Munich Security Report sees world as a broken puzzle | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

The world is in crisis, and the US is only making things worse. That’s the bold verdict of the Munich Security Report (MSR), released on Monday ahead of this week’s Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering for leading representatives of all the major powers. US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chancellor Angela Merkel will be among the 100 ministers from across the world expected to discuss growing global instability.

“A new era of great power competition is unfolding between the United States, China, and Russia, accompanied by a certain leadership vacuum in what has become known as the liberal international order,” wrote conference chief Wolfgang Ischinger, veteran diplomat and former German ambassador to the US, in his introductory statement.

At least one of the main sources of this instability is clear. President Donald Trump’s administration in the US is showing little interest in holding to international agreements, and his tweets often openly question institutions like NATO and the United Nations. Even worse: the US under Trump appears to be ready to relinquish its role as a leading power in what is often still called the “free world.”

Read more: Ischinger: EU is alive and kicking

‘Irritating enthusiasm for strongmen’

In its place, the MSR accuses Trump of displaying “an irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe, suggesting that this administration is living in a ‘post-human rights world’.” This, the report argued, undermined the US’ professed effort to rally “the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it in December, and to oppose authoritarian great powers. “For long-time trans-Atlantic allies, it is still hard to stomach when Trump praises illiberal leaders from Brazil to the Philippines,” the report scolded.    

“US strategic documents have singled out China and Russia as the two most important challengers,” the report went on, but the rivalries between these three great powers is playing out in different ways. The conflict between Washington and Beijing is focused mainly on economic and trade issues, for instance, while Russia and China see themselves as an alliance of autocracies against the West, even as they remain in geopolitical competition with each other.

The rivalry between the US and Russia, meanwhile, remains mired in accusations and counter-accusations about arms, and the MSR offers little prospect that this will improve soon. After the canceling of the INF treaty, which regulated intermediate-range nuclear weapons, other arms control measures could now be under threat, the report frets.

“It appears unlikely that they can extend the New START Treaty covering strategic nuclear weapons beyond 2021, when it is set to expire,” the report said.

EU ‘ill-prepared’

And what of Europe, which appears to be playing an ever-smaller strategic role in all these deliberations? “The European Union is particularly ill-prepared for a new era of great power competition,” the MSR declares, a point that is revealed by the new debate about Europe’s “strategic autonomy.” There does not appear to be a “plan B” for how Europe could emancipate itself in its global security policy.

Read more: What is the INF treaty?

Altogether, the report concludes, the world is drifting into a “new interregnum,” in which the remaining defenders of liberal values are trying their best to navigate a period of uncertainty and instability.

The MSR’s opinion is sobering: “Some of the candidates for an increased role as guardians of the liberal order are willing but incapable, others are at least moderately capable but unwilling or unable to bring their capabilities to the fore.”

Brexit makes UK’s standing ‘unpredictable’

One consequence of this transition period is that it could hold opportunities for second-tier nations, like Canada, Japan, and the UK, to whose post-Brexit role the MSR devotes a whole chapter. While Britain was central in building the liberal post-war order, and, as a member of the UN Security Council, still has much geopolitical clout, the unpredictable consequences of leaving the EU have put the country on a new footing.

“What has become clear, however, is that Brexit proceedings will continue to inflict wounds on both sides of the Channel for years to come,” the report says, despite repeated protestations from London, Paris, and Berlin that the powers will still work closely together.

von der Leyen & Maas & Merkel (Imago/photothek)

Can Germany save the liberal order? (from left: Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Chancellor Angela Merkel

An alliance of multilateralists?

So who is left to gather the pieces of the crumbling geopolitical order? In a recent video message ahead of her appearance at the conference, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted to work to maintain those international institutions. This was now, she said, “at least as important as during the Cold War.”

Germany, she insisted, still stood behind the liberal world order, a sentiment backed up by her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, who recently called for the creation of a global “alliance of multilateralists.” Though exactly how difficult it is to bring such ideas to life is already clear in Germany’s current row with its closest strategic partner, France, over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Read more: Could EU energy security be guaranteed without Nord Stream 2?

Moreover, a new survey by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert foundation found that only 42 percent of French people, as opposed to 59 percent of Germans, believe their country should remain neutral in international questions. Similarly, far more German than French people reject military interventions (65 percent to 50 percent), something that is reflected in the differing political cultures in Berlin and Paris.

“The current crisis of the trans-Atlantic partnership is a bigger challenge for Germany than for France, which has always pursued a more independent approach,” the MSR concludes.

But it remains uncertain how exactly these differences can be patched up. It seems unlikely that much progress will be made in Munich this week, though: a few days ago, President Emmanuel Macron abruptly canceled his appearance, hampered by political problems at home.

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