The Munich Security Conference this past weekend proves once again why Europe can’t deal with a crisis in its midst without U.S. leadership.
Created in 1963 in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall crisis, the annual Munich Security Conference (or Wehrkunde Conference, as it is known among initiates) is supposed to be an important venue for European leaders to discuss collective security concerns in an informal setting. Today more than 100 ministers and more than 30 heads of state attend, including senior American officials, to show solidarity with their European counterparts.
The organizers of this Cold War relic could have given it an urgent new relevance in light of what’s unfolding in Ukraine — certainly the gravest security challenge to Europe in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
They didn’t. Like an unrelated but more notorious conference held in Munich in 1938, this last meeting showed instead how feeble European democracies can be in facing aggression even when it threatens one of their own, in this case the largest country in Europe. Hours after the conference closed, Vladimir Putin showed what he thought of that vaunted body by announcing his plans to move troops into eastern Ukraine.
This is tragic. The meeting in Munich offered an opportunity to clear the decks for a series of emergency meetings with defense and foreign ministers, including with the U.S. secretary of state, who routinely attends, on next moves: to draw up plans for imposing multilateral sanctions on Russia; to lay out military options for a deterrent response to Putin’s threats; to reactivate alliances to secure the Eastern Europe frontier with Russia; and to discuss ways to prevent China from using what happens in Ukraine as leverage to step up pressure on Taiwan.
None of this happened. The conference did allow Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to speak; he took Europeans and Americans to task for sending his country combat helmets but not acting decisively against a threat aimed not just at Ukraine but at peace around the world. His remarks were sympathetically received, but the organizers and attendees seemed impatient to get on with hearing Nancy Pelosi (on democracy), John Kerry (on climate change), and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi — not to mention attend a highly touted MSC Townhall panel on “Women’s Agency in Conflict and Humanitarian Crises.”
If the goal was, as the Munich Security Report released before the conference explained, to highlight “the emergence of a sense of ‘collective helplessness’ in the face of a plethora of global challenges,” Wehrkunde certainly lived up to its mission. Having the conference end on an appearance by Kamala Harris proved just how unseriously participants were taking the Ukraine crisis, and how clueless they are about what to do about it.
Here’s what the program in Munich should have looked like:
First, publicly recommit NATO countries to raise their defense budgets to 2 percent of GDP, as they all promised back in 2014. Out of 30 NATO members, only three — the U.S., the U.K., and Greece — currently exceed that threshold; four others (Poland, Romania, Latvia, and Estonia) just meet it. Given the looming threat from the East, raising the threshold to 3 percent would seem only prudent.
Second, unveil plans to expand NATO northward to include Finland and Sweden but also to expand the role of the Baltic republics — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — in preparing Europe’s collective defense, since they are likely to be next on Putin’s hit list after Ukraine.
Third, develop a strategy for shedding Germany’s, and Western Europe’s, reliance on Russian energy sources by 2025, which means not just canceling Nord Stream 2 (where the Germans have decided to suspend construction) but Nord Stream 1 as well, including expanding U.S. liquefied-natural-gas exports and boosting the commitment to nuclear power. This means stopping Germany’s shutdown of its three remaining nuclear power plants — Isar 2, Emsland, and Neckarwestheim 2 — at the end of this year.
Fourth, restore plans for constructing the land-based missile-defense system for Eastern Europe that the Obama–Biden administration scrapped, including looking at using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for persistent surveillance but also as platforms for anti-missile defense.
Finally, everyone realizes that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is clearing the way for China to take similar actions against Taiwan. That’s why it’s more urgent than ever to create a security conference — a Wehrkunde East — for the Indo–Pacific region, one that’s truly effective in discussing mutual security concerns and preparing to prevent China from emulating the Russian example. I’ve been urging American and Japanese officials to think along these lines for several years; now’s the time to take the steps to make it happen.
Success in the future depends on learning from past mistakes. What happened in Munich this past weekend should be a model of how not to hold a mutual-security conference, just as the conference held in that city 84 years ago taught the world that appeasement of dictators isn’t a path to peace but only to more aggression.
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