By Leonid Bershidsky
(c) 2017, Bloomberg View · ·
Last year, the global security establishment was mildly worried about a growing U.S. disengagement overseas. This year, the worry has given way to a realization that the “liberal world order” -- another name for Pax Americana -- may be finished, and that new security arrangements are needed.
That’s the conclusion that can be drawn from this year’s edition of the Munich Security Report, an agenda-setting document put out annually by the organizers of the Munich Security Conference, the world’s most prestigious geopolitical gathering. The conference will open on Feb. 17, and dignitaries such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence are expected to attend. Perhaps for the first time since the Soviet Union’s demise, the participants will try to map out strategy in a world in which they cannot see more than one or two moves ahead.
In 2016, the Munich Security report noted almost in passing that the absence of the U.S. from discussions about the eastern Ukraine conflict would have been unthinkable before, and that the U.S. didn’t appear to be particularly interested in resolving the Syria crisis on its terms, either. In 2017, all bets are off on what the U.S. will ultimately do: Donald Trump and members of his team have made so many conflicting statements on foreign policy (and some of them are quoted in the report, side by side) that nothing is clear except that they intend to keep their cards close to the chest as they “put America first.” The report says:
“The consequences for the international order could be tremendous: if the U.S. does retreat, vacuums will be filled by other actors. Key institutions will be weakened, spoilers will be emboldened. And some U.S. allies may see no alternative than to start hedging by seeking out new partners. Others will try to convince the new administration that the U.S.-led alliances continue to be a good deal for Washington -- and that there is inherent value in long-term commitments. After all, successful deals are based on trust, which requires some predictability and is often strongest between countries sharing common values -- not between opportunistic leaders. A unilateralist Trump administration may find that it has a different hand than it currently thinks. And once cards are on the table, you cannot pretend you never played them.”
U.S. ineffectiveness as a pillar of security, however, doesn’t just stem from Trump’s unpredictability. There is no way for it to assert itself in some of the most important global crises. The U.S. doesn’t just feel compelled to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia, as it has obviously done in Ukraine and Syria -- it also appears to have reached the limit of its influence in the case of North Korea. “If the U.S. adds sanctions (including ones that hit Chinese banks), presses China to increase its coercive measures against North Korea, or even opts for military steps, a major U.S.-China crisis could be right around the corner,” the report points out. In other words, economic sanctions, the weapon that’s easiest for the U.S. to wield, can lead to military escalation for which the U.S. has no stomach. The “strategic community,” as the Munich Conference organizers describe the attendees, is apparently beginning to see U.S. might as something of an untenable bluff. It’s clearly there, but it can’t really be used.In 2017, the U.S. is no longer the whale on whose back the world rests but a source of uncertainty and tension. Pre-Trump conventional wisdom reserved this role for a different part of the West -- the European Union. While in the U.S. and the U.K., commentators often still persist in this thinking, the Munich report -- written in Germany, after all -- discusses the EU as a potential new superpower. In a security context, that’s largely wishful thinking at this point, but the thrust of the report’s message is that the growing threats to European security -- particularly Russian expansionism and Islamic terrorism -- are pushing Europe toward more unity, an important trend.
“When, if not now, should Brussels’ clout in the world ever be on top of the menu?” the report asks. Signs of a greater European awareness that reliance on the U.S. for defence is no longer feasible can be detected in growing defence spending -- though the U.S. still outspends the entire EU four to one. About a third of Germans and French would like to see their countries spend more on the military.
Poland and other eastern European countries are reliably in favour of stepping up defense expenditure. Money alone, however, won’t be enough to move Europe closer to military self-sufficiency.
It needs to move toward more military integration, which means streamlining procurement. European armies use too many different weapons systems: seventeen main battle tank families compared with just one for the U.S.; 20 types of fighter planes compared with just six; and 13 kinds of air-to-air missiles compared with three. The mess is hard to fix because rearming is expensive, and European politicians can’t allow each country’s defence industry to wither.
Military cooperation outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization framework is also untested and difficult. Without a dominant player such as the U.S., it may always be a contentious business, especially given European nations’ long, and not entirely forgotten, history of military confrontation.
For these reasons, Europe’s path toward superpower status seems long and thorny today. But the very fact that the organizers of the Munich conference consider it worthy of discussion shows that it’s not a pipe dream, either. Europe may have no choice if U.S. dominance in the world continues to erode.