Power and Pretzels in Munich, 2020

Macron (1)

Once a year, the world’s foreign policy elite descend on Bavaria for a weekend to reconnect with colleagues, eat pretzels, and debate the shape of global order. The Munich Security Conference each year grows bigger, more elaborate, and more frenetic. It’s commonplace to see a policymaker rush by, muttering, “Gotta go, gotta go, I’m late for a bilat and I can’t find the room.” The environment feels like a huge college mixer, if you replaced the band with policy speakers, the shouting with whispery conversations, and the quiet wallflowers with armed security personnel.



This year’s just-completed conference focused on “Westlessness,” a neologism aiming to capture the sense of uncertainty about the West’s strength, coherence, and purpose. It certainly captured the mood among many European participants. American speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, and Mark Zuckerberg. Other major acts included Emanuel Macron, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and a bearded Justin Trudeau. And so it provided a good opportunity to observe how leaders and thinkers are feeling about the array of challenges laid out before them.

Five themes struck me as emblematic of this year’s Munich zeitgeist.

Uncertain Cohesion and Purpose

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier kicked off the proceedings, stating baldly that the Trump administration “rejects the very concept of an international community,” and that “great again” comes “at the expense of neighbors and partners.” With an inward-looking America, he and others argued, Western unity suffers. As the German foreign minister later put it, “the real gamechanger is that the era of omnipresent American global policemen is over,” and that “decisions about the future of the Middle East are made in Astana or Sochi instead of in Geneva or New York.” French President Macron emphasized a “weakening of the West,” now requiring a stronger Europe more independent from the United States.

Nicht so fast, Secretary of State Pompeo countered. The United States, he said, is leading the transatlantic allies in making progress on issues from defense spending to confronting Russia. “The West is winning,” he said. “Don’t be fooled by those who say otherwise.” While disagreement about whether the West is progressing or receding could itself be taken as evidence of division, there were differences even over some of the key themes. Pompeo delivered a paean to national sovereignty in the heart of the European Union, the organization whose members have voluntarily ceded the greatest amount of it. The secretary of state railed against Iranian depredations before a European audience that hopes to retain the Obama-era nuclear deal. He called for a united front against China with Europeans who remain conflicted about how to respond to China’s illiberal rise. This particular brand of straight talk had European officials complaining in the corridors.

China, China, and China

For the Americans in attendance, the problems lay not in the West but in the East. Secretary of Defense Esper described a China that is undermining the West’s sovereignty and values and wishes to “dominate Asia as the preeminent global military power.” He noted that the National Defense Strategy prioritizes “China, then Russia.” The Americans called for a transatlantic response to the China challenge.

Yet that worthy effort quickly ran aground on Huawei’s rocky shoals. Opposition to Huawei’s involvement in building 5G networks seemed virtually the only issue that united American officials regardless of branch or party. Pelosi denounced Europeans who would allow Huawei involvement in their telecom infrastructure, while Pompeo called Chinese state-backed tech companies “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.” Esper suggested that going with Huawei could mean going without U.S. intelligence.

Okay, Europeans generally responded, so what are the alternatives? After all, just a few days before the conference, Britain announced that it would allow Huawei to build out some elements of the country’s 5G network. There is no ready, cost-comparable alternative the Americans have on offer, Europeans complained, and if your closest ally — the United Kingdom — doesn’t agree, where does that leave the rest of us?

The dispute revealed a key issue. Europe’s distrust of China is high, but so too is its economic dependence. The chatter about coronavirus drove home just how important Chinese economic health has become to global growth, and few European countries wish to anger Beijing. The Americans arrived in Munich wishing to rally the transatlantic partners in a common effort to compete with China, and in this they are surely right. And yet the basic European response is: not so fast. It’s complicated. Let’s think it through. And we have other issues to deal with — remember Russia?

Le Retour du Gaullisme? 

The French president channeled his inner Charles de Gaulle in a bold effort to fill the breach. Macron called for an ambitious, independent European role, one that enjoys “strategic autonomy” from the United States and greater freedom of action. With France now the European Union’s only nuclear power, Macron raised the proposition of extending French nuclear guarantees to the continent. He emphasized Franco-German cooperation and a European defense capability that would complement but be distinct from NATO. He emphasized that European values differ from transatlantic ones.

On stage, there was broad European agreement with Macron’s call for European unity and ambition. In the corridors it was a different story. Germans and others emphasized that any European defense union should serve as a European pillar of NATO, and that it was unrealistic for Europeans to act without their strongest ally. The unspoken concern appeared internal — in a Europe without Britain, and with Germany in political disarray, it would fall to France — that is, to Macron — to lead a strong, independent union into the future. And yet for all of their continental integration, European nations retain their own distinct interests.

A Europe that Doubts Itself More than it Doubts America 

Europeans have largely moved on from trying to solve the Rubik’s cube of contemporary American politics or spur a change of Trumpian course. Indeed, President Donald Trump was almost totally absent from the discussions in Munich, barely mentioned even by his own administration officials. Nor did the looming 2020 presidential election rise above idle chatter. Instead, Europeans spent most of their time quietly worrying about themselves. Brexit is now a reality. Angela Merkel’s handpicked successor suddenly resigned as party president. There is creeping illiberalism in key countries. There was a broad sense that Europe has learned to live with an atypical and unpredictable American presidency and sought to enhance its own cohesion and strength. But how precisely to do that remained entirely unclear.


Given that difficulty, many of the Munich participants sought the consolations of philosophy. How, some asked, is history unfolding? Macron claims the West is weakening while Pompeo says it’s winning. The Austrian chancellor pointed out the difficulties liberal democracy faces when alternative models deliver — or are perceived to deliver — better economic results. And just what is “the West,” anyway? A transatlantic community, geographically bound and united by unique values and capabilities? Or an ideal to which all, anywhere, can aspire? It seemed apt that Francis Fukayama was on hand in Munich to update his famous thesis.

As usual, Munich’s greatest value this year was in the side conversations, the relationships established or deepened, the perspectives better understood and the possibility of changing one’s mind, even just a little bit. As for the biggest questions — the future of the West, the attractiveness of democratic ideals, the cohesion of the transatlantic partners — well, for now, perhaps it’s better to just have a pretzel.



Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security.

Image: Munich Security Conference/Kuhlmann