in particular the perceived dominance of the United States. This mood was articulated by President Putin at the 2007 MSC when he railed against the concept of a unipolar world as one “in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.”
The past decade has seen Putin’s Russia challenge the idea of a unipolar world with aggressive steps, including the use of force to illegally annex part of Ukraine, attack another country, and insert itself into the Syrian war on the side of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. This represents a form of “Russia First” policymaking.
Similarly, China has also extended its military reach into the South China Sea, even as it expands its global economic influence through the AIIB as a challenge to the World Bank and the IMF. China clearly has asserted its claim as a chief global player in the twenty-first century.
There is a set of tectonic shifts occurring on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed in the global framework in an environment full of increasing centrifugal forces. This has led to a clash over what a new order should look like, who should set it, and how it can secure legitimacy.
The United States has been in so many ways the fulcrum for the global order of the past several decades, but now the uncertainty that many feel toward in the new administration in Washington is increasing. The nervous feelings have as much to do with an unpredictable America as they do about unpredictability in Europe and those seeking to take advantage of both.
Lewis Carroll once wrote “if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” That is not a promising prescription for a world at another crossroads.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.