Report from Munich

February 13, 2015     
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59a0f71151The Munich Security Conference is a diplomatic / security policy emporium which meets annually  about this time in the Bavarian capital.

Fifty years of gatherings of diplomats, military brass, politicians and increasingly the new breed of self styled security consultants have given it the cachet of being where the action is. It is certainly where the practitioners of hard security and realpolitik hold forth. And of course, the back rooms and corridors are the breeding grounds for deals to be struck and agreements reached. Many a past NATO policy has been worked out in the elegant back rooms. The real drama this year was centred on the growing crisis of Ukraine, played out in public view all day Saturday in the major ball room of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel.

Leading off was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, fresh from meeting the night before with Russian President Putin, but bringing little hope that there were any grounds for agreement to end the ferocious killing going on in eastern Ukraine. Her strongest declaration was that in no way Germans and many other Europeans support the proposal floating about to give arms to the Ukrainian forces. This would just further provoke Putin in her view. What ran through her discourse was an almost plaintive perplexity about the inability for Europeans after all these years of building agreements and institutions of cooperation to be unable to react to aggression in Europe and with very few tools to thwart a leader like Putin who doesn’t play by those rules.

Serge Lavarov, the Russian foreign minister came next and simply repeated the well worn lines that the mess in Ukraine was all the fault of NATO, the West generally, and the United States in particular. He did provide a moment of comic relief when he said that Russia and its predecessor the USSR had always stood for an united Europe and an United Germany. I guess the Berlin Wall has been erased from Russian memory.

Third up in this extraordinary line up of heavies was US Vice-president Joseph Biden who normally is seen with the jovial countenance of the street politician that he was for decades. This was a different Joe, stern, combative and pulling no punches. It was hard to discern who he was more put out with, the blustering Russians or the ineffectual Europeans. You expect him to take Putin and company to task, but he was clearly critical of the Merkel’s stand on no arms assistance, throwing complaints about their austere economy and malingering on a Trans-Atlantic trade deal. Some Americans I spoke to after were quite bitter on what they saw as a German policy attuned to the interests of their business and energy interests. But truth be said after Biden finished his critiques, he too had nothing new to offer.

And, finally there was President Poroshenko who as clean up hitter had some expectations in coming to Munich that there would progress made in limiting the violence and receiving extra aid to help his bankrupt treasury. But having to listen to the previous speakers well trod rhetoric of support for Ukraine but no diplomatic or even fiscal tangibles, he fell into the pattern of repeating old lines and hiding his embarrassment. His best moment came when he broke from the text and laid out the extent of horror taking place. Over 5000 civilians killed, close to a million displaced, and a further day by day escalation of the atrocities. It was a telling point, but alas returned to his bureaucrats prose. He should have continued to lay it on about the negligence of those who had spoken before. They were playing diplomacy while the risk to ordinary people was the real issue. Couldn’t help thinking of pre-WW1 Europe where the leaders sleepwalked into a deadly confrontation.

Post thoughts from this day of political theatrics. There is a growing split in the Trans Atlantic Alliance that needs fixing. Europe and North America need each other, especially as the constellation of power changes in the globe. That was not on display this past weekend and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on which to refurbish the partnership. Secondly, Europe has lost its confidence, and is unsure of its future. Timid leadership was very apparent and no one has the mojo to shake things up, except maybe the new Greek Prime Minister. The same can be said about NATO. It’s most innovative move is to set up “soon” a rapid response team. Not to go to those areas of suffering human disasters close to its borders, Ukraine is right now the example but only for its members. No Responsibility to Protect in their genes. Third, American diplomacy is muscle bound and can think only in military terms. It cries out for the skilled practitioners of previous decades like George Kennan who knew how to contain the Russians. Now, it’s generals who set the tone.

All this to say that on the stage in Bavaria this past weekend was a tragic comedy of worn out, conventional wisdoms about security and a desperate need to re think and reform our way of dealing with the Putins and the extremists who don’t believe in laws and rules and cooperation. It’s time not just to re-set, to use Joe Biden’s phrase, but to re-think.

In the meantime, as the official black limousines disappear from the streets of Munich, the killing goes on in Ukraine, in Syria and Iraq, in Northern Nigeria and the best minds at Munich have no answers and certainly no agreement on actions.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief.

Photo: Dr. Angela Merkel (Federal Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany), image source: Koch / MSC.

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