The 53rd annual edition of the Munich Security Conference, said to be the largest international gathering of its kind, took place February 17 to 19.
The 2017 Munich Security Report, published in advance of the meeting, bears the title, “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, former German ambassador to the UK and United States and former German Deputy Foreign Minister explained that the theme reflects concern about the decline of U.S. leadership under the Trump presidency. In the face of this, Germany should increase its leadership role in the European Union and fill the void left by the U.S., Ischinger and others contend.
This view was echoed at the Conference by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. A February 20 report from german-foreign-policy.com states:
“At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, the German government assumed the role of an ally ‘on a par’ with the United States. The chancellor and several ministers of Germany formulated conditions for continued cooperation with the U.S. government, while holding out the prospect of a ‘stronger Europe,’ which, according to Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, should be capable of independently ‘coping successfully’ with the ‘reality of crises and wars outside the bounds of the European Union.’ Appropriate rearmament measures are being prepared. The chancellor conceives of a military budget increase of around eight percent annually, while the discussion on German-European nuclear arms is continuing. Publicists are hinting at the possibility of Berlin sharing influence over the Force de Frappe [French nuclear weapons force] through co-financing France’s nuclear arms arsenal. Berlin is still relying on the alliance with Washington, at least for the time being, because rearmament and access to nuclear arms take time.”
Merkel and Gabriel, while pledging to increase German defence spending, also said that the country’s other initiatives, such as taking in Syrian and other refugees, should be considered part of their contribution as a NATO member. To reach the NATO target of two per cent of GDP spent on defence, Germany would have to spend an additional 25 billion euros in the coming years. Merkel reaffirmed Germany’s commitment to this target but said that to expect it to be met too soon is unrealistic. Gabriel claimed that Germany is already spending 30-40 billion euros per year to house refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan “which are flooding into our country because military interventions some years ago went terribly wrong. If we take in these [refugees], integrate them, and prevent them from going to other parts of the world as foreign fighters, that is also part of the debate that we must have,” Gabriel said.
At the same time, the speech of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Conference on February 18 was said to signal that the U.S. will continue to lead NATO and the Europe of the monopolies. Some, including Britain’s foreign minister, are calling on NATO members in Europe to close ranks around the U.S. and take measures to increase support for its leadership on the world scale. Pence stated:
“The president asked me to be here today to convey a message, a reassurance — the U.S. strongly supports NATO and we will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance. Let no one doubt our commitment. […] As you keep faith with us, under President Trump we will always keep faith with you. … The fates of the United States and Europe are intertwined. Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success. And ultimately, we walk into the future together.” Referring to the U.S. demand for increased military spending, Pence said, “The President of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, fulfill this commitment, and for most that means the time has come to do more.”
Canada’s effort to reconcile its full support for U.S. foreign policy under Trump with the neo-liberal imperialist humanitarianism it espouses was evident in the remark of Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland that “Our country continues to advocate for human rights and the rule of law, and the Munich Security Conference will provide an essential opportunity to reinforce Canada’s enduring alliances.”
On February 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the approach of the Trump administration in remarks to the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “What I saw from the American president was a focus on getting things done for the people who supported him and who believe in him, while demonstrating that good relations with one’s neighbours is a great way of getting things done,” said Trudeau. He said it is a “positive example that everyone is going to benefit from around the world.”
Promotion of Rearmament as a Solution
Despite the differences expressed by the U.S. and German leadership and their supporters, the solutions presented by both hinge on German rearmament and increases in the defence spending of NATO countries to “pay their fair share.”
On Tuesday, February 21, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to increase the size of Germany’s armed forces by around 10 per cent, from 178,000 to 198,000 by the year 2024. On the first day of the Munich Conference von der Leyen stated, “We are aware that we must shoulder a greater share of the transatlantic security burden. We want to grow, we want to do it as Europeans.”
On February 16, von der Leyen said that “We Europeans, we Germans, we have to do more for our own security. We have to invest more. It isn’t fair that the Americans contribute twice as much as all Europeans together.” Von der Leyen said that Germany’s foreign policy can only be sustained “if we continuously invest more in the Bundeswehr [German army].”
