The Munich Security Conference’s central theme this year stemmed from a concern shared among transatlantic allies about three simultaneous trends : the weakening of the pillars of the international liberal order ; the risks of a global leadership vacuum left by an "America First" policy and a divided Europe ; and the “intermestic” threats posed to democracy. The opening questions were without ambiguity : Are we at the brink of a post-Western age, or even a post-order, a post-truth age ? How do we resist replacing trusted alliances with spheres of influence ?
The fact that the defense of the “West” and NATO was at the core of the Munich conversations means that these institutions have become controversial and that the world order has already shifted.
This was particularly striking in the Chinese minister of foreign affairs’ Davos-like statement, advertising for multilateral cooperation and open globalization. The Chinese concept of a "community of shared future" contrasted with the European panel, which highlighted irreconcilable visions of EU’s future : Germany wanted more integration, Poland wanted flexible solidarity, and Lithuania did not want a two-speed Europe but a united one. More than ever, European leaders appeared divided and unable to face internal and external challenges in a coordinated way. The EU was not even mentioned once in the U.S. vice president’s speech.
In this context, European leaders continue to look to the United States for protection and reassurance, and are tempted to resist the new U.S. “political realities” that U.S. Secretary Defense General Mattis alluded to in his remarks. The burden-sharing debate highlighted, once more, a transatlantic conceptual gap : Europeans are hoping for a responsible U.S. leader who respects and defends democratic values, while Washington is asking Europe to be a responsible partner with stronger military capabilities. The result of these expectations will be mutual disappointment : on the one hand, Europeans will resist U.S. demands to raise military spending and instead promote a "European way" of security that includes development and humanitarian aid. But this will lead to transatlantic tensions when Mattis starts implementing his plan with new target dates for NATO countries to meet the spending target of 2 percent of GDP. On the other hand, U.S. leadership will be less reliable and less committed to global stability and the rule of law. Despite the reassurance speeches U.S. officials gave, it is obvious that the "America First" policy will be less multilateral and compromising. The way the Trump administration handles Russia and Iran will be particularly revealing of his approach to Europe.
Both NATO and the EU understand that to remain relevant they need to adapt and innovate. And the first steps are being taken. In Munich, German and French leaders emphasized security and defense cooperation and bolstering the EU’s fledging defense architecture. In 2016, Germany focused on the refugee issue, France on terrorism. Today, Germany is working with France in Mali. Both Brexit and Trump’s election have convinced all EU member states of the urgent need to develop a common security strategy, one that might not always concur with U.S. vision. The best attitude Europe can adopt toward the United States is one of greater policy independence, a posture that was described by former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Védrine as, “amie, alliée, mais pas alignée,” or “friend, allied, but not aligned,” with U.S. policy. If transatlantic unity becomes less obvious under the Trump administration, the EU level unity will become an absolute necessity.
NATO is also adapting to Trump by designating terrorism as the most urgent challenge to the alliance and stepping up its fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group and other violent extremists with the launch of a new center in Naples.
But will this be enough to convince the Trump administration of the centrality of the transatlantic link in security matters ? This question hides a more complex one for European leaders : Who are the people inside the Trump’s administration that European leaders can trust or influence ? In fact, the Munich conference confirmed that, for the first time in history, European leaders will have to engage in a two-track diplomacy with the U.S. administration, by actively engaging with his national security team but also with Congress, where Republicans and Democrats committed to act as a bulwark against the illiberal tendencies of the Trump presidency. Traditionally, political transitions in Washington are long, and this one will probably last longer, so the smartest way to move forward with the transatlantic relationship is to pursue cooperation in areas of common interest despite political change and make sure decisions taken in Washington (e.g. sanctions on Russia and Iran) are taken in consultation with European allies.