Maybe a mug or two of Bavarian wheat beer will help lighten talks among heads of state and senior officials at the annual Munich Security Conference. But maybe it won’t.
The mood is tense amid concerns of mixed signals from the Trump administration on its commitment to NATO, its ties with Russia and its relationship with China.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and European Council President Donald Tusk are among the 30 heads of state and government, 80 foreign and defense ministers and other diplomats expected to join the traditional round of trans-Atlantic talks at Hotel Bayerisher Hof through Sunday.
“There have never been as many question marks around foreign policy issues as there are today, because we don’t know what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants and what is going to happen in Syria but also what America wants,” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador to the United States and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, told journalists ahead of the talks.
In the Bavarian capital, the Trump administration has an opportunity to present its foreign policy priorities to an international audience. A meeting between Mr. Pence and Ms. Merkel will be the first between the chancellor and a top Trump administration official.
We know we all have to contribute a fair share to our own security. Ursula von der Leyen, German Defense Minister
The relationship between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Trump is frosty, at best. The new president has repeatedly attacked her liberal refugee policy and angered her with his support of Brexit and prediction that other E.U. members may follow.
Mr. Ischinger referred to that statement as “a declaration of war without weapons.” Maybe the vice president can help thaw the icy relations.
NATO will be another hot topic. Mr. Trump made few friends when he referred in a recent interview with German and British newspapers to the military alliance as “obsolete.” His defense minister, James Mattis, who is also in Munich, has been on damage control ever since.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Mattis lavished praise on NATO, calling it the “fundamental bedrock” of trans-Atlantic cooperation and reaffirming his country’s continued commitment to the defense alliance.
But, in the same breadth, he reiterated the president’s demand for Europe to spend more on defense, and warned that Washington would respond if NATO members failed to pull their weight financially. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” he said bluntly.
The message appears to have reached Germany. “We know we all have to contribute a fair share to our own security. We have to invest more,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told delegates. “We have to invest more and fast in the coming years.”
Although Germany is boosting military spending by nearly €2 billion ($2.1 billion) in 2017 to €37 billion and expects it to reach € 39.2 billion by 2020, its total defense expenditure is 1.2 percent of GDP, which is still short of the 2 percent NATO target.
But the NATO members aren't questioning the need for their alliance.
"The crises and conflicts have opened our eyes: whoever wants security needs their own powers and capabilities," Ms. von der Leyen said. "And whoever wants security needs reliable alliances."
Mr. Mattis later added: "American security is permanently tied to the security of Europe."
Discussions in Munich will also focus on various European initiatives, such as a common defense fund and defense-related research.
A number of hot-button issues are also likely to generate debate in Munich, including the Ukraine crisis and Turkey, where a planned constitutional change could soon give the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more power.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]