Since 1962, the year after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) has helped propel conversations on many critical issues: the Cold War; nuclear arms control; the fall of that Wall and German reunification; 9-11; the Iraq War. Two years ago, the conference was all about NSA and new strains on US-European cooperation. Last year – Ukraine and the new Russian aggression.
This year, the focus of the conference, which took place February 12-14, was ISIL and the chaotic and murderous civil war in Syria, Russia’s new role there, perceived American passivity, and Europe’s continued inability to get its act together.
The featured speakers ranged from John Kerry, Dmitri Medvedev, and Petro Poroshenko to the leaders of other European nations, leaders from the Middle East, chiefs of key foreign and defense ministries, and of course many deep thinkers and talking heads. Once again, Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the MSC, managed to understand the challenges at hand among this diverse group and to focus our efforts on the most essential questions before us.
Rick Burt – a longtime MSC attendee and former Reagan and Bush 41 envoy to Germany and Europe – and our president, Nelson Cunningham, once again attended the gathering in Munich. They offer this inside view of one of the world’s smallest yet most consequential conferences – some 1,000 or so leaders and global citizens, convened under one roof in one hotel in one of Europe’s most dynamic regions.
Syria and ISIL
With the announcement late Thursday night of a new plan for cessation of hostilities in Syria, the focus of the weekend was assured. Secretary Kerry, whose indefatigable energy and optimism have driven the Syrian peace process as it propelled the Iran nuclear negotiations, declared to the delegates his belief that humanitarian relief was on its way and that in one week the bombs would cease. But he was unable to point to significant US response if the effort failed. German Foreign Minister Steinmeier showed his support (and with 1 million refugees perhaps heading to Europe in 2016, he has reason to need hope), but he pegged the chances of cessation in one week at just 51%. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sourly walked through all the obstacles to peace while highlighting Russia’s central support for Bashar Al-Assad, against whom the West and Sunni Arabs unite. When pressed to place odds on the success of Russia’s efforts to defend Assad, Lavrov grimaced and said, “49%.” British Foreign Secretary Hammond, to his right, quipped, “I don’t speak Russian, but I would have thought from his tone that his prediction would be 0%.”
The differences between Russia and the West on Syria were on sharp and vivid display, in terms of strategy and tactics, but also in terms of presence in Syrian airspace and above Syrian civilians.
Syria’s neighbors differed on their outlook for peace in that country: Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jabeir derided any progress made with Assad remaining in power, while Iran’s Zarif scoffed at any solution that excluded him. Iraq’s Prime Minister al Abadi vowed to drive the Islamic State out of the country by year’s end. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who rules a country where 1 in 5 residents is a Syrian refugee, implored the US and Europe to help bring peace to Syria, and called for Europe to reconcile with Islam. Consensus on a path forward seemed distant.
Russia’s new Cold War
Putting the Syria conflict in a global and strategic context, Russia’s Medvedev warned of a “new Cold War,” pitting the West against a Russia whose motives, history, and actions were badly misunderstood. In Syria as in Crimea/Ukraine, Medvedev made the point that these were in Russia’s neighborhood, with millions of ethnic Russians and/or coreligionists centrally at risk. He called on the West to understand Russia’s unique historic (“national”) interests in both areas of conflict, and for peace in each on terms congenial to those interests.
Foreign Minister Lavrov, plainly worn down and displaying none of the equanimity and balance for which he is known, echoed Medvedev in darker and more bitter terms; the sometime ally and partner of John Kerry seemed pushed past the possibility of real reconciliation. With Lavrov, one has the feeling that he understands the need for diplomatic solutions, but that his boss in the Kremlin won’t let him off the leash to pursue them.
A Syria-Ukraine linkage?
At the same time, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko feared a confluence of crises that would leave Ukraine exposed: a deal between the West and Russia that would lift Crimea sanctions on Russia, in exchange for Russian acquiescence in a Western solution for Syria. Given the tremendous pressure on European leaders from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and from the monetary and other costs of warehousing those refugees in the frontier states of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, Poroshenko’s fear is perhaps not unwarranted. At the same time, despite his spirited defense of his anti-corruption campaign at home in Ukraine, much of the audience remained unconvinced.
At an off-the-record meal, we heard a senior US official emphasize America’s strong opposition to any such linkage; but judging from the worried looks on the faces of European leaders this weekend as they consider their domestic audiences, we wonder whether European (and Middle Eastern) pressure for linkage will not mount. Meaning: out with Assad, a brokered peace in Syria, curbs on migrants fleeing to the heart of Europe – and a grudging, informal acceptance not only of Crimea’s status but of Russia’s strength in Ukraine and its near-abroad. Meanwhile, in discussions of both the Middle East and eastern Europe, many conference participants called for enhanced “American leadership.” But when pressed, they had trouble defining what this meant (not, of course, for the first time).
Today’s crises and the fate of the “European project”
The Munich proceedings also emphasized that Europe confronts an historic array of crises: the continuing wave of Middle Eastern immigration, Russian assertiveness, political splits between North-South and East-West European Union members, the threat of Brexit, and the likelihood of another Greek Eurozone crisis. The conspicuous inability of the EU to develop a common approach on refugee policy clearly underscored that the “European project” is under serious threat.
There were of course many other topics discussed: the (slowing) rise of China, the need for resolve after the success of COP 21, the US presidential elections (a topic Burt and Cunningham addressed before a select group of European CEOs at the conference’s opening luncheon), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (US Trade Representative Mike Froman spoke just after Burt and Cunningham at the same luncheon), and the continuing need for progress on nuclear nonproliferation (with Rick Burt chairing Global Zero’s top-level meetings on the margins of the weekend).
The atmosphere in the corridors was, as usual, fevered and serious – this is not just an urban, mini-Davos, but rather a forum focused solely on essential security questions. As the delegates departed on Sunday, they were left to ask themselves: if we couldn’t have told you three years ago about the NSA revelations, and we couldn’t have told you two years ago about Russia’s Crimea land-grab, and last year few if any of us knew how the Islamic State would further destabilize the Middle East, then how in the world can we predict what will absorb us next February, when we gather again in Munich?