By Somar Wijayadasa*
“The whole liberal world order appears to be falling apart – nothing is as it once was,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a senior German diplomat in an opinion article in the run-up to the 2019 Munich Security Conference (MSC) that he chairs.
He added: “When Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and started the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, many considered him to be the major cause of global destabilization.”
“Nobody could have known,” Ischinger went on to say, “that just a few years later the U.S. President, of all people, would seriously challenge the current international order. Donald Trump questions free trade just like he questions the Western set of values or NATO. This has massive consequences – not just for us Europeans.”
It was not surprising therefore that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – who led the largest delegation of 50 bipartisan Congressmen – received no applause when he kicked off his tirade against everyone rejecting ‘Trumpism’, by prefacing his speech with: “I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”
There was pin drop silence in the hall filled with some 500 participants from around the world. The reverberations of disapprobation and trepidation reflected in Ischinger’s article were distinctly underscored by conference attendees effusively observing the norms of diplomacy.
Because a huge majority of them were aware that in many ways Trump is more of a symptom of change than its cause. The global security situation, as Ischinger put it, is “experiencing an epochal shift; an era is ending, and the rough outlines of a new political age are only beginning to emerge”.
Picking up the pieces
‘The Great Puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces?’ was the overarching theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference that started in 1963 with a friendly exchange of views on foreign policy issues between participants from western part of divided Germany and their counterparts from their most important ally, the United States, and from other NATO member states.
The Munich Security Conference has after more than 55 years emerged into an eminent international security conference. The background of discussions about how to preserve the core pieces of the international order is a plethora of “destabilizing” issues: Europe’s defense policy, West-Russia relations, Ukrainian crisis, conflicts in the Middle East, the U.S. withdrawal of its forces from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump’s demand of 2% of GDP of EU countries to NATO budget, Trade & Tariff wars, Brexit chaos, increasing right-wing populism around the world, and the rapidly brewing “regime change” in Venezuela, to name a few.
International security has been further threatened by Trump’s upending of the carefully crafted multilateral agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), INF Treaty – Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Also the on-going devastation of Yemen, countries crossing sovereign borders in violation of sacred international law to poison the Skripals in UK, and the gruesome murder of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey have exacerbated the security around the world.
These conflicts triggered by power hungry politicians embroiled in a supremacy competition between the U.S., China, and Russia are plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts – threatening international peace and security around the world.
The situation is reminiscent of that before the Second World War erupted in 1939, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”
Dialogue or Confrontation
Divergent comments during the MSC give a clear picture of what is at stake.
Lamenting that the U.S.-led global order “has collapsed into many tiny parts”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented a robust defense of her approach to foreign policy, in particular her relentless commitment to multilateralism, the rules-based order and diplomacy.
Merkel rebuked the spirit of Trumpism (without actually naming him) by declaring that “all the world’s crises boiled down to one question: Do we believe in multilateralism, as difficult and slow as it might be, or not?”
The U.S. Vice President Pence referring to Trump as “the leader of the free world” said “We came here to reaffirm our commitment that ‘America First’ does not mean America alone and tell leaders, allies and countries around the world that America is stronger than ever before and America’s leading on the world stage once again.”
This bumptiousness did not elicit applause, not the least because Pence demanded that “our European partners must withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal”, and condemned the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline between Russia and Germany.
Alluding to Turkey’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile defense system, Pence said: “We will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries.” He added: “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”
Pence said that under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. has made it clear that “China must address the longstanding issues of intellectual-property theft, forced technology transfer, and other structural issues in China that have placed a burden on our economy and on economies around the world”.
Referring to the Venezuelan crisis, Pence described Trump as a “champion of freedom” and asked European countries to join the U.S. in confronting the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “Swiftly after [Brexit] departure in 2019, we will come out of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. We will have a truly independent and sovereign foreign policy.”
Many speakers targeted Russia. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of making the world a less safe place, and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Russia was dividing Europe. But, in general, there was less criticism than in the past.
Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Foreign Affairs Commission said: “History tells us that we can only realize our people’s dreams for a better life by upholding multilateralism, and enhancing global cooperation.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov censured NATO for its “expansion” into Russia’s borders causing unprecedented tensions as both sides expand military deployments and drills. He held a series of bilateral meetings with foreign leaders.
The spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova complained about U.S. inconsistencies on every issue. She said that the U.S. with their military and economic power “failed in the Middle East”, and that “they did not resolve any world crisis, anywhere”. She hinted that “the main purpose of the MSC was to demonize Russia”.
Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu – who is prone to dramatically displaying objects at meetings to prove his point – brandished a piece of “drone debris” from an Iranian drone, and called Iran a “grave danger to the Middle East”.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used his speech to criticise the United States, launching a blistering attack on U.S. Vice President Pence for his speech the day before, saying his allegations that Tehran was plotting a “new Holocaust” were “hateful” and “ignorant”. Zarif called the U.S. “pathologically” fixed on Iran and generally “the biggest threat to the world”.
A new world order – in the making
Closing the conference, its Chairman Ischinger offered a bleak conclusion: “We have a real problem”.
Yes, a problem – perhaps not new. In addressing the same forum in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin predicted that the Western system of alliances – with its “one master, one sovereign” sitting in Washington, D.C. – would eventually “destroy itself from within”. Now, will that prophecy come true?
The divergent statements and rejoinders – even contempt and innuendos – of participants proved beyond doubt that the U.S. is at odds not only with Russia, China and Iran but also with its allies.
Despite U.S. objections, Europeans are building bridges to the East. Major projects such as Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and China’s Belt and Road initiative are gaining trust and confidence in those countries – even though Pence warned the Europeans that they would only hurt their own security by making deals with Russia and China.
Ischinger wrote. “The grim picture is not drawn out of thin air. As certain Western countries turn to self-centered and confrontational mentalities and show little interest in fulfilling international responsibilities, unilateralism, isolationism and trade protectionism are bearing bad fruit.”
According to international relations observers, current conflicts around the world prove that the influence of the U.S. and Europe is waning, and the major powers – Russia, China, and the U.S. – are competing for economic and military supremacy.
Against the backdrop of ‘things falling apart’, the desire for a rules-based international order – for peace and prosperity to all around the world vibrated throughout the Munich Security Conference.
*Somar Wijayadasa, is an International lawyer and was UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.