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Since its beginnings, in the early 1960s, the Munich Security Conference has been
regarded as a seismograph for the most urgent security policy problems at any given time. More recently, the guest appearance of Vladimir Putin in 2007 was particularly memorable, as many people still believed that a strategic security partnership between the Western nations and Russia was not only desirable but also possible. After Putin’s speech, this illusion was shattered.

One regrettable conclusion to be drawn year after year is, that although new security
crises and fundamental problems are added to the agenda at every new conference, those that were hotly debated at previous events were neither resolved nor even brought closer toresolution. This is not a remark “against” the conference. Rather, it speaks for the necessity of conferences like Munich. Above all, however, it is a depressing sign of the ever-increasing instability of the international order. The northern hemisphere states still manage to shield their citizens from this instability: how long this tour de force can be sustained is written in the stars.

The problem to which this year’s participants and public observers attempted to draw
attention was initially referred to as “Westlessness”. It soon became apparent that this neologism met with little understanding beyond German ears, but the phenomenon was profound, and serious. In the words of the conference chairman, Ambassador
Wolfgang Ischinger, “We have lost a common understanding of what it means to
belong to the Western world (…) All this is happening against the background of the relative rise of the non-Western world and an increasing number of challenges and
crises that require a concerted response from the West.”

However, the viewpoint from which this depressing assessment was made is typically European: the American view of things is different. In recent decades, from Vietnam to Iraq, the United States may have miscalculated, made repeated misjudgements, pursued half-baked strategies and even suffered downright defeats, but this has not shaken its belief that, as with the 20th century, the 21st will again be American – and perhaps
rightly so. “The best is yet to come,” Donald Trump now promises in his 2020 pre-election campaign. No one should dismiss this as a cheap slogan. We can still philosophise about the multipolarity of a new world order, but when it really comes down to it, when it is not just a matter of making a clever move in the geopolitical game, when the fundamental interests of the United States are threatened, they will still be able to impose their will on any adversary, wherever he or she may be. The acknowledged economic, demographic, technological, intellectual and military superiority of the United States keeps all challengers at a distance.

When its lead nation is bursting with strength and self-confidence, the West as a whole cannot be too badly off. The depression felt by Europeans is primarily a discomfort in their own performance. They fear that they have reached an impasse with the European Union and that major course corrections will be necessary to prevent other Member States from following the British example. They sulk when they realise that all their efforts to “civilise” and pacify local trouble spots in the south, the south-east and the east of Europe are failing. Beyond appeals to “reason”, “humanity” and “universal principles”, too little diplomatic or military weight is being brought to bear – or, indeed, is available.

However, we must not attach too much importance to European sensibility. Finde-siècleprophecies arise repeatedly in Europe, especially over the last 150 years, but
if we consider all these fantasies of doom en bloc, it is clear that the continent hasheld its own quite well, globally. And perhaps, from time to time we should look outwards at daily political and military reality. While the VIPs debated at the Munich Security Conference, DEFENDER-Europe 2020 was underway. The largest exercise in 25 years for the transfer of significant military reinforcements from the USA to Eastern Europe, this, far more than conferences, underlines the transatlantic cohesion of the West.

author: Peter Bossdorf