Global discord highlighted at critical security conference

An international conference on the future of NATO, attended by many of the world's leaders, was packed with hidden intrigue and drama, WTOP's J.J. Green reports from Munich, Germany. Here are the highlights from the Munich Security Conference.

MUNICH — More than 600 high-level international decision makers from politics, business, academia and civil society along with throngs of media gathered in Munich for what was arguably the most important gathering in the 55-year history of the Munich Security Conference.

The main theme was defense cooperation between Europe and its allies. Wolfgang Ischinger, president of the Munich Security Conference, at the beginning of the three-day event on Friday, Feb. 15, noted the mounting worry over global security developments and the escalating security issues.

He said, “Because the entire liberal world order seems to be slipping — nothing is as it once was.”

Clearly referencing Russian aggression, he said, “When Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014 and started the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine, many saw in him the great uncertainty.”

But Ischinger said Putin is not the only generator of global uncertainty — U.S. leadership is also a source.

“No one could have guessed that just a few years later (after 2014), the U.S. president would question everything that was established. 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,” said Ischinger.

During the Saturday morning session, Ischinger introduced U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, for a late-morning speech.

Pence, lauded Trump’s leadership and accomplishments, especially those related to NATO.

In a 27-minute speech, Pence said that led by Trump’s urging, the number of NATO allies spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense has doubled. But Pence said more needs to be done.

“The truth is, many of our NATO allies still need to do more, and the U.S. expects every NATO member to put in place a credible plan to meet the 2 percent threshold and by 2024, we expect all our allies to invest 20 percent of military spending on procurement.”

Pence did not take questions after his speech, as speakers customarily do.

While many at the conference expressed quiet desperation about the future of the current world order and NATO, British Minister of Defense Gavin Williamson expressed a calmer approach.

“NATO must remain the bedrock of our security in Europe. Since 1949, it has stood the test of time. It is combat proven. It deters the most serious threats. So, let’s support the world’s most successful military alliance.”

However, he warned that Russia’s disruptive behavior, particularly as it relates to dangerous weapons, needs a more urgent approach.

“Let’s deal with Russia’s breach of the INF Treaty and the threat of new Russian missiles. Let’s be ready to handle their provocations. Russian adventurism must have a cost,” said Williamson.

In brief remarks Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Moscow, saying the situation in Europe is “tense and new cracks are forming.”

Two western security sources told WTOP that the creation of tension between the allies was the objective of Russia’s global disinformation and political interference campaigns. The ultimate goal, the sources agreed, was to create problems between the U.S. and its allies that would lead to separation.

Seeming to mock the U.S. investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Lavrov said, “The Europeans have allowed themselves to be dragged into” problems with Russia, because of “sanctions from across the ocean.”

While many current leaders of European countries stated in public they are confident the U.S. will continue to support and cooperate with them on foreign policy and military matters, many of them expressed concerns privately about U.S. policies and decisions under Trump.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a prospective candidate in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, addressed it head-on at the podium, calling the Trump policy on immigration “an embarrassment.” He also criticized the Trump administration’s ability to lead internationally. And in what some saw as an early sign he’ll announce soon he’ll run for president, he said, “We (America) will be back.”

Biden said NATO needs to be updated and modernized to face today’s threats, and he sought to reassure Europe of its importance to the U.S. “Europe is not just the home of our closest allies, Europe is the cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the rest of the world.”

The largest U.S. delegation in the history of the conference, which consisted of 153 people, attended the event that seemed to be packed with hidden intrigue and drama.

Former California Congresswoman Jane Harman told WTOP on Feb. 16, “I think there are two conferences going on. One is the conference-conference, and the other is the sidebar meetings.”

Harman said, “In the conference-conference people are making statements and talking past each other, but in the side meetings people are talking to each other.”

After numerous critical discussions took place on arms control, trade, defense cooperation, climate change and many other global security issues, at the end of the conference, it was clear not all parties were on the same script.

Referring to the fractured nature of the global order, that Ischinger called “the great puzzle,” he said, the conference raised the question, “Who would pick up the pieces?”

He lamented that some in attendance didn’t seem interested in that prospect. “Critics might argue that some speakers were less interested in putting the pieces together than creating more disarray in our international system.”

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