Last weekend, the world’s national security establishment gathered for the annual Munich Security Conference. What was once an exclusively transatlantic affair has become far broader over the years, and now includes some 30 heads of state and 70 foreign and defense ministers from every region of the world. In addition to the speeches and discussions, the conference illuminates how national security leaders rank the challenges they face and serves as a useful report card on how the world is dealing with them.
This year’s gathering was marked by the frustration of multiple crises: refugees streaming into Europe, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression, diminishing European Union cohesion, and the threat posed by the Islamic State. That frustration was coupled with a sense of pessimism about the ability of the transatlantic partners to deal with the many crises effectively.
2016 marked my 11th straight Munich Security Conference — an indication of both my advancing age and the relative dearth of family vacations in February. Here are five key points that struck me this time around:
1. Russian confidence. Last year’s conference focused on the crisis in Ukraine, and Russian officials stayed on the defensive in the face of transatlantic outrage and economic sanctions. Not so this year. Buoyed by their military intervention in Syria, the Russians brimmed with confidence, and drew contrasts with a United States and Europe seemingly unable or unwilling to manage Middle Eastern crises.
They also turned around transatlantic opprobrium at Russian aggression in Ukraine and provocations elsewhere. “I sometimes wonder: Is this 2016 or 1962?” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asked rhetorically. “We are rapidly rolling into a period of a new cold war.” Medvedev went on to paint the United States and Europe as fonts of instability in the Middle East, lectured the United States for demanding that Bashar Assad leave power in Damascus, and contrasted Russia’s support for Assad as a stabilizing force.
A number of European officials criticized Russian behavior, sometimes quite bluntly. The Polish and Swedish defense ministers denounced Russia’s aggression in Europe and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia “is destabilizing the European security order.” Yet few offered any new responses to the challenge Moscow presents.
2. European disarray. The issue of refugees dominated much talk at the conference but the crisis of European confidence went well beyond migration. After one million Syrian refugees arrived in Germany last year and hundreds of thousands entered elsewhere on the continent, European officials are bracing themselves for 2016 arrivals and the political and financial baggage that will come with them. A number of officials observed that the kinds of remedies under consideration — including closing borders — would undermine the principles on which the European Union was founded, including the free movement of people.
At the moment when the refugee crisis is placing unprecedented strain on European cohesion, a British exit from the EU looks increasingly likely. In addition, domestic politics in many European countries has become increasingly populist and rejectionist. Coupled with the Russian threat to Europe’s eastern border and the continent’s inability to mitigate the Syrian crisis, concerns about the immediate future of Europe were abundant.
3. Pleas for U.S. leadership. In response to those concerns — and particularly with respect to Syria — European officials frequently exhorted the United States to demonstrate more leadership. While their precise requests varied — from additional NATO forces in Europe’s east, to a tougher line with Russia, to changing the balance of forces in Syria — the call for greater American leadership was a constant during the conference.
There was a sense that Washington is running an experiment to answer an age-old question: Will America’s European partners do more if the United States does less (in order to fill the gap), or do less if America does less (because they require active leadership)? The latter seems to be the correct answer, and the results are evident. Similarly, Middle East officials broadly called for the United States to marshal their collective efforts in order to intensify the fight against the Islamic State and hasten an endgame in Syria.
In his remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the notion that the transatlantic community was unraveling and that the United States is disengaged from its traditional international responsibilities. “This moment is not as overwhelming as people think it is,” he said. Kerry contrasted today’s upheaval with the much-worse Battle of Verdun and the two world wars, and ended his speech by assuring the audience that, “We’re going to do just fine.” Few seemed convinced.
4. Sense of American irrelevance. Beyond the pleas for greater engagement, there was a consensus this year that America is not terribly relevant to the challenges posed by Russia, Syria and others. Most of the talk revolved around Russia and its actions, sometimes coupled with lamentations about relative American inaction. While U.S. officials quite obviously would (and did) contest this characterization, it was certainly widespread among European and Middle Eastern participants.
Those participants shared a belief that the United States will not significantly step up its military activity in Syria in order to help end that conflict; will not push back against Russia in new ways beyond the continuation of existing sanctions; will not take significant steps to stem the flow of Syrian refugees, nor accept large numbers of them into the United States; and will not sketch out a realistic vision of Middle Eastern order and then marshal international efforts to move toward it.
This was the flip side of Russian bravado: a sense of great latent U.S. capacity but insufficient American will to commit resources in order to solve problems outside our borders.
5. Little hope for Syrian peace. The major diplomatic development at Munich was the “cessation of hostilities” agreed to by the United States and Russia. It inspired significant pessimism at the conference. Participants pointed out under the terms of the deal, Russia and Assad were permitted to continue their bombing campaign for an additional week; after that they could bomb any factions they designated as al Nusra or the Islamic State. It was unclear what, if any, consequences Russia might face for violating the agreement, or if such transgressions would merely result in pursuit of another deal.
It is clear that time is now on the side of the Assad–Russia–Iran coalition. As their offensives batter the moderate opposition, and given American reluctance to intervene to shift the balance of forces, there is a diminishing possibility that a diplomatic effort will yield an outcome favorable to the United States and its partners. The current trends demonstrate that the parties America would most like to see prevail are under the most pressure, and are growing weaker by the day. Hence the rush to seek a diplomatic agreement as soon as possible, before Assad and Russia lock in additional gains.
Hope will spring eternal, but it is in fairly short measure following the ceasefire accord. Medvedev denied that Russia is bombing any civilians in Syria. Assad has indicated that he seeks to retake all of the country. Some Europeans called on America to focus on the Islamic State rather than Assad, while the Saudi foreign minister called on the United States to force out Assad before the Islamic State. A representative of the Syrian opposition at Munich declined to commit to the ceasefire.
As a result of the discussions, a mood of frustration, even somberness, settled on the Munich participants this year. There have been difficult conferences before: in 2003, during the white-hot transatlantic fight over the looming war in Iraq, and in 2007, when Vladimir Putin denounced a “unipolar” world and previewed a more aggressive and anti-Western Russian line. Perhaps Munich 2017 will be sunnier and more hopeful, with many of this year’s challenges having faded into mere annoyances. Yet there is a good chance that many of the problems that so bedeviled the transatlantic partners this past weekend will remain on the crowded agenda for time to come.
Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security.