Monday, February 11, 2019

The Great Powers flexing muscle

The world is in crisis — and the US is only making things worse. That's the bold verdict of the Munich Security Report (MSR), released ahead of this week's Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering for leading representatives of all the major powers. US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chancellor Angela Merkel will be among the 100 ministers from across the world expected to discuss growing global instability.

"A new era of great power competition is unfolding between the United States, China, and Russia, accompanied by a certain leadership vacuum in what has become known as the liberal international order," wrote conference chief Wolfgang Ischinger, veteran diplomat and former German ambassador to the US 
"US strategic documents have singled out China and Russia as the two most important challengers," the report went on, but the rivalries between these three great powers are playing out in different ways. The conflict between Washington and Beijing is focused mainly on economic and trade issues, for instance, while Russia and China see themselves as an alliance of autocracies against the West, even as they remain in geopolitical competition with each other.

The rivalry between the US and Russia, meanwhile, remains mired in accusations and counteraccusations about arms, and the MSR offers little prospect that this will improve soon. After the canceling of the INF treaty, which regulated intermediate-range nuclear weapons, other arms control measures could now be under threat. "It appears unlikely that they can extend the New START Treaty covering strategic nuclear weapons beyond 2021, when it is set to expire," the report said.

One of the main sources of this instability is clear. Trump's administration in Washington is showing little interest in holding to international agreements, and his tweets often openly question institutions including NATO and the United Nations. Even worse: Under Trump, the US appears ready to relinquish its role as a leading power in what is often still called the "free world." The MSR accuses Trump of displaying "an irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe, suggesting that this administration is living in a 'post-human rights world.'" This, the report argued, undermined the US' professed effort to rally "the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order," as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it. "For longtime trans-Atlantic allies, it is still hard to stomach when Trump praises illiberal leaders from Brazil to the Philippines." 

Above all this, the impending existential threat posed by climate change has evidently begun to seep into the upper circles of power. Ischinger mentioned that one of the conference's main blocks would, for the first time, be devoted to the security threats posed by an inevitably warming climate. "We want to show that climate and security are issues that are of vital importance, not only for us in Europe, but also, for example, for the island states in the Pacific," he said. "Will there be forced migration? Or will there be conflicts? Who will deal with that? Will there be rules? Can such rules be developed?"

Europe, which appears to be playing an ever-smaller strategic role in all these deliberations? "The European Union is particularly ill-prepared for a new era of great power competition," the MSR declares, a point that is revealed by the new debate about Europe's "strategic autonomy." There does not appear to be a "plan B" for how Europe could emancipate itself in its global security policy.

On Monday, Ischinger told reporters that "2019 is going to be a fateful year for the European Union," not least because of the European Parliament elections in May and the appointment of a new European Central Bank president in October. For that reason it was important, he said, that the MSC this year shows the "non-European participants that the EU is ready to fight for its interests by asserting itself."

No comments: