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Constantin IACOBIŢĂ

24/02/2020 Region: Global Topic: Geopolitics

The main international event in the month of February is, traditionally, the Munich Security Conference (MSC was launched in 1963 and had, over the years, several titles).  

As the organizers describe it, the conference has transatlantic and European roots, but its activities reflect a globalized world and aims at debating the most relevant challenges to international security.

The event also offers a unique opportunity for the participating leaders to „feel the pulse” of the transatlantic relationship.   

This year’s conference focused on „Westlesness”, a term whose choice and significance were widely considered as being rooted in the concerns over the decline of the West.

Moreover, the meeting of the 12th generation of „Munich Young Leaders” (a group of young experts on foreign and security policy from over 20 nations who gathered simultaneously with the security conference to discuss with leaders taking part in the event) was accompanied by the publication of their own report, titled „Multilateralism is Dead. Long Live Multilateralism!”

Yet these worries and, to a certain extent lamentations are not new. For years there has been talking about the dilution of the global order determined by a West bonded by a solid and lasting transatlantic link. For years the Europeans have been reclaiming the right to their own voice on an international stage which has „migrated” from bipolarity to multipolarity, as they have been reclaiming their „strategic autonomy” (from the USA).

Nevertheless, these are only restricted or limited by what Europe in general and the European Union in particular can represent in an international system characterized by the great power competition, on one hand and the unilateralism of some of these powers on the other hand.

Where does Europe stand in this highly competitive environment? And how do the European voice and unity of action make themselves felt when relevant conventions governing the functioning of the international system are more and more blatantly ignored by a number of states (Ukraine and the Middle East being the most telling examples in this regard)? 

Some answers or edifying aspects regarding the European cohesion and voice are put forward below.

This year’s edition of the MSC distinguished itself by the absence of the Great Britain; the cabinet led by Boris Johnson had no participant in the conference, under the pretext of a cabinet reshuffle announced by the prime minister on the eve of the event.

While the absence of the British prime minister or at least one of his relevant ministers could be understandable, in the light of the Great Britain’s recent separation from the European Union, one cannot say the same about Germany, whose chancellor was not present in Munich.

The EU and Europe did not have a truly representative leader on the conference stage, besides the French president Emmanuel Macron. He presented a vision of Europe and its place in the world, but this vision is more French than European.    

On the other hand, America was represented by a numerous delegation including relevant leaders such as the state secretary Mike Pompeo, the secretary of defence Mark Esper and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

As regards the American and European visions and priorities, the following could be underscored:

- the American delegation acknowledged that there are differences between the two sides when it comes to major interests, yet they were keen to reassure the Europeans on the strength and durability of the transatlantic link. At the same time, they were clear in presenting the way the United States see the current challenges and what is deemed as priority, namely the great power competition. In a bipartisan manner in spite of internal dissension and disputes, the American representatives unequivocally showed that the US priority was China, then Russia, Iran etc. The secretary of defence Mark Esper spoke almost exclusively about China, which was labelled as a threat to the West, and Nancy Pelosy – a democrat, not a republican leader – asked the European directly not to cooperate with China on 5G technology;

- from the European camp, besides the Gaullist vision on Europe presented by the French president, the following were mainly heard: criticism (from the German president) of the unilateralism of an inwardly, rather than outwardly focused America, in the context of a global stage where powers such as Russia try to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the former – the case of the Middle East, for example, and the call (of the French president) for a stronger and more independent - from the United States – Europe.     

As far as China, the European countries do not see it the same way the United States do, as demonstrated by London’s decision to grant access on the British 5G market to the Chinese company Huawei, decision which could be followed by similar ones in other capitals in the absence of a real American alternative.  
It is also important to point out that Ukraine at least made it on the conference agenda even if no consensus was reached on a solution to the conflict in the east of the country, while the Palestinian problem seems not to have been deemed important enough for the leaders present in Munich. Here is where we have to mention, though that the secretary of state Mike Pompeo had a meeting (on the sides of the MSC) with the Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov, on which none of the two sides published something. 

What could be the conclusions of this year’s Munich Security Conference?

The most obvious could be the unequivocal reassertion of the supremacy of America, which calls its European allies to join it in the competition against China and in exchange reassures them of its commitment to the transatlantic link. 

The second could be the lack - otherwise known – of European unity and cohesion, reflected in an even weaker (own) voice on the international stage especially after the exit of the Great Britain.   

Another conclusion could be offered by the „cry of despair” of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenski, who stated that „the right of the strong” prevails in this century and no international arrangements would defend Ukraine or any other country from aggression.   

From the perspective of European nations such as Romania can be learned that, in the context of this great power competition is necessary, on one hand, to truly clarify which of these powers would be ready for a military intervention in the case of an Article 5 type aggression, and on the other hand to prioritize the welfare and security of their own citizens.