At Munich, a Renewed Cold War Atmosphere
MUNICH—The 51st Munich Security Conference began amidst the backdrop of crisis in Ukraine and concluded with little room for optimism. In fact, the proceedings left many with the impression that they had been transported back to the bygone Cold War era.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged caution and diplomacy in dealing with Russia, using her own personal experiences of having grown up in East Berlin. U.S. senators demanded to know why Germany was not willing to equip Ukraine militarily. U.S. Vice President Biden was anything but his usual jovial self. Booming from the podium, he declared that the United States would not be resetting its relations with Russia, but rather reasserting itself. He implored his predominately European audience to raise defense spending levels above 2 percent and not take NATO for granted. Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko thanked the international community for its support, but urged greater action, dramatically shaking the passports of Russian soldiers who he claimed had “lost their way” into Ukraine. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s defense was literally met with boos and laughter in the hall, which further indicated his country’s isolation.
The apparent renewal of a Cold War-like security atmosphere did mean an absence of detailed conversations on the major trade and investment negotiations underway: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The lack of focus on Asia — home to four of the world’s largest economies (not counting the single European market) — was also noticeable, although this year’s sub-main stage discussion was on “Asia as a Pow(d)er Keg?” and involved senior official participants from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the United States, as well as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as moderator. There was also relative optimism about the Middle East, whether about the eventual defeat of the so-called Islamic State (now being called “Daesh”) or the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations.
Europe’s absence in Asia outside the conversations on economics is unfortunate given that the future international system will be defined by Asia’s evolution and the transatlantic response. For the Munich Security Conference to continue to be the premier international security conference, Asia will have to be better discussed and represented in the future, particularly given the emergence of new Asian security forums being proposed in China and the existing Shangri-La Dialogues in Singapore. While reiterating that the United States was a Pacific power, U.S. leaders at Munich — including Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Biden — were at pains to reaffirm their commitment to Europe, declaring it a cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the world.
The relative absence of Asia and optimism about the Middle East were in contrast to the deep pessimism about the crisis with Russia over Ukraine. The sharp disagreement between Lavrov and Biden was perhaps to have been expected, but it was surprisingly exacerbated by differing lessons drawn from history by Merkel and U.S. Senator John McCain. The issue of militarily equipping Ukraine was the main dividing line between the two and continued to be discussed as Merkel visited the White House in advance of her next meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk. These divides within the transatlantic alliance will only be further amplified as Putin continues to meet with Merkel and French President François Hollande and other European leaders — most importantly, from Britain — choose to remain on the sidelines, not to mention Europe’s own internal divisions being exasperated by Greece at the moment.
Even as Kerry declared his optimism about the global responses to Ukraine and the Islamic State group, describing them as defining moments for the transatlantic community — and Biden further reinforced the point by saying that we had a once-in a generation opportunity to live up to the transatlantic ideals of our forefathers after World War II — the cold winds blowing throughout the conference halls indicated something very different. After all, “enduring orders” and “defining moments” have often been accompanied by major wars.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.