Munich Security Conference 2020: Rule-based Order or the Will of the Strongest rules


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

It was a certain “Déjà Vu” when I listened to some of the main presentations at this year’s 56th Munich Security Conference (February 14-17), very similar to what happened last year when US Vice President Pence basically attacked the Europeans and above all Germany for not following Trumps unilateral policy, which was responded by Chancellor Angela Merkel with a passionate plea for a “Multilateral International Order.” This year the speeches given by US Foreign Affairs Secretary Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were both in “style” and “content” a provocation. Russia and China, as well as Iran were blamed by them as culprits for the erosion of the international western order. The message which they delivered was that the world is facing “a great power competition” in which the “we” i.e. the US dominated “West” is winning.

The subject of this year’s e Munich Security Conference year was “Westlessness”- a bizarre title- that focused on reflecting about the shortcomings of Western Strategy. Approximately 400 attended the Munich event – among them Heads of States, Foreign and Defense Ministers, Security experts and ambassadors. Some of the speeches that were given in Munich however deserve attention, among them remarks made by French President Emanuel Macron, which should be looked at in the context of his excellent speech at the École de Guerre (February 7th) as well as the speech given by German President F.W. Steinmeier. Short, but precise speeches were given by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who both vociferously called for the defense of a “multilateral order” inspired by the UN Charter that is based on peace, strict observance of international law and the defense of the common good of mankind.

So there was a true cultural divide in Munich between those who dream of a “unilateral” geopolitical policy where the will of the Stronger wins, against those who defend the law and rules based “multilateral” world order.

US officials demonizing Russia and bashing China

During his speech US Foreign State Secretary Mike Pompeo made indirect reference to German President Frank Walter Steinmeier, who in the words of Pompeo “had suggested (in his speech) that the United States ‘rejects the international community’.” Pompeo lashed out against this by pounding several times that “the West is winning. We are collectively winning. We are doing it together.”  He underlined that “free nations are more successful than others.” And illustrated his remarks by a imprudent comparison:  “migrants would risk their lives to reach Greece but not to go to Iran or Cuba (!). People want to study in Cambridge not in Caracas. They want to start business in Silicon Valley but not in St. Petersburg. ” Pompeo described the US as a nation “that doesn’t “interfere in other nation’s elections (…) and that “respect for sovereignty of nations” was a secret of and central to our success. He identified China as the main culprit that is to blame for the crisis in the West. The “Chinese state – backed tech companies” were “Trojan horses” for Chinese intelligence. Russia’s disinformation campaigns tried “to turn our citizens against one another”, while “Iranian cyberattacks plague Middle East computer networks.”

The United States was loudly praised for having “restored credibility to arms control when we withdrew from the INF Treaty – with unanimous NATO support- after Russia repeatedly violated its terms.”  He listed several interventions that in the last years had been supposedly successfully launched under the leadership of the US: “We’ve led 81 nations in the global fight to defeat the ISIS caliphate” (…) “We’re leading a 59 nation coalition to oust Maduro and honor the will of the Venezuelan people.” Europeans, he warned, should not to be “fooled” by Russia that suggests that Nord Stream 2 is purely a commercial endeavor.” Nor should people in Europe be “fooled” by Huawei. “When Huawei executives show up at your door, they say you’ll lose out if you don’t buy in. Don’t believe the hype.” While Pompeo’s speech was based on a lot of rhetoric, its aim was to transmit the message of “raw power” policy, where the stronger dictates the rules.

Very similar was the speech given by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who essentially focused on the US “National Defense Strategy” that is based on the premise that the US is involved in a “Great Power Competition.” Thus he stated that Pentagon’s top concern is the People’s Republic of China and that the US is prepared to “deal with China in this new era of great power competition”, “China’s growth over the years has been remarkable, but in many ways it is fueled by theft, coercion, and exploitation of free market economies, private companies, and colleges and universities”. Huawei would be exemplary for this. He (like the Speaker of the House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi at a later panel) warned the Europeans that “reliance on Chinese 5 G vendors, for example, could render our partners’ critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation and espionage. It could also jeopardize our communication and intelligence sharing capabilities, and by extension, our alliances.” And he added that in the long run “developing our own secure 5 G networks will far outweigh any perceived gains from partnering with heavily subsidized Chinese provider that ultimately answer to party leadership.”

Steinmeier: The classical Thucydides Dilemma

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier made reference to the commemoration of 75 years of the Founding of the UN which set a standard for peace and security in the world, as did Helsinki 1975 and the Charta of Paris 1989. He noted that the international community is witnessing “increasing destructive dynamic in international politics”. That “the idea of the ‘great power competition’ is not only influencing the strategic partners of today; it is also shaping a new the reality all across the world, and its tracks can be followed right to the unending wars with huge loss of life in the Middle East and Libya.”

In direct criticism about the US he stated at one point, that “under its current Administration, our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community. Every country, it believes should look after itself and put its own interest before all others. ‘Great again’– even at the expense of neighbors and partners.” He referred to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides by stating: “It is indeed true that international law primarily protects the small. The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides put it over 2000 years ago, looking at the ancient world. In other words: whilst laws and rules are of extreme importance to the ‘little man’ they are always merely an option for the great. They have other ways to survive. (…) We fall back into the classic security dilemma. The inevitable result? More mistrust, more armament, less security.”

