Don’t be fooled by the high-profile guest list. The biggest player in the room at this year’s Munich Security Conference will be something many of the attendees hoped to leave back home.
If a record number of high-level decision-makers are expected to show up in the Bavarian capital, it’s not because of a spike in interest in international security. Domestic politics will be at the forefront of everyone's minds.
The West needs to clean up its domestic messes before it can start thinking strategically about its international position.
Over the past decades, the German conference has built itself up into one of the most important international political conferences – the setting for landmark decisions and pivotal moments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s infamous 2007 speech set the stage for a decade of deteriorating relations between the West and Russia. And in 2014, German officials memorably used Munich to talk up Germany's willingness to engage in foreign policy, creating high expectations the country has never lived up to.
But this year, things are likely to be different. Troubles back home – not international affairs – are likely to be foremost in the minds of many of the highest-profile attendees.
At last year’s conference, the search for international leadership was already palpable – and ultimately unsuccessful. This time around, the lack of political leadership appears to be even starker, and the protagonists even less likely to engage in truly cross-border discussion.
First among those fleeing hopeless domestic quagmires are the British. As unpleasant as it will be for UK defense secretary Gavin Williamson to have to explain Brexit to his counterparts, Munich will offer some reprieve from parliamentary chaos at home.
It will also be the perfect place to roll out some positive spin on Brexit for those watching back home. Williamson’s argument – that Brexit will ultimately “strengthen our global presence” and allow the UK to “build new alliances” – is unlikely to impress in Munich, but it will play well across the Channel.
The delegation from the United States, too, will be consumed with domestic concerns and is unlikely to make any major constructive contributions. Its representatives will no doubt use Munich to double down on criticism of European defense efforts, criticizing them as too small and too European. Playing into worries of Washington shouldering the burden to defend Europe would be an easy win for Vice-President Mike Pence.
The conference also coincides with a major US deadline: The release of the US Commerce Department’s report on whether imports of automobiles and auto parts pose a risk to US national security is expected by 17 February, the last day of conference.
If the finding is affirmative, US President Donald Trump can impose a 25 percent tariff on European car imports, which would hit European, and especially German, car manufacturers hard.
The tariff would play well with Trump’s base, which recently showed a dip in support for the president as a result of a lengthy government shutdown. The auto tariffs may also be a particularly important tool for the U.S. administration if the US-China talks reach a positive conclusion.
For some unlucky would-be attendees, domestic politics have loomed so large that they’ve decided to stay away altogether. French President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this month he wouldn’t attend, as a result of concerns over the anti-establishment Yellow Jacket movement.
And whether the Italian government – embroiled in a diplomatic spat with France and infighting among members of its populist coalition – will send representatives at all is still unclear.
The only European politician to be relatively worry-free from a domestic point of view is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who remains popular in the polls. She has some political leeway to focus on foreign policy issues, too. Despite trouble brewing within her coalition over the government's promise to increase its defense budget, a new poll found a majority of Germans feel the country should be more involved in helping to solve international crises. But without support from Macron, however, it’s unlikely she’ll announce any major initiatives or policy changes in Munich.
So, best to give up any notions this year’s conference will be a watershed moment for European defense or set the groundwork for a grand renewal of the transatlantic relationship.
The West needs to clean up its domestic messes before it can start thinking strategically about its international position – as urgent as those issues might be.
This article originally appeared on 15 February in Politico.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.