World security tensions take centre stage in Munich

World security tensions take centre stage in Munich

The Munich security conference used to be a transatlantic love-in, where declarations of devotion were made and military vows renewed. But there are fears that this week’s get together will be a prelude to divorce — or even worse. 

Since last year’s edition in the Bavarian capital, splits in the western alliance have grown, the US and Russia have rejected a linchpin cold war arms control treaty, Washington has pulled out of the international Iran nuclear deal, and Jim Mattis — the Pentagon chief whom Europeans saw as the embodiment of stability — has left office. There are also rising tensions between Nato and Moscow, escalating cyber disputes with China and arguments within Europe over defence policy and energy security. Little wonder then that the conference agenda published on Monday asked plaintively: “Who will pick up the pieces?” 

“Donald Trump is less restrained in his foreign policy now than he was,” said Sophia Besch, a defence and security specialist at the Centre for European Reform think-tank. “The situation is particularly difficult for Germany. Berlin is Trump’s favourite target — but the mood between Paris and Berlin is also at a low point.” 

The conference, which was founded during the cold war as a forum for western policymakers, will be attended by more than 35 heads of state and government from Afghanistan to Ukraine. The official programme for the three-day gathering starting on Friday warned of a “new era of great power competition” between the US, China and Russia and a “certain leadership vacuum” in the west. 

Europeans are nervously awaiting the Saturday appearances of Mike Pence, the US vice-president, and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, after Mr Trump’s broadsides against Nato allies. Some European observers fear the US will threaten to pull out of the alliance’s foundational Article 5 principle of collective defence unless more member states meet the target of defence spending equivalent to 2 per cent of gross domestic product. 

Sharing the military burden will also be on the agenda of a Nato defence ministers’ two-day meeting in Brussels, which starts on Wednesday. Apart from the US, just four of the alliance’s 29 members are estimated to have met the 2 per cent benchmark last year. Many Europeans are sceptical of US officials’ insistence that Washington remained committed to Nato. Mr Trump branded the alliance “obsolete” while he was campaigning for the presidency and, since taking office, has persistently berated allies for not spending enough on defence.

“[Trump] has focused on defence spending in the past and there has been this lingering question about Article 5,” said Nathalie Tocci, a director at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome and a special adviser to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat. “But the new element is the possible linkage between the two — which really speaks to this transactional nature of international relations under Trump.” 

Brussels and Munich are also trying to work out Washington’s intentions on arms control after its decision last week to abandon the cold war Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces missile treaty. With Russia also pulling out of the agreement and threatening to take “extensive measures” to ensure its security, Europeans who fear a new nuclear arms race on the continent hope that Washington will offer reassurances. 

On Monday, Britain’s defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, reiterated the US view that Russia was in non-compliance with the INF treaty, but added: “We have another six months for the Russians to come back into compliance. My hope is that the Russians come back . . . that’s where all our efforts should be focused.”

The Europeans have their own internal conundrums — not least over how to take greater responsibility for their security without indulging the fantasy that they could operate independently of US protection. 

Tomas Valasek, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank and a former Slovak ambassador to Nato, said talk from Berlin and Paris of an EU “army” and wider European calls for “strategic autonomy” had been “very corrosive” to the Washington relationship. 

“Atlanticists in the US say they are busy keeping the country committed to the defence of Europe, and the last thing they needed was for ungrateful Europeans to say they want to go it alone,” said Mr Valasek. He pointed out that a further complicating factor was the industrial ambitions of both the US and European states in each other’s markets. 

Another transatlantic flashpoint is how European countries reconcile their desire to do business with China — which is sending a large delegation to Munich — with America’s increasingly hostile position towards Beijing on trade and technology. 

As the crisis over Chinese telecoms group Huawei has shown, countries such as the UK and Germany are still trying to find a middle ground that allows them to exploit Chinese technical innovation without alienating the US. 

“China is going to have to go some to soothe concerns people have about them,” said Malcolm Chalmers, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute think-tank. 

It appears that last year’s call from Munich for the world to “move away from the brink” has gone largely unheard. 

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