Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2018 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfold and providing insights on today’s most consequential threats to international peace.
Diplomacy came out badly during the 2018 Munich Security Conference. The inability of diplomats to deal with the plethora of threats affecting global security in general and the liberal international order in particular was all too apparent during most of the discussions.
A lack of American leadership is one explanation. A weak and divided Europe—especially when it comes to upholding values, with some member states such as Poland using nationalism and victimhood to rewrite history—is another. Germany didn’t, in any way, weigh in on the diplomatic front judging from the speeches by the country’s defense and foreign ministers. Though it was hard to ignore the tinge of anti-Americanism.
Then there is the complete paralysis of diplomacy in trying to tackle North Korea’s ambitions to acquire, if it has not already done so, nuclear weapons.
In short, the endless number of statements from Turkish, Polish, Israeli, and Russian leaders and ministers (to name just a few) exposed the complete lack of unanimity over how to deal with crises. In most cases, their statements were inward-looking and defensive. There wasn’t a whiff of ambition or strategic outlook. Indeed, over three days, too many high-level speakers at the MSC showed a lack of political will and leadership to deal with the following five issues.
First, North Korea. During a Congressional debate on U.S. foreign policy, the American delegation saw North Korea as its main threat. Senator James E. Risch, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said that if Trump uses force in North Korea, it will be of “biblical proportions,” not a “bloody nose.” Unfortunately, Risch had to leave the panel early so he couldn’t take questions.
The bipartisan panel was at a complete loss about how to deal with North Korea on the diplomatic level. They did not rule out the use of force, but they did not endorse regime change, having seen the consequences of the latter in Iraq and Libya. They did call on China to do more, such as impose a stricter sanctions regime and in some way apply pressure on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It would have been very helpful during the question and answer session to really engage with Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the National People’s Congress, instead of listening to her anodyne answer.
Second, NATO. There were plenty of reassurances by American diplomats about Washington’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance. “Continuity” was the word they kept using. There was no cajoling about the Europeans having to spend more on defense or take on more of the burden sharing.
Yet the alliance is in bad shape. One of its leading members, Turkey, is attacking Syria, is locking up journalists, judges and civil servants, and is running roughshod over the rule of law. There’s hardly a whimper about this from NATO, which professes to be an alliance based on values and democracy.
And NATO, as a military and political organization, has to cope with a myriad of issues, from cybersecurity to its new training role in Iraq, which some diplomats fear might mutate into a combat mission. This is what happened in Afghanistan when the original stabilization mission turned into a full-fledged military operation.
Third, Russia’s presence in Munich was pathetic. The speech by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov verged on bitterness and paranoia. There wasn’t one spark or one foreign policy idea raised by Lavrov. Instead, his speech revealed the immense chasm between Russia and the United States. This was pretty obvious not only by the language Lavrov used but by the speech given later by H.R. McMaster, the U.S. National Security Adviser. He told the conference that there was “incontrovertible” evidence of Russia’s interfering in the U.S. presidential election.
Fourth, Ukraine. Whatever the reason, the countries (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) that forged the 2015 Minsk accord aimed at ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine didn’t even convene in Munich to discuss how, if at all, to take Minsk II further. If anything, there was a depressing sense of drift when it came to trying to resolve this conflict that has displaced or affected nearly two million people, not to mention the continuing skirmishes in the Donbas region.
The speech by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko didn’t help matters, either. His unwillingness to tackle corruption and strengthen the rule of law has been a feature of his presidency over the past few years. Things will not improve in the run-up to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. And blaming Russia is no substitute for Kiev delaying fundamental reforms.
Fifth, with the Middle East being torn to bits by ambitions led by Iran and Saudi Arabia—and Turkish, Russian, and Qatari interference all playing their own insidious roles—there was no meeting of minds during the high-level discussion on the region.
The main protagonists—Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—weren’t part of the panel debate (which probably wouldn’t have taken place had the organizers insisted on including these countries). Instead, there were separate statements made by the three regional actors. Each had their own agenda. Each openly showed their disdain for each other.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the conference that Israel was ready to take action against Iran. Brandishing a piece of an Iranian drone that was shot down in Israeli airspace last week, Netanyahu asked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “Do you recognize this? You should. It’s yours. You can take a message back to the tyrants of Tehran: Do not test Israel’s resolve.” Netanyahu was right to raise all of Iran’s human rights violations. But the audience was in no mood to listen given the way he delivered his speech.
Later, in his statement, Zarif, who is rarely criticized by Europe’s top diplomats for Iran’s abuse of human rights and support of terrorist movements, said: “What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility [of Israel] has crumbled.” He was referring to the recent downing of an Israeli F-16 jet in Syria. Separately, in an interview with NBC News, Zarif warned that if Israel fulfilled its threat to attack Iran, that “they will see the response.” No shortage of threats there.
Certainly, there were some great side events at the MSC. Most were by invitation only and off the record. But the few that I attended lacked a clear sense about to tackle a number of quickly evolving challenges; for instance, cyber threats, artificial intelligence, or bioweapons.
But getting back to the main hall: With the exception of France’s participation, the depressing takeaways were drift, lack of ambition, dialogues of the deaf, and the language of threatening. What an indictment of the quality of today’s diplomacy, statesmanship, and leadership—all reflected at the MSC.