Expectations for the Munich Security Conference
University of Bonn
James D. Bindenagel is a retired U.S. Ambassador, Henry-Kissinger-Professor (Emeritus) at Bonn University, and Senior Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He has published: Germany: From Peace to Power? Can Germany Lead in Europe without Dominating it? (2020) and International Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert, Deutschlands Verantwortung (2015), both published by V&R Bonn for Bonn University.
The Munich Security Conference convenes at a time of the great unraveling of the world order. The world is less stable and more uncertain than it has been for years. Conflicts and crises rage across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia from Ukraine and Syria to ISIL, and in the South China Sea. The rise of populism in Europe, the UK, and the United States has become a stress test for democracy and European integration. The participants in Munich will see the strength of the rule of law challenged by the strength of power.
The Euro-Atlantic security architecture, once taken for granted, is called into doubt by the American president, who has questioned the American security guarantee under the NATO Treaty’s Article 5. Brexit threatens EU disintegration if other countries decide to follow the UK.
Notably, President Trump’s election has seemed to have reordered America’s relationship with Europe on a fundamental level. The Munich participants will look for reassurance of the U.S. role in NATO. They will also look for European and German financial support for NATO. We are not at the end of the NATO alliance, but rather at the inflection point for the European partners to meet their commitments.
The issue of NATO members meeting the 2 percent of GDP for NATO is not new. Former defense secretary Robert Gates called for greater European support in his June 2011 farewell address. President Obama called on Europeans to do more. What is different is that President Trump has made a threat to not follow through with Article 5 (the principle of collective defense) because other members are not paying enough. Participants will listen closely to Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis for a demonstration of a strong American commitment to NATO. NATO is a defensive alliance that provides deterrence, which has kept the peace in Europe.
We are at the end of the liberal world order that was created in the postwar period and are we embarking on a new, uncharted path. I recall the end of an earlier era: the Cold War in 1990. Afterward, we built on the existing multilateral order with the Charter of Paris, which offered peace in Europe over the last 28 years, and has served us very, very well. Now since President Putin’s Munich speech in 2007 or his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the world order has been unraveling. What Trump’s election has done is to dramatically accelerate the unraveling. He is rejecting the multilateral system in ways we have not seen in 70 years. He sees the disintegration of the European Union, which the United States helped found and has supported. We are facing another end of an era; there’s no question about that. The question is what comes after the collapse of this world order. Sovereignty in Xi Jinping’s China or nationalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are now being joined by Donald Trump’s populism in the United States to “Make America Great Again.” The movement has set a pattern of multipolar conflict.