Shaping the present world demands responsibility and humility opposite to missionary zeal, Steinmeier stressed and “conflicts cannot be resolved if we are not familiar with the other side’s perspectives or interest, especially here they run counter to our own ideas. Without such an understanding, no nuclear agreement can be negotiated with Iran, and there will be no peace in Eastern Ukraine. Whoever wants to make peace in Libya needs to shake a great many hands, not all of them clean. Whoever wants to combat terrorism in the Sahel region – and we have a few year experience in Mali- cannot simply make it a case of ‘military- yes or no?’  but must above all tackle the complex causes of the conflict on the ground to successfully ensure stability.” Steinmeier underlined that while Europe’s security is based on a strong alliance with America, at the “same time Europe cannot accept Russia’s increasing alienation. We need a different relationship, between the EU and Russian and between Russia and the EU.”

He demanded that there must be a truly “European Policy on Russia that is not restricted merely to condemnatory statements and sanctions: It must find its own balance with China, finding equilibrium between increasing inter system competition and the necessary cooperation.” The termination of the JCPOA “was a mistake,” Steinmeier said. And he added that Germans must make up their mind “of  how we are going to talk seriously and in a spirit of confidence with France our closest partner about the security issues President Macron mentioned in his very important speech at the Ėcole de Guerre in Paris a week ago. “We should take up his invitation to engage in dialogue (nuclear force). However that also means seeing things from France’s perspective and making our own contributions toward developing the joint strategic culture without which Europe will not really work as a security policy actor.”

Lavrov warning about the “Barbarization of the international Order”

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov gave a very short, but precise speech followed by three questions concerning Russia’s engagement in Syria. The panel was moderated by Spiegel Berlin correspondent Christiane Hoffmann.  The Foreign Minister described the present world order as one where strategic stability, “the non – proliferation system is being destroyed right before our eyes, the threshold for using nuclear weapons is getting lower, regional crisis are multiplying and international law is being trampled upon, including their military interference in affairs of sovereign states (Iran), illegal sanctions and harsh protectionist measures that undermine global markets and the system of trade.”  In short, we “are witnessing the barbarization of international relations which degrades human habitat.”

Lavrov called for the principle of “genuine multilateralism” that should be based on the guiding principles enshrined in the UN Charter, including sovereign equality of states and no interference in their domestic affairs.” In the brief discussion period with Spiegel correspondent Hoffmann Larov was asked about Idlib and Russian relations with Turkey. Lavrov underlined that relations between Russia and Turkey despite areas on disagreements are functioning well on a diplomatic, political and military level. He deplored the fact that despite the UN and Astana peace initiatives more than one year has been lost due to the EU hesitation to support these initiatives.

Chinese State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi

The Chinese foreign minister’s  speech was  mostly focused on the measures which the China government used to combat against “Corona virus”: He called it a  “war where Chinese people are united as one in fighting this war and underlined the  unprecedented solidarity being given to China from  many countries around the Globe (including the WHO) as well as the spirit of solidarity within the Chinese population – where in “2 weeks thousands of engineers and construction workers managed to build 2 specialized hospitals equipped with 2.500 beds.”

The other focus of his remarks was to underline the need for multilateral cooperation. “Multilateralism does not stand for putting any country above others. Instead it advocates the equal right to development shared by all countries. “As a big country with 5000 years of civilization, China,” he said, “will not copy the Western model.”  Yet “collaboration between major countries to the success of multilateralism plays a key role and that “China will further strengthen strategic coordination with Russia and advance strategic partnership.” He emphasized that “multilateralism is antithetical to unilateral moves. Instead it supports greater democracy in international relations, based on international rule of law and justice. The principle enshrined in the UN Charter, including respect for national sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputed and non- interference in internal affairs, are the bedrock of modern international law.”

In the discussion which was conducted by MSC chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, Wang Yi emphasized that the US had launched a “smear campaign” against China, repeating accusations which are not based on facts and  that the US doesn’t want a rapid development of China. In terms of Europe he reiterated that China wants a strong united Europe and more cooperation in a multilateral world.

President Emanuel Macron for a common European Strategic Culture  

President Macron essentially gave an interview that was conducted with him by the MSC chairman, Ambassador Ischinger. Being asked how he would see the future of Europe in 10 years from now, Macron  stated effort are needed to make  “Europe become a strategic European power, in the future , with common  rules”; that there must be a certain European independence from the US  and a “different relation with Russia.” He qualified Europe as “a political adventure which is democracy, individual freedom and progress of the middle classes.” Being asked by Ischinger to comment his recent speech at the École de guerre and what he meant by the reference to the French nuclear forces, he stated that we must enter a strategic dialogue with all partners who want this, including on nuclear.”  In that frame “we are ready to have joint exercises and we want to build a “common strategic culture.”  Being asked about relations with Russia, he stated, that “the strategic dialogue with Russia must be based on discussion about frozen conflicts”. “Russia is member of the permanent UN Security Council. I congratulate that Putin accepted the idea of a meeting within P5 (UNSC) framework… We have to build a security architecture based on reciprocal confidence.”



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