Global Security The End of the West as We Know It?

The Munich Security Conference takes a different approach this year, as Western leaders worry about improving their own security architecture in the wake of Donald Trump.
A Dutch tank taking part in a NATO maneuver near Drawsko Pomorskie in Poland. Photo: PAP/DPA

For decades, the Munich Security Conference has been about discussing how to solve the world’s conflicts with as little military intervention as possible.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the annual meeting has been dominated by a new confrontation between Russia and NATO. This year though it’s NATO itself that’s in crisis.

“The arrival of Trump means the end of the West in which the U.S. is the torchbearer that others could follow,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States who heads the conference.

He added that Europe must now make up for this loss “so that the West doesn’t get completely lost as a model and an example for human rights, liberty, dignity and the role of the individual.”

So this year the conference, which runs from February 17 to 19, is likely to revolve around Donald Trump and how Europe should best react to him.

The new U.S. government will be represented by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Homeland Security chief  John Kelly.

Mr. Ischinger hopes Mr. Pence will reaffirm America’s loyalty to Europe and NATO, although he expects the vice president to voice tough demands for increased defense spending by E.U. nations.

The arrival of Trump means the end of a West in which the U.S. is the torchbearer that others could follow. Wolfgang Ischinger, Munich Security Conference chairman

To be sure, even the previous administration under President Barack Obama lamented that the U.S. covered 70 percent of NATO’s costs. Europe’s armies are plagued by a long list of equipment problems, including Airbus A400M transport planes prone to malfunctions and tanks that lack shells.

But Mr. Ischinger said he hasn’t witnessed such unpredictability in U.S. policy in his 40 years of diplomacy. Mr. Trump's incalculable, NATO-critical stance has forced Europeans to rapidly boost their own military capabilities.

In the conference's annual report presented by Mr. Ischinger in Berlin on Monday, organizers called on E.U. countries to swiftly implement a plan reached last December to increase defense cooperation, including the development of a common weapons system.

According to research conducted by consulting firm McKinsey for the conference, Europe still has 17 different types of tanks while the U.S. has only one. This allows the U.S. to spend far less per unit because of economy of scale. The Europeans also have no fewer than 29 types of frigates, compared with four for the U.S., and 20 different combat aircraft to America's six.

As a result, both the conference and McKinsey argue that simply spending more on defense won't help Europe if the U.S. withdraws its umbrella. Instead, Europe must also consolidate its defense industries to decrease weapons spending. According to the report, defense ministers could save a third of their procurement costs through cooperation.

Most of our companies have bigger civilian than military divisions. Georg Wilhelm Adamowitsch, BDI managing director

That cooperation is already starting to happen. The German government is planning joint European ventures, with a new drone in development and ordered by several countries.

Meanwhile Norway has ordered four submarines from Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems (TKMS) while Germany plans to buy two of the same construction. There are hopes that Poland and the Netherlands may also take part, in what the Federation of German Industries (BDI) has praised as a blueprint for future collaboration.

Europe’s arms industries are well aware that weapons procurement must be consolidated. “Especially when it’s about new systems, joint orders by several states would make sense,” Georg Wilhelm Adamowitsch, the BDI's managing director, told Handelsblatt.

He referred to a new medium-sized battle tank coming by 2025. “To have it in as many European countries as possible would mean a cost advantage of large production volumes, more efficiency in maintenance and potential coordination in training of troops,” he said.


But Mr. Ischinger said Germany shouldn’t just rearm because the U.S. is telling it to. Germany’s defense spending should be based on a cool calculation of security interests. “So it’s not about what some third-class boy in the Pentagon comes up with here,” said Mr. Ischinger. Instead, he insists, it’s about what the German military needs in order to protect the country.

In addition to more cooperation, Europeans will have to increase defense budgets more than previously calculated.

Defense spending in western Europe will barely increase at all by 2020, according to information company IHS Markit. Germany will only increase its spending by 0.7 percent, while Italy will even cut its outlays. Meanwhile, eastern European nations are increasing their defense budgets by 3 percent to deter Russia in the east.

The conference will also deal with Russia and eastern Ukraine, which has been a central topic of the annual meeting in the past three years, but only as one of several conflicts. This time around, the Russian government will only be represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The list of security risks to be addressed at the conference also includes refugees, Islamist terror and epidemics. The report cites East Asia as a conflict region alongside eastern Europe, Syria and Iraq, and asserts an increase in tensions between China and its neighbors in the Pacific. Chinese President Xi Jinping could be leaning more towards solving conflicts by military means, the report said.

Here too, Mr. Trump’s unclear stance gives cause for concern. The pace of North Korea's nuclear bomb development, as well as its periodic missile tests, are also worrying conference organizers. According to the report, this was the most dangerous regional crisis.


Donata Riedel has worked for Handelsblatt for 20 years and writes about economic policy. Contact the author: [email protected]