Self-Assurance—To What End?

Aylin Matlé

German Council on Foreign Relations

Aylin Matlé is a research fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations. In that role, she primarily works on German security and defense matters. Previously, she has served as the Deputy Head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Israel office in Jerusalem.

Aylin Matlé holds a PhD from Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. Her thesis “Drifting Apart of Transatlantic Security: The American Mark on NATO under Barack Obama” examined the impact of the Obama administration on allied and defense policies of European Alliance members. Dr. Matlé worked as a research associate at the chair of international relations and European politics at the Martin-Luther-Universität from 2014-2016. Prior to that, she completed an MA in War Studies at King’s College London in 2014. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Management and Governance from Zeppelin Universität, Friedrichshafen.

She was a Fellow in the American-German Situation Room in 2018. In addition, she participated in the AICGS project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement” from 2018-2019.

Many commentators have concluded that this year’s Munich Security Conference was mostly about the West’s self-assurance. The gathering’s motto (Re:vision) points in a similar direction insomuch as the authors of the corresponding Munich Security Report emphasize the ongoing contest between autocracies and (Western) democracies to shape the international order. Hence, the report reads that “a re-envisioned liberal, rules-based international order is needed to strengthen democratic resilience in an era of fierce systemic competition with autocratic regimes.”

The list of speakers underpinned the purported need of Western nations to self-soothe, too: Russian and Iranian officials were explicitly not invited to come to Munich. And although the highest-ranking Chinese foreign affairs official, Wang Yi, delivered an address and representatives of the “Global South” were included at the MSC, it was the West’s most pressing and imminent concern taking center stage, i.e., Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its repercussions for European and global security affairs. In that regard, not many new assessments came to the fore. For one, Western leaders reiterated the various means by which EU and NATO members have supported Ukraine since last February, including the delivery of heavy military equipment. Another line that was repeated by many Western officials came down to commending Ukraine’s bravery in fighting off Russia’s unjustified imperialistic war against its neighbor. Similarly repetitive (and thus possibly re-assuring) were the affirmations that the West would stand by the afflicted country’s side “as comprehensively and long as is necessary,” as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pointed out. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris took a similar line, reaffirming that, “the United States will continue to strongly support Ukraine. And we will do so for as long as it takes.”

Next to what at points sounded like Western self-praise and assurance for supporting Ukraine and hailing the country itself for standing up to Russia—a modern-day Goliath as described by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed the MSC’s audience virtually—, an additional theme that made the rounds, well-known one year into the war against Ukraine: defining victory and defeat and thus a prospective endgame of the war. What may have sounded like hairsplitting in recent months and at the MSC, too, well exceeds the matter of semantics. Chancellor Scholz stayed true to himself when he repeated a version of his “Russia must not win, Ukraine must not lose”-formula when he proclaimed at the stage in Munich that “Putin’s revisionism will not prevail.” His French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, took a similar line when he declared that “Russia must not and cannot win this war,” thereby deviating from previous statements in which he more outspokenly touted a Ukrainian victory. Interestingly, at the gathering in Munich, it was newcomer (at least in his role as Germany’s defense minister) Boris Pistorius who did not beat around the bush when he said, “I assured President Zelensky that Germany would help for as long as it takes. Together with our European and transatlantic allies. And I made clear: Ukraine must win this war.” In contrast, the UK’s Prime Minister’s statement “(…) that Russian forces inflict yet more pain and suffering” and that “(…) the only way to change that is for Ukraine to win” may have come as less of a surprise as Rishi Sunak has given similar assessments in the recent past.

The first and obvious conclusion to draw from these various assertions is that Western leaders amongst themselves have yet to agree on a similar wording in relation to victory and defeat in the war against Ukraine. Secondly, and more weightily, the differing formulas reveal a deeper problem: the West does not know what exactly it wants in and for Ukraine. It remains obscure to what end precisely Western nations are supporting Kyiv. That obscurity encompasses questions of how they would define victory for Ukraine (including the matter of borders) and if indeed that is a common aspiration shared by all NATO and EU leaders, to which end they would all be willing and capable to thrust their efforts and (military) capabilities. Sure enough, those are not easily digestible questions, and it is quite possibly too much to ask for answers in these regards to be delivered at a public forum such as the MSC. However, these are the questions that Western leaders must address as quickly as possible as they are looming around the corner. The answers will have a lasting effect not only on a future transatlantic security order but also repercussions for the rest of the world in one way or another.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.