In recent years, German soldiers have been deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Lithuania Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan as well as the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. The Bundeswehr also includes some Brigades of smaller NATO members such as the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Romania integrated directly into its command. This is considered preparation for a European military union.
Munich Security Conference Chairman Ischinger in an interview with German business newspaper Handelsblatt said, “The previous agreement was that the EU project is to be protected and that NATO is the shield.” The EU must now “speak with one voice and has to become more able to act militarily,” he said. He further called for a defence and security union within the EU and “pooling and sharing” weapons between EU member states. Ischinger suggested that foreign policy and security decisions should be made by majority vote of EU countries.
A February 1 Handelsblatt article noted, “Germany is arming itself again, with the support of all mainstream parties — a novelty in the country’s post-war history. Still, despite all these sharp figures, there’s one number that looms over the German military more than any other: 2 percent.
“If U.S. President Donald Trump gets his way, Germany would need to spend an additional 20 billion per year on its armed forces. Despite last year’s boost, the country’s defense budget currently totals only about 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product — far from the 2 percent that all 28 NATO members committed to aim for by 2024.”
Contention Within U.S. Ruling Circles
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis in his remarks to the Conference on February 17 said that the “transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence.” He said that NATO exists to protect the “way of life” of its member states. Mattis said that President Trump has “thrown his full support to NATO and believes in NATO’s need to adapt to today’s strategic situation for it to remain credible, capable and relevant,” according to a Defense Department report.
Underlining the contention not just among big powers but within U.S. ruling circles, John McCain, the Republican head of the powerful U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee also spoke on the first day of the Conference. He began by stating, in what many saw as a reference to the U.S. President, “Not every American understands the absolutely vital role that Germany and its honorable Chancellor, Chancellor Merkel, are playing in defense of the idea and the conscience of the West. But for all of us who do, let me say thank you.”
“The unprecedented period of security and prosperity that we have enjoyed for the past seven decades did not happen by accident. It happened not only because of the appeal of our values, but because we backed them with our power and persevered in their defense,” McCain said. Most alarming, he said, is “a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West.”
Contrasting the Vice President and Secretaries to President Trump and his stated positions, McCain said, “I know there is profound concern across Europe and the world that America is laying down the mantle of global leadership. I can only speak for myself, but I do not believe that is the message you will hear from all of the American leaders who cared enough to travel here to Munich this weekend. That is not the message you heard today from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. That is not the message you will hear from Vice President Mike Pence. That is not the message you will hear from Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.”
1. Participants included new UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Council President Donald Tusk, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and a U.S. delegation including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The Canadian delegation included Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan. Around 450 attendees from around the world, described by Global Affairs Canada as “senior decision-makers,” took part.
2. A Handelsblatt editorial by Donata Reidel dated February 16 further argued that “Germans’ peace-loving attitude has amounted to near shirking in recent decades. Disarmament was only possible to such a degree because the U.S. was holding a protective military umbrella over Europe. […] NATO partners’ wish for more German involvement is thoroughly justified, and our political parties must convince their voters more actively of this necessity.”
Reidel complained, “And though Berlin has focused on rearmament since the 2014 annexation of the Crimea by Russia, Germans continue to blithely ignore reality. The majority of Germans reject more military expenditures, according to a new survey by the Forsa Institute, commissioned by Stern magazine and the Pew Research Center ahead of the Munich Security Conference. While 70 percent of Germans agree that their country should ‘assume international responsibility,’ they consider that to mean building schools and wells in developing and war-torn countries, and not military intervention. Only 38 percent of respondents said they believe that the German military should engage in more combat missions against the extremist group Islamic State. Some 55 percent opposed a further military spending increase that Berlin promised NATO three years ago.”
“It’s no longer just a joke that German military airplanes are far too often unable to fly, or that ships stay docked and soldiers go untrained. Except for atomic weapons, the German military must quickly match the military capabilities of the British and French,” Reidel said.
(Photos: DFG-VK Würzburg, H.M. Vilsmeier)