Munich Security Conference: Mixed Messages on American Values, Engagement

Feb 19, 2018

This article was first published on on February 19, 2018 on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

As a member of the Loisach Group, I had the opportunity to sit in on some of the sessions of the 2018 Munich Security Conference. In particular, the Sunday U.S. Congressional panel was quite interesting for the message that the bipartisan group (representing both chambers of the legislature) wanted to convey to the distinguished audience. They reiterated American support for sustaining and defending the liberal world order, with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) making the case that the fundamental divide in the world of the 21st century is not between cultures or regions but between those countries which uphold the principles of the rule of law and those which seek to undermine it. All of the Members of Congress stressed the extent of continuity in U.S. foreign policy even after the first year of the Trump administration, and maintained that the legislative branch will do its part to ensure that the United States continues to uphold its commitments.

And yet, the Congressional delegation spoke to an audience which over the preceding 24 hours had seen apparent contradictions between messages delivered by senior U.S. officials at the Munich Security Conference and comments and tweets of the president, which seemed to undercut or contradict those messages. In a following panel, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was blunter, warning that mixed messages about the U.S. commitment to past agreements and arrangements would undermine faith in the credibility of the United States and lessen trust in its future assurances.

What seemed clear to me, as a more distant observer, is that no one can give blanket assurances that the United States will continue to underwrite the liberal world order. There are two wild cards—a President who is more transactional in his approach, and an American public which seems warier of the costs—points that Congressman Michael Turner (R-OH) was more willing to broach. A subtext of discussions, therefore, focused on questions of "strategic autonomy": what other countries may need to be prepared to do to fill in any gaps that begin to emerge from American "selective burden shedding," both in matters of "hard security" but also in the areas of development and values. What will other major players, starting with Germany, be prepared to do, and what happens if gaps are not filled? (The Middle East panels, in particular, highlighted how volatile that region is and the prospects for immediate conflict.) The overall answer seemed to be that the United States will continue to uphold the liberal world order, but . . . with the parameters left unexpressed. In turn, how the United States will be able to negotiate new arrangements with key partners to transfer burdens that it sheds still remains unclear.

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, commented at the close of the proceedings that the motto chosen for this year’s conclave was "To the Brink—and Back?" He noted, "I was hoping we could delete the question mark at the end of MSC 2018. But sorry: things are getting worse instead of better. Risks increasing. Back from the brink? Not really!"

UPDATE, 2/20/2018: And one thing to add—both Senators Whitehouse and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also stressed that the business community needs more to honor the letter and spirit of sanctions resolutions against countries like Russia and Iran—in other words, to sacrifice short-term profit for investing in the longer-term strength of the liberal world order.

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