Shadow Government

At the Munich Security Conference, the United States Lacked Bravery and Leadership

The Trump administration looked small and inconsequential on the international stage.

U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster delivers a speech at the  Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, in Munich, Germany. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)
U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, in Munich, Germany. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)

“I’m counting on you to be brave.” That was U.S. Sen. John McCain’s message to the hundreds of participants at this month’s Munich Security Conference. The Arizona Republican, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, wasn’t able to lead the congressional delegation to Munich as he’s done for decades. Instead, he sent a message with his wife, Cindy, who was there to accept the Ewald von Kleist Award in his absence. The senator didn’t need to be there, though, to get across an important and pertinent message. Having witnessed many times the power of the Atlantic alliance when Europe and the United States led together, McCain has been a strong advocate of the trans-Atlantic relationship for as long as anyone can remember. But as he’s noted in various speeches in recent months, he’s worried that something is amiss in the relationship, that the two sides are failing to rise to meet today’s challenges, and that nothing less than the future of the West hangs in the balance. He therefore asked those in attendance to be brave.

Unfortunately, “brave” wasn’t the word that came to mind during the dozens of other speeches in Munich this year. Nor was the word “bold.” If you came to Munich looking for a call to action, you left empty-handed. French President Emmanuel Macron, the sole European leader who has tried to offer anything resembling a vision for the future of Europe, chose not to come to Munich. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, still working to form a new government, didn’t come either. That left British Prime Minister Theresa May. But she delivered a wonky speech on Britain’s future security relationship with the European Union after Brexit. While those of us who make a living out of studying things like the European Defense Fund enjoyed it, many others felt she missed the chance (again) to sketch out a bigger vision for the future of the West and the rules-based order.

The American presenters didn’t do much better. To its credit, the Donald Trump administration sent an impressive team to Munich: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. (Oddly, Mattis didn’t speak at the conference, opting to sit in the audience while his German and French counterparts took the stage.)

A VIP delegation like that would have been the main attraction and generated a lot of excitement years ago. But U.S. allies immediately call into question every speech that a top Trump advisor delivers these days. They ask: “Does the president himself believe any of this?”

Take McMaster’s speech, which ticked through a list of the administration’s top foreign-policy priorities: countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, defeating jihadi organizations, and strengthening the international foundations for peace and prosperity. (He said little about North Korea.) Like so many Trump administration speeches, it was heavy on the nature of the challenge and light on fresh ideas. Worse, though, people in the audience joked that Trump would be unhappy that McMaster had said at one point while on stage that evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election was “incontrovertible.” Almost on cue, hours after McMaster made that statement, the president tweeted a correction: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”

And with those two sentences, McMaster lost his shot of rallying the global leaders gathered in Munich to fight for shared values, to showcase collective resolve, and to build faith in U.S. leadership. Contrary to what Trump advisors tell us every chance they get, Trump’s tweets do matter. As we witnessed in near real time in Munich, another one of the president’s tweets made his national security advisor, the president himself, and his broader administration look small and inconsequential.

Needless to say, the Munich Security Conference ended in disappointment — that most of the conversations had lacked purpose or a sense of urgency, that Europe and the United States seemed unprepared to do more than defend the status quo, and that so few of those crammed into the Bayerischer Hof hotel this past weekend were, in the words of McCain, brave.

Julianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, 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. @Julie_C_Smith

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