Lessons for Europe from the Munich Security Conference

The current US administration might be the last one that sees itself as a European power. As the Munich Security Conference 2022 showed, Europeans will need to do far more to shape the rules of engagement between states.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres gives an opening statement at the Munich Security Conference last Friday

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Will the prospect of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine lead to a long-term revival of the West – or was the unity on display in Munich purely transitory? That is the big question we were left pondering after three days of debate at the Munich Security Conference 2022.

‘Westlessness’ – the growing uncertainty about the fate of the transatlantic alliance – was not only the motto of the last MSC conference in 2020 but the actual feeling in the corridors. Many then wondered whether Europe and the United States would find a joint strategy and common response to an emerging era of great power rivalry.

That conference was all about the confrontation between the US and China, as well as about how the infrastructure and institutions of globalisation had become the new battlefields of the twenty-first century. This year, much of the energy in the hall came from themes that have often been presented as anachronistic: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use military means to change the European security order and the comeback of what felt like a twentieth-century Western alliance.

The Biden administration’s commitment to Europe is impressive. Clever use of intelligence on Russian activities and hard work on sanctions and deterrence have created a common threat awareness and a surprising unity around the need to respond. A recent poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows how united EU citizens are about the danger of a Russian invasion; the fact that it is a threat to all of Europe, not just Ukraine; and that the response to this threat should come through NATO and the European Union.

But, for all the impressive unity on display in the Bayerische Hof, the Western alliance could be driven apart by the prospect of a new cold war.

The challenge from Russia is real but, structurally, China poses a far greater threat to America’s global role

The first signs of this could come soon. The bigger the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the easier it will be to preserve transatlantic unity on tough responses. However, there are differing senses of what should trigger a strong reaction. Many Ukrainians think that the West should immediately introduce pre-emptive sanctions as a form of deterrence. Many Americans think these measures should come into play if there is any Russian intervention. But the unofficial message from some of the European Union’s most influential member states – including France – is that they will only be willing to contemplate major sanctions if Russian forces launch attacks beyond Donbas.

Countries such as Germany are terrified that, if Europeans implement all their planned sanctions too soon and these measures do not work, they might be called upon to do things that are even more uncomfortable. The desire to show a united front may be strong enough to overcome these differences, but Putin will no doubt try to exploit them.

However, there are more fundamental divides that will be harder to bridge in the long run.

The first divide is that between the European order and the global order. The last cold war was a stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union, a global superpower with an ideological agenda that threatened the free world. The central theatre of that confrontation was Germany, a country of huge significance in global affairs. In contrast, the current confrontation is with Russia – which has a mid-sized economy and acts as more of a spoiler than a model of a different future – and primarily focuses on Ukraine, a proud nation but one that is only on the periphery of global competition (although the rivalry could spread to other secondary places in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa).

The challenge from Russia is real but, structurally, China poses a far greater threat to America’s global role. For that reason, the Indo-Pacific turn in American foreign policy will prove irresistible and any US administration will worry that, if it is drawn back into Europe, this will encourage Beijing to test American power in Asia (just as Putin is testing it in Europe, now that the US is trying to shift its attention elsewhere). The US military probably lacks the capabilities to wage a two-front war against its strongest rivals. Additionally, President Joe Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis is unpopular at home: according to poll results disseminated by Bruce Stokes of the German Marshall Fund, only 34 per cent of Americans approve of it, with 55 per cent of Republicans and 61 per cent of independents saying the US should “stay out” of Ukraine.

Fear of Russian-Chinese coordination on Ukraine and Taiwan will make it attractive for Washington to try to contain and de-escalate conflicts in Europe. It is hard to imagine the Biden administration signing up to a ‘Yalta 2’ but can Europeans be confident that the same would apply to a second Trump administration? The current US administration might be the last one that sees itself as a European power, albeit a part-time one that wants to further reduce its presence in Europe. American leaders’ rhetorical commitment at Munich should not lull Europeans into thinking that the contest with Russia will be a central strand of US foreign policy.

One of the consequences of this crisis – explicitly or otherwise – will be a much clearer sense of the boundaries of the West. The Biden administration has made it clear that military security guarantees only apply to NATO members, while the most it will do to protect other countries will be to impose sanctions, provide military equipment, and engage in diplomacy. The expansion of NATO (to any state other than Finland and Sweden) is definitively off the cards. This is probably also true of the EU. At the same time, the West will want to show that the commitment to defend its newly defined borders is indeed “ironclad”, as US Vice President Kamala Harris said in Munich.

There will likely be a new rearmament debate in Europe, especially if Russia stations nuclear weapons in Belarus. That would almost certainly spell the end of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which prohibits deployments of troops and nuclear weapons in eastern European countries. Who is in and out of this smaller but consolidated West – and the rules of engagement – is still to be determined. For example, will Turkey still be able to balance its relationships with Russia and the West? And what about EU member states such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary?

It might be tempting for Europeans to rely on America’s support and to accept that the European security order is being discussed and redesigned over their heads. But rather than celebrating a return of the old West, European leaders coming out of the Munich Security Conference 2022 should focus on how to invent a new West in which they are less infantilised and can actively shape the new rules of engagement that will emerge from this crisis.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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