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World on the verge of strategic uncertainty: afterword to the 53rd Munich Security Conference (17-19 February 2017)

On February 19, 2017 the 53rd Munich Security Conference concluded, the theme of which sounded like «Post-truth, post-West and post-order». Statements by politicians and experts in this forum give thought-provoking insights on the status and long-term prospects of modern international relations.


West: the loss of confidence and optimism

Despite the abundant mutual assurances of reliable alliance and partnership between the United States and Europe, the discussions that took place during the Munich conference leave an impression of uncertainty and understatement.

First, the US officials failed to reassure Europeans about further US-EU cooperation. In particular, the US Vice-President Michael Pence declared, «The United States has been faithful to Europe for generations, and we will keep the faith that drove our forefathers to sacrifice so much in defense of our shared heritage. We share a past, and after all we’ve been through, we share a future.  Today, tomorrow, and every day hence be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally[1]». Nevertheless, the European side is not satisfied with these common declarative statements.

Second, the US officials failed to convince Europe that NATO remains a crucial tool for ensuring security and stability in the modern world. Thus, the US Vice-President Michael Pence said, «The United States strongly supports NATO».  However, at the same time M. Pence reminded Europe about the need to fulfill its financial obligations to the NATO – that is, to spend on defense within NATO not less than 2% of GDP, otherwise the foundation of the North Atlantic Alliance would be blurred.

The speech of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in the same spirit, who stated that the president D.Trump fully supports NATO, but advocates the transformation of the Alliance,  «…this demonstrate the level of importance that we in NATO place on adapting the alliance to new threats such as terrorism, cyber threats and hybrid war. Our community of nations is under threat on multiple fronts as the arc of instability builds on NATO’s periphery and beyond.  The transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence[2]».

In response, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed readiness of her country to increase spending on defense[3]. At the same time, the President of Poland Andrzej Duda stressed that all are waiting actions of Donald Trump’s administration: statements are still statements[4].

In general, it seems that NATO is facing a serious existential crisis that cannot be overcome solely by optimistic statements. One of the consequences of this crisis was the reanimation of the idea of a unified European army. Certainly, against this background it is difficult to speak of a robust transatlantic unity and alliance.

Third, during the Munich Conference the United States did not make any encouraging statements about a possible continuation of the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Germany is deeply concerned about this circumstance, as its exports to the USA make up $111 billion, while imports from the United States are only $49 billion[5]. Abandonment of TTIP by the USA may deprive Germany of favorable trading conditions.

Fourth, Europeans are disappointed by the «equidistance» of D.Trump’s administration from Russia and Europe. In particular, the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger told about the shock caused by the statements of the US President D.Trump on equal respect that he has for President Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel[6].


Russia: a new warning to the West

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who headed the Russian delegation, made a number of rather tough statements.

First, S.V.Lavrov reminded the Munich conference of the famous Munich speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin (2007) and stated, «the warnings he sounded then about the negative consequences of attempting to obstruct the emergence of a multipolar world have become reality[7]».

Second, S.V.Lavrov noted, «Humanity stands at a crossroads today. The historic era that could be called «the post-Cold War order» has come to an end. Its main result, as we see it, was the complete failure of the Cold War institutions to adapt to new realities. The world has become neither «Western-centric», nor a safer and more stable place[8]».

Third, S.V.Lavrov expressed his disagreement with those who accuse Russia and the new centers of global influence in an attempt to undermine the so-called «liberal world order». In his opinion, «This global model was pre-programmed for crisis right from the time when this vision of economic and political globalization was conceived primarily as an instrument for ensuring the growth of an elite club of countries and its domination over everyone else. It is clear that such a system could not last forever[9]».

Fourth, S.V.Lavrov pointed out that, Russia would like to see Europe «strong, independent in international affairs and taking good care of our common past and future, while staying open to the world around it. We are appalled by the fact that the EU is unable to muster enough strength and give up its Russian policy based on the least denominator principle where fundamental and pragmatic interests of its member states are being sacrificed to Russo-phobic speculations out of sheer «solidarity[10]».

Fifth, Russian Foreign Minister spoke in favor of an equal relationship with the United States, «Our two countries have never been in direct confrontation with each other. Our history is steeped in friendliness more than confrontation. Russia did a lot to support the independence of the United States as it proceeded to become a united powerful state. Constructive Russia-U.S. relations are in our common interest. Moreover, America is our close neighbor, just like the European Union. We are divided by just 4 km of the Bering Strait. The potential of our cooperation in politics, the economy, and the humanitarian sphere is enormous. But, of course, it has to be tapped. We are willing to go ahead and do so inasmuch as the United States is prepared to do so on its part[11]».

