MSC/Kuhlmann photo

Munich Security Conference Underscores Growing Divide Between U.S. and Allies

More than 35 heads of government and heads of state, as well as 50 foreign and 30 defense were present at this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC 2019) between February 15 and 17.

Over the course of the past five decades, the MSC has developed into the world’s leading forum for the debate of international security policy. In 2019, the debates of the main program were again accompanied by more than one hundred complementary side events. This included, among others, roundtables on cyber security, the Arctic, energy, health, transnational threats, technology and defense. Many international institutions and organizations, including the United Nations, the African Union, and NATO, use the MSC as a platform for roundtable discussions and workshops.

The U.S. sent its largest delegation of all time, including Vice President Mike Pence and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, as well as Senators Lindsey O. Graham, Sheldon Whitehouse, Roger F. Wicker, James Inhofe, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

But the U.S. delegation did not receive the warmest welcome, as Germany’s Foreign Minister criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s America First approach as counter-productive.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told delegates on Friday that Europe and the United States should be working with each other in light of China’s increasing power. But he said Trump’s steel tariffs cost jobs in the U.S. and are now threatening jobs in Europe.

Maas also criticized the U.S.’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. He said Germany, France and Britain are trying to preserve the deal because if it collapses, it will bring the region “a step closer to open confrontation.”

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel warned the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria following the defeat of ISIS and the collapse of its caliphate risks handing the upper hand to Iran and Russia.

Merkel spoke moments before US Vice President Michael Pence took to the stage to berate Germany and other European states for not meeting their NATO spending commitments.

“Is it a good idea for the Americans to suddenly and quickly withdraw from Syria? Or will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?”, Merkel said at the conference.

Pence said troops would return home but the US would maintain “strong presence” in the region. He has also recently accused Britain, France and Germany of trying to sabotage American sanctions against Iran and called on the European states to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal. European officials insist they remain committed to the deal. Chancellor Merkel said the nuclear deal was the best way of influencing Iranian behavior on a range of non-nuclear issues, from missile development to terrorism.

With the U.S. and United Kingdom also in disagreement on how to handle Huawei, bilateral relations are at a low. With both countries suffering political turmoil from government shutdowns, inquiries, resignation from members of parliament, and an inability to reach a Brexit deal, these allies need each other now more than ever. Adversaries will be keeping a keen eye on the North American and European power houses and will not hold back in exploiting weaknesses.

Former Vice President and frequent MSC attendee Joe Biden told the political leaders and security experts gathered at MSC 2019 that the U.S. should remain committed to its allies despite a perception that the country is “pulling away from the world and our leadership responsibilities.”

“The America I see is not in wholesale retreat from the interest and values that have guided us time and again, to be willing to shoulder our responsibility of leadership in the 20th century, and we can do that again. We must do that again,” Biden told delegates. “The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world or allies, our closest allies. Indeed, the American people understand that it’s only by working in cooperation with our friends that we are going to be able to harness the forces of a rapidly changing world, to mitigate their downsides and turn them to our collective advantage.”

Often, MSC has been a conduit for important collaborations and strategic co-operation. We must hope that this year’s combative theme does not evolve into a common trend.

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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