Every year, the Munich Security Conference brings together delegates from different part of the world to discuss major international security challenges.
Transatlantic partnership has always been the strategic framework within which any effort is announced in Munich. However, this year the context was different compared with the past, reflecting the difference in the Trump administration’s approach toward its European allies.
As a matter of fact, over a year into the Trump administration, it is now possible to say that US support for European security does not appear to be guaranteed anymore, and neither is the US role in maintaining the liberal international order.
It is still challenging to define the key points of Trump’s foreign policy approach, and this uncertainty is expected to push the European Union to strengthen defense cooperation among its member countries, aiming at taking the lead on various international challenges without having to rely on Washington’s assistance.
While the international community reflects on whether or not the EU can fill the gap left by US leadership, President Trump has apparently not completely set aside the traditional themes of US strategy and its role in leading the free world. According to the Trump administration, ‘America first’ does not necessarily translate into ‘American Isolationism.’ Instead, as codified in the National Security Strategy, putting America first is a prerogative for the US leadership because: “a strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations.”
This concept was also affirmed by President Trump during the World Economic Forum in January in Switzerland. After praising the health of the US economy and markets, Trump gave a keynote on his approach to the international community. He said that his administration is taking action to restore US confidence and independence, insisting that ‘America first’ is not ‘America alone.’
Trump portrays a US government that’s committed overseas but focused on putting national interests at the top of its agenda. What exactly this approach would bring in the future is questionable.
In the US National Security Strategy, the EU is singled out as the United States’ most important and prosperous ally. The document is insistent on the US commitment to its European partners; yet there are still reasons for doubt. Owing to a lack of both credibility and reliability, the US leadership might find itself in a compromised position if ever called on to fulfil its traditional duty.
The US team sent to Munich included Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. They did not deliver any impressive speeches or new assurances, and by failing to do so they showed that the only answer the US leading power has to European efforts to improve its own defense is to simply maintain the status quo.
The US delegation did list the administration’s foreign-policy priorities, such as countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, defeating jihadi organizations, and strengthening the international foundations for peace and prosperity, but this was nothing more than rhetoric and general statements. Secretary of Defense James Mattis started his journey around Europe a couple of days before the Munich Security Conference began. His trip brought him first to Rome, where he met Italian Minister of Defense Roberta Pinotti; then he attended the first NATO Defense Ministerial of 2018; and finally he travelled to Stuttgart to meet with the troops of the United States European and African Commands. This journey was planned to reaffirm key partnerships and prepare for the dialogue which would have followed in Munich about current and future security challenges.
Unfortunately, US delegates left Munich with no plan, no strategy, and no long-term vision – just disappointment and criticism from those who do not approve of Trump’s approach toward the United States’ European allies. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen declared in her speech a general disapproval of Trump’s military-heavy approach to global affairs, and this seems to be a common opinion around Europe. Pushing to increase military and defense spending while cutting funds to the United Nations, diplomacy, and development aid could threaten international security instead of improving it.
It is debatable whether European countries will be capable of coming to a consensus that finally addresses the Continent’s security needs. It is equally unclear whether their doing so would benefit the United States of not. What is clear, however, is that the transatlantic partnership is not going to be based on its traditional pillars any longer.
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