Munich Security Conference Pits the US Against Europe

The annual three-day-long Munich Security Conference kicked off Friday as world leaders and diplomats convened in Germany. In a stark departure from the typical tone of the event, trans-Atlantic differences between the US and Europe were at the forefront of discussions. Conversations focused on China, the Middle East, and NATO were all discussed with a separatism mindset, that Europe no longer needs to allow Washington to dictate its policies. 

Steinmeier: US, Russia and China are Threatening International Stability

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier actually opened the summit by lumping America with China and Russia, accusing the trio of engaging in a “great powers competition” that threatens international stability.

“Russia…has made military force and the violent shifting of borders on the European continent the means of politics once again,” Steinmeier said. “China…accepts international law only selectively where it does not run counter to its own interests. And our closest ally, the United States of America, under the present administration itself, rejects the idea of an international community.”

The solution, in Steinmeier’s opinion is for Germany to boost its defense spending while keeping its alliance with America. The latter, he said, can be accomplished by “relentless discussion, not maximum disruption.”

Europe versus America

On Russia, Steinmeier advocated for policy “that is not limited to condemning statements and sanctions alone” and for China, he suggested Europe “find its own balance,” an unspoken hint that the EU should not rely on the US for direction.

US Secretaries of State and Defense Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper urged Europe to combat Beijing by blocking Huawei, reviving its strategy of pressuring the Chinese tech giant. They reiterated that if Europe refuses to block Huawei from building telecommunications infrastructure in Europe, the US would reduce its intelligence-sharing.

Pompeo claimed “the West is winning,” in a defense of US President Donald Trump’s administration. Furthermore, Washington is by no means becoming more isolationist. The problem, according to Pompeo is that US allies are hesitant to follow American leadership on Iran, for example.

French leader Emmanuel Macron did not buy into it and, turning the topic toward Russia, said European leaders need to handle Russian President Vladimir Putin on their own, outside of of American policy.

Pompeo offered a counterpoint that the US and Europe together are making headway in opposing Moscow. In the energy sector, for example, the two parties have invested $1 billion for Central European states on the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas, where Russia is focused on expanding its influence via the Nord Stream 2. 

Calls for More German Involvement

Macron’s position is made difficult due to strained relations with Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is grappling with saving her CDU party’s future. Slow policy-making as a result of German politics has tested the French leader’s patience, he said.

Europe, he said, needs its own defense pillar to stand against Moscow. Such a union would work in tandem with NATO and Macron was clear he had no intention to replace the international alliance. Sanctions against Moscow “have changed absolutely nothing in Russia” and Macron suggested an increase in dialogue that has been recently-reduced. 

A “second choice” to more sanctions, he said, “is to be demanding and restart a strategic dialogue because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren’t able to resolve them.”

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted her state had not fulfilled its vow to do more in regard to security and defense, particularly on spending levels.

“From the Munich ‘consensus of words’ must come a ‘consensus of action,’” she said. “The impact of German and European security and defense policy must be larger, our international actions must be better coordinated and more visible.”

Kramp-Karrenbauer opposed joining Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and said that instead, Berlin will coordinate with its European allies, answering Macron’s call that Germans stop viewing security threats “through American eyes.”

Recommitting to NATO

On China, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted the global power balance was shifting toward Beijing with its increased military spending. As a result, America should maintain its commitment to NATO, he argued.

“Together with Europe and Canada we represent 50% of the world’s military might and 50% of the world economy. Together we are strong,” Stoltenberg said.

For its part, Germany is set to boost defense spending by over 80% over the next 10 years. Together, European states and Canada will increase their defense budgets by $400 billion over the next 4 years.

“When it comes to defense spending, we’re already moving in the right direction,” he said.

US representatives and its European allies also ppeared to reach an agreement on the NATO front in Iraq. America, Esper said, could scale down its role in Iraq with a larger commitment from NATO. 

European powers agreed to transfer trainers from the war against the Islamic State to Iraq, but stopped short of putting forth a timeline for such a move. Furthermore, European states do not want their troops in combat roles.