Munich Security Conference Paints Dreary Picture for the Future of Multilateralism

  • Nicole Ely
  • 25.2.2019 08:03

Tensions were on full display at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. With multilateral efforts flailing, the European Union faces the harsh truth that it is ill-prepared to face future threats if the transatlantic alliance becomes defunct.

The theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference–The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?–was a poignant one considering the increasing tension between the United States and its European allies. The conference, held in mid-February, highlighted the decline of multilateralism and the lack of alternatives for European powers should the transatlantic alliance falter.

As noted in the conference’s report, we are currently witnessing the rise of another great power competition, where China in the long term and Russia in the short term are posing the biggest threats to the global balance of power. The European Union is ill-prepared for this power struggle, and European and American leaders’ acerbic interactions with each other at the Munich Security Conference illustrate that these allies are growing further and further apart.

 

Many have called for an alliance of multilateralists, but there remains confusion on what this actually entails

 

While China’s power and influence continues to grow, Russia poses a more immediate threat with Putin’s hybrid warfare approach, which blends conventional military strategy with newer techniques such as cyber attacks. Western allies are particularly vulnerable to this new strategy. The Kremlin’s use of disinformation campaigns and increased cyber activities endanger the stability of democracies, especially in the V4 and other post-Communist countries. To make matters more dire, Europe could witness a renewed arms race between the United States and Russia since Trump is withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and they could fail to extend the New START Treaty covering nuclear weapons beyond 2021. This would give Russia a clear advantage since it is unlikely that NATO would be able to reach a consensus on deploying new US missiles which would still need to be developed. Additionally, most of these treaties operate in a bipolar context and lack a multilateral framework.

The Trump Administration has a long track record of throwing aside multilateral efforts and treating its allies like enemies while cozying up to authoritarian rulers. Mike Pence’s remarks at the conference chastised European nations for not following the US’s lead on the Iran Nuclear Deal. Trump’s recent announcements of plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and to halt US-South Korea military exercises have also caused many allies to worry about the US’s commitment to extend military support.

 

The truth is while threats are increasingly mounting, there is no realistic Plan B if the transatlantic partnership fails

 

This leaves Europe in a weakened position. German Chancellor Angela Merkel severely criticized the “Trumpist” way of foreign policy and questioned how deep the West’s commitment to multilateralism actually is. Many have called for an alliance of multilateralists, but there remains confusion on what this actually entails. Many agree that burden sharing needs to be more equitable. With the exception of Poland, all the V4 countries hovered around 1 percent of their GDP going to NATO defense spending in 2017. Others rally for more strategic autonomy, such as the possibility of creating a European Army. However, EU members face enormous gaps when it comes to capabilities in achieving this goal. The truth is while threats are increasingly mounting, there is no realistic Plan B if the transatlantic partnership fails.

About author: Nicole Ely

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