Profound Uncertainty in Munich: Is the United States Committed to European Security?


This year’s Munich Security Conference once again stood out as the premier international gathering of national security policymakers and thinkers. Anticipation was high in the run-up to Munich, as the conference represented the Trump administration’s first major effort to publicly articulate its Europe policy. This was the 12th time I’ve attended the conference, and never have I seen so much uncertainty about America’s future. NATO allies repeatedly questioned U.S. intentions, American officials sought to reassure their transatlantic partners, and the corridor talk focused on the Trump administration’s worldview. The participants were left with a pervasive sense that transatlantic relations have entered a new era.

The conference has grown over the years from a wonky gathering of transatlantic specialists to a star-studded foreign policy festival with the likes of Bill Gates and Bono. Yet some things haven’t changed. The frenetic “bi-lats,” the overconsumption of Bavarian pretzels, and the faint scent of European tobacco together signaled that Munich’s Hotel Bayrischer Hof was once again ground zero for debate over transatlantic relations. Here are five themes that struck me during the proceedings.

1. Europe doubts America and Washington reciprocates. It was clear ahead of Munich that Europe’s concern about America’s direction had become palpable. The continent expected a Hillary Clinton victory, and Trump’s win rattled the allies. The president’s questions about NATO’s relevance, his demands for greater burden-sharing, his “America First” foreign policy philosophy, and his openness to better ties with Moscow prompted fierce questioning across Europe.

They also sparked a vigorous debate about America’s long-term role and about how Europe should respond to potential shifts. Most European participants exhorted the United States to see the value in NATO, in close economic and security ties with Europe and in America’s traditional role underwriting international order. A few – mostly privately – suggested that if the Trump administration is determined to shed that traditional role, Europe would have little recourse but to become more self-reliant and independent. Precisely how that might be done, particularly given deepening fractures in the European Union, remained unclear.

Americans articulated some concerns of their own. Elections this year in France, Germany, and the Netherlands could bring nationalist right wing parties to power and split the EU. Terrorist attacks and the challenges of absorbing refugees and migrants have turned Europe’s focus inward. Worries about Russian provocations and information operations have diminished NATO’s appetite to look further afield. Just as Washington calls on Europe to boost military spending and do more to defend itself, the continent is increasingly focused on its basic cohesion.

2. The Trump administration reassures Europe. And yet. . . Trump dispatched a strong delegation to Munich, including his vice president and secretaries of defense and homeland security. A large Congressional delegation also attended. This came on the heels of visits to Bonn by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to Brussels by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Vice President Pence also went to Brussels after the conference.

This show of force was accentuated by remarks aimed at reassuring European allies and, implicitly, sanding off the rougher edges of Trump’s past criticisms. Pence, stressing that he was speaking on Trump’s behalf, insisted that “the United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this trans-Atlantic alliance.” Mattis added, “President Trump came into office and has thrown now his full support to NATO.”  After Trump’s prior talk of NATO’s obsolescence and his suggestions that the United States might not meet its Article 5 commitments, one may have expected a warm European reception to Pence and Mattis’ messages.

Not quite. Some delegates did wish to pocket the new commitments and talk about ways to reciprocate. Others noted what was missing: any reference to American support for the European Union, for instance, as well as many specifics about how Washington’s abstract support for NATO might translate into policy. Many more simply questioned whether the warm words in Munich reflect the president’s thinking and the future conduct of his administration. Trump’s boisterous press conference in Washington added doubts, as did the remark, during his Florida rally, that “many of the countries that we protect, many of these countries are very rich countries. They’re not paying their bills.” European doubts will endure unless and until the administration’s rhetorical support translates into policy and sustained action on the ground.

3. Europe is looking for leadership in atypical places. Perhaps the conference’s most celebrated address was that of Sen. John McCain, who offered an impassioned defense of the rules-based international order, a strong transatlantic partnership based on both interests and values, and the West’s necessary role in global leadership. Numerous European participants expressed newfound appreciation for the U.S. system of checks and balances, and urged Congress to play a more active role in shaping foreign policy.

On the flip side, Russia and Iran attempted to move into the perceived breach. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a “post-West” world order in which “each country, based on its sovereignty within the rules of international law, will strive to find a balance between its own national interests and the national interests of partners.” Similarly, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif urged “a cognitive transition, commensurate with the realities of the global transition.” Neither call resonated with the audience.

4. Everyone likes burden sharing. . .by everyone else. Speaking a day before the conference to NATO defense ministers, Mattis offered “clarity on the political reality in the United States.” If the allies do not want to see America moderate its commitment to them, he told them, “each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.” In Munich, Pence highlighted NATO members’ commitment to spend two percent of GDP on defense, adding, “That pledge has gone unfulfilled for too many for too long and erodes the very foundation of our alliance.”

European allies clearly would like to give Trump a win on this. Chancellor Angela Merkel and others pledged to move toward the two percent goal, and they have gotten the message that approaching the target is the chief American demand. But they turned the tables as well, expressing concern that the United States will shed its own security load. The allies called repeatedly for the United States to remain involved in NATO operations, counterterrorism efforts, and attempts to deter Russian provocations.

5. Parochialism is rising. A few years ago, the debates in Munich focused on how to make NATO more expeditionary, so that it could better conduct “out of area” operations, and how the allies could better engage the rest of the world, including the Middle East and Asia. No more. The combination of terrorist attacks across Europe, the influx of refugees, rising nationalism, fractures in the European Union and rising worries about Russia – to say nothing about the deep political divisions in the United States – have redirected attention to nearer challenges. The conference participants spoke more about the Trump executive order on immigration than about Afghanistan, and about French and German elections more than Raqqa.

The net result of this year’s Munich Security Conference was to highlight the great uncertainty swirling around the United States and its relationship with Europe. Few questioned the transatlantic allies’ strength to remain active in shaping global events; this was no seminar on relative decline. Instead the focus on was on the political will – especially in the United States, but also in Europe – required to enlist allied power in the service of enlightened self-interest and liberal values. Here we will no doubt have many answers before Munich 2018.


Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.  

Image: Munich Security Council, Kuhlmann