A number of world leaders will attend the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) this weekend, a kind of Davos for the international security elite. Since 2015, conference organizers have produced a report as a “conversation starter” to help make sense of today’s increasingly challenging global security environment, providing thought-provoking data and analysis on some of the key actors, regions, and issues to be debated at the MSC.
This year’s Munich Security Report is both a sobering and confusing read for Europeans. It is sobering because the world has gotten much closer to “the brink of a significant conflict” in the last year. Consider the escalation in tensions between the United States and North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, or NATO and Russia, alongside the fraying of international arms control agreements specifically and global governance more generally.
The report’s outlook for the future security environment offers no solace to Eurocentric strategic thinkers either. Growing Russian military strength appears to mask persistent socioeconomic weakness, a very unhealthy combination. The wider Middle East contains eight of the world’s ten most lethal conflicts. Sub-Saharan Africa remains at risk of famine on top of some long-running wars (think Somalia or South Sudan).
All this, while European confidence in the leading role of the United States has been shaken—albeit concerns about American unilateralism have replaced initial fears that the Trump administration would embrace isolationism. Moreover, there is an emerging realization in (some) European capitals that the rise of China is a strategic challenge as well as an economic opportunity.
If what the report says about global security is sobering, then the sections covering Europe are confusing. Part of Europe is presented as a region to worry about—Central and Eastern Europe is singled out—while the EU itself is described as a part actor on the global stage. In fact, this analytical combination of part region and part actor sums up Europe’s emerging strategic dilemma.
Even though the economic picture is improving, Europe remains a region racked with internal political and socioeconomic challenges—and an area where other actors, such as Russia or China, increasingly want to politically interfere or strategically invest. Simultaneously, Europeans struggle to combine their resources and therefore are not decisive players on many international security questions. As the report rather kindly puts it, the EU “has yet to become a strategic global actor.”
Unless Europeans resolve this tension between being part of a place and becoming a global player, Europe will remain stuck in a geo-tactical trap.
This is not to say that Europeans have no influence on the world stage—they do. The EU is a crucial player for global trade, economic development, and climate change, among other issues. But on key strategic questions, meaning those involving the (current or potential) use of military force, Europeans are followers more than leaders. As a result, others will determine Europe’s strategic future.
Perhaps this is inevitable, and the Munich report suggests three reasons that explain why. First, Europeans remain psychologically dependent on the United States for their defense. As one opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows, even a majority of citizens with left-wing ideological leanings in France and Germany have “favorable views of NATO.”
Second, more European allies are striving to reach NATO’s benchmark of spending two per cent of GDP on defense. However, the Munich report says that even if all European NATO allies met that goal, it would not be a game changer for European military capabilities, based on current national spending preferences.
In other words, Europeans will not be able to contribute much more to U.S.-led military operations, let alone conduct many more of their own, unless they combine more monies and share more capabilities. But that would require Europeans to confront some very thorny questions about national sovereignty and the use of military force.
Third, the report highlights a YouGov opinion poll which shows that there is no firm consensus among European citizens who were asked, “Where should Europe be able to deploy its forces?” Counterintuitively, perhaps, being able to deploy “all around the world” garnered the highest average (29 percent) among respondents, which suggests that Europeans are increasingly aware of how global security developments will affect them. This was followed by 21 percent of those polled preferring to deploy “within Europe,” and 13 percent prioritizing sending soldiers to the “European neighborhood.”
The good news is that only 8 percent of respondents favored domestic deployments over all others. Even if a majority of Europeans are not fully ready to become global military actors, most are prepared to act beyond their national borders.
Although it’s a sobering and confusing read for Europeans, the MSC report deserves to be widely considered and discussed. The emerging global security landscape will likely force Europeans to make hard choices. Either others will decide Europe’s strategic future, or—to make their voices heard—Europeans will have to combine their national strengths.
To escape this geo-tactical trap, Europeans need to collectively decide who they are and what they want to be as a global actor. How many times must that question be asked before Europeans become strategically relevant, or remain mostly oblivious.