Every year some of the most respected minds in international security policy descend on Munich, Germany for the Munich Security Conference. This year from February 17 to 19, the Munich Security Conference 2017 convened once again under the chairmanship of Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger to explore some of the biggest challenges facing the international community. The approximately 300 participants were a veritable pantheon of diplomats, military elite, policy wonks, decision-makers, and world leaders, whose collective perspective elevated the proceedings with discussions that ranged from the United States’ warning of Russian hacking and election manipulation to Russia’s call for a post-West order. One overarching concern that apparently had everyone’s attention was the Trump administration’s articulation of its security policies as it launched onto the international stage.
At the MSC Kick-off Event the Chairman laid out the agenda, and in his opening remarks, he aptly pointed out that “(t)he international security order today is probably more volatile than at any other point after the end of World War II.” Once Ischinger presented the new Munich Security Report entitled “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”, which gathers information on some of the most important advances as well as pressing challenges in the security arena, he concluded that “(t)he West is shaken to its very foundations.” And with those words, the tone of the conference was set.
Despite the solemn welcome and somber prognostications, the conference was, according to Ischinger, “…the most anticipated Munich Security Conference in many years, ” and the agenda was filled with honest and thoughtful debate with many eyes on Vice President Mike Pence, General James Mattis and other US delegates as they made their case on the strength of the US commitment to its global partners. Vice President Pence told delegates that “President Trump and the American people are fully devoted to our transatlantic alliance.” Secretary Mattis made similar assertions reassuring conference members that “American security is permanently tied to European security.” However, the American delegation was not a completely united front with Senator John McCain qualifying the administration as “in disarray” and leaving many uneasy at McCain’s “striking point-by-point takedown of Trump’s worldview.”
Uncertainty about US security policy was not the only topic on the agenda. Bill Gates’ compelling talk on bio-terrorism pointed out that “(w)e ignore the link between health security and international security at out own peril;” and Bono of U2 fame spoke about his cause, ONE Campaign, and admonished that we remember that “(o)ur fate is a shared fate” and then asked “which fate will it be?” Other debates discussed the relevance of NATO, and at a Night Owl Session moderated by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and current Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Admiral James Satvridis, a distinguished panel of five Defense Secretaries, who hailed from as far west as Canada to as far east as Turkey, addressed whether or not NATO was “obsolete” or “very important.” Sir Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defense in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, kicked off the discussion and made note that each of the panel members represents a country that has been the target of terror attacks and these are “threats that we cannot face alone.” In fact, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Minister of Defense for the Kingdom of the Netherlands opined that “NATO is the backbone of our value system,” a sentiment that was echoed by those in attendance and supported by Admiral Stavridis when he concluded the that “NATO remains very important.”
At the conclusion of this year’s Munich Security Conference, Chairman Ischinger was encouraged that some of the uncertainties that plagued the international security community at the start of the three-day event had been successfully addressed. In fact, the Chairman was “partially reassured” about “the intentions of the Trump administration regarding Russia, NATO, and many other issues.” Unfortunately, not all questions and uncertainties were alleviated. For example, certain concerns relative to Russia, the Syrian war, and even cybersecurity were not fully resolved. However, according to the Chairman, “some degree of clarity has been established.” As in years past, the Munich Security Conference generates and supports vital conversations and places a spotlight on some of the most controversial issues in security policy, and for that we should all be encouraged.