Shadow Government

Everyone at Munich Pretended Everything Was Normal

At a time of global upheaval, policy makers from the West prefer to act as if nothing has changed.


According to the organizers, demand to attend this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) was unprecedented. I can understand why. People on both sides of the Atlantic — myself included — were eager to hear senior members of the Trump administration talk about the transatlantic relationship at one of the most important and high level transatlantic gatherings of the year. Would the three cabinet members in attendance reflect the sentiments of their boss, who has called NATO obsolete, made disparaging remarks about the European Union, and expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin? Or would Trump’s cabinet members present a positive vision for the transatlantic partners, one that would no doubt stress defense spending but also reassure European allies at a time of considerable uncertainty?

I came to Munich with a few more questions. In the wake of both Brexit and the U.S. election, I was curious how the heads of state, CEOs, and ministers there would address the public’s growing disaffection with so many of the things we would discuss in Munich: globalization, international institutions, and national governments’ ability to respond to the needs of their citizens. Similarly, I was interested in how Western leaders are thinking today about Russia’s blatant attempts to undermine the very system we have spent the last 70 years creating. What fresh ideas would these leaders bring to the conversation?

I was also hoping – perhaps unfairly – that the Munich Security Conference would shed at least parts of its notoriously traditional format: long speeches with little to no time for more than two or three questions (often from the same participants). Given the near endless list of challenges we face, I was hoping the organizers would ban opening statements for everyone except heads of state and the U.S. vice president, challenge panelists with tough follow up questions, and allow some heated debates to unfold.

So what did the participants in this year’s Munich Security Conference get? They got the status quo. In every respect.

With regards to the message from the Washington, participants listened to a collection of America’s greatest hits. Like previous administration officials, Vice President Pence promised America’s strong support for NATO and told Europeans, “Your success is our success.” Pence also shared some touching anecdotes about traveling through Europe with his brother as a young man and later as a member of Congress following 9/11. And unsurprisingly, he pushed Europeans on defense spending just as Defense Secretary James Mattis did during his remarks the day before.

Given President Donald Trump’s well known views on the transatlantic relationship, Europeans were clearly relieved that Pence didn’t depart from America’s standard script about the overarching value of the transatlantic relationship. But they were far from reassured. Immediately following the speech (which did not include Q&A) Europeans asked me if Pence’s views reflected those of the president. Many also noted that the speech lacked any mention of the European Union or specific policy proposals on Russia, Iran, Syria, or China. In fact, other than the broad “peace through strength” theme and a pledge to increase U.S. defense spending, push back on Iran, and hold Russia accountable, the speech was nearly void of content.

By contrast, when then-Vice President Joe Biden spoke in Munich in 2009 at the start of the Obama administration he outlined a long list of the administration’s strategic objectives both at home and abroad. He talked about renewing the relationship with Europe, strengthening U.S.-EU ties, engaging with Russia to secure loose nukes, enhancing missile defense with European allies, investing in renewables, increasing foreign assistance, reaching out to the Muslim world, closing Guantanamo, working towards a two-state solution in the Middle East, and stabilizing the financial system. Folks can take issue with that list, but they can’t accuse the Obama administration of lacking vision. The same cannot be said of the Trump team. Other than “Make America Great Again,” what exactly is Trump’s foreign policy? (Jon Finer, one of our Shadow contributors says Trump simply doesn’t have one.)

So if Pence left the audience at the Munich Security Conference with more questions than answers, how about the other speakers? Well, they too delivered the status quo, often taking great pains to avoid admitting that the West is actually in the soup. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described how the United Kingdom would serve as a “buttress on the European cathedral,” supporting the EU while existing outside it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke about Russia’s pleasant relations with its neighbors. And EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, one of the most dynamic speakers all weekend and one of the few women, argued that the European Union is not in crisis. Maybe not but if the French election puts Marine Le Pen in power, France could hold its own referendum on EU membership. Shouldn’t we be at least talking about that possible outcome now?

As for my hopes for a new and innovative format, again, the MSC delivered the status quo. To his credit, Wolfgang Ischinger – who runs the MSC– has taken steps over the years to bring the conference into the 21st century. He added a young leaders component, created an app, added live streaming video, and made modest progress in altering the demographics of the audience. But the entire weekend is still too staged, leaving far too little time for real debate – at least on stage. The audience and speakers list continues to lack gender, age, and ethnic diversity. And the venue, which should have been declared too small years ago, continues to feel dangerously over capacity.

Would I go next year? (Maybe the more appropriate question if Wolfgang reads this is whether I’ll be invited back.) Yes, if I manage to secure an invitation in 2018, I will go back. Why? While the speeches and panels can be dry, one can vacuum up incredibly valuable insight that you simply can’t get elsewhere. Where else can you speak with the former prime minister of Sweden, the former head of the CIA, the defense minister of Norway, and two of Britain’s top journalists in the span of a 45 minute coffee break? Wolfgang has also added a number of side events that offer participants the chance to escape the crush of the 400+ people in the main hall and meet in smaller groups. This year I attended a thought provoking cyber simulation. The Atlantic Council also gave a fascinating presentation on recent events in Aleppo using some impressive digital forensics. Many of those events are worthwhile. Finally, let’s not forget it’s the charming southern Germany city of Munich. What’s not to love about Munich?

Photo credit:THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images

Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @Julie_C_Smith

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