Sixth, S.V. Lavrov made a remarkable statement regarding the anti-Russian sanctions, and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. In particular, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry warned, «I have already commented on the illogical and artificial nature of the formula whereby «the EU lifts sanctions once Russia implements the Minsk agreements». Russia also wants the Minsk agreements to be implemented, and will not lift its sanctions against the European Union until the Minsk agreements are implemented. There has to be clarity on this issue[12]».


East: positive signals to the global world

The speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi has given Munich Conference a sense of optimism. He delivered a speech on the theme «Maintaining the concept of cooperation, making the right decisions[13]» and made number of fundamentally important statements.

First, Wang Yi noted that at the beginning of this year, President Xi Jinping delivered two important messages in Geneva and Davos, putting forward the concept of building a global community with a shared destiny and achievement of common gains. In his words, this Chinese project, aimed at joint and long-term interests of humanity has attracted great attention of the world community.

Second, China’s Foreign Minister said that peace and development continue to be the most important in the modern world, and in order to overcome current challenges it is necessary to continue to support multilateralism, constantly strengthen cooperation, improve global governance, and maintain cooperation of different regions. In his words, China will continue to deepen its own reforms, increase openness to the world, and contribute to peace and development on the planet.

Third, Wang Yi focused on the status and perspectives of Sino-American relations. In particular, he said, «The bilateral relations of China and the USA are one of the most important in the world[14]». According to Wang Yi, China is ready to cooperate with the USA, under condition that Washington renounces its policy of confrontation: «We are ready to cooperate with the US on the basis of the non-confrontation policy principle, mutual respect and reconciliation». Wang Yi is convinced that China and the USA are able to achieve more progress in strengthening bilateral relations, if based on mutual trust and the differences between the countries are taken into account.

Fourth, Wang Yi commended the relations between China and Russia, «This is a rock of global stability. These relations are developing dynamically». Wang Yi promised that China in the future will strive to strengthen its relations with Russia.

In general, Munich conference 2017 left an ambivalent and contradictory impression. On the one hand, at the conference participants attempted to restore the dialogue and to find common grounds. On the other hand, discussions have shown that there is still a mutual distrust prevailing in the international arena, which prevents real steps on the path of cooperation.

Some disagreements between Europe and the USA, between the USA and NATO add to the ongoing confrontation of East and West. Several participants of the Munich conference even deemed it possible to speak of the «death of the West», even though the head of the European Council Donald Tusk tried to refute this thesis[15]. In addition, there is a growing concern of all participants in the international relations with respect to the revival of protectionism in the world trade. The main conclusion to be drawn from the results of the Munich conference is that the modern world has entered the era of a strategic uncertainty.


[1] Remarks by the Vice President at the Munich Security Conference. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/18/remarks-vice-president-munich-security-conference

[2] Remarks by Secretary Mattis at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/1087838/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-at-the-munich-security-conference-in-munich-germany

[3] Merkel stresses NATO also crucial for US // http://www.dw.com/en/merkel-stresses-nato-also-crucial-for-us/a-37609965.

[4] U.S. will ‘hold Russia accountable,’ Mike Pence tells wary European allies //https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/02/18/pence-seeks-to-calm-jittery-foreign-partners-following-trumps-comments-on-nato-russia.html.

[5] Гашков И. Мюнхенская конфронтация по безопасности //http://expert.ru/2017/02/19/myunhenskaya-konfrontatsiya-po-bezopasnosti/.

[6] Субботин И. Мюнхен продемонстрировал абсолютную растерянность западных элит. На конференции по безопасности реальных ответов на вызовы, стоящие перед Европой, найдено не было //http://www.ng.ru/world/2017-02-20/1_6933_munhen.html.

[7] Munich Security Conference – Russian FM Lavrov’s Call For A New World Order To Counter U.S. Influence In Europe. https://www.memri.org/reports/munich-security-conference-russian-fm-lavrovs-call-new-world-order-counter-us-influence

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Глава МИД КНР принял участие в Мюнхенской конференции по безопасности //http://russian.cri.cn/3060/2017/02/18/1s596798.htm.

[14]  Глава МИД Китая назвал отношения с Россией опорой глобальной стабильности //https://lenta.ru/news/2017/02/17/china/.

[15] Туск: заявления на Мюнхенской конференции по безопасности о гибели Запада преувеличены //http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4038785.

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