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Global Perspective: Chasm between US, Europe revealed at Munich Security Conference

The average reader may not be too familiar with the Munich Security Conference (MSC), an event commonly referred to as the security version of the Davos conference. The gathering is a large-scale international conference that has been held annually in Germany since 1963, bringing together influential politicians, administrative officials, diplomats and intellectuals. I attended the meeting for the first time in mid-February.

While I had heard rumors about the MSC, its huge scale caught me by surprise. In attendance were about 30 presidents and prime ministers from around the world along with 80 ministers. From the United States there were the current and former vice presidents, former secretaries of state and about 50 members of Congress, while attendees from China and Russia included foreign ministers and those on the level of deputy prime ministers. From Japan, Foreign Minister Taro Kono appeared on the opening panel.

The highlights were speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, which expressed fluctuations in international politics in recent years and were filled with issues that deserved consideration.

The MSC was originally an attempt by Germany, which had embraced its image as a defeated country in World War II, to find a way to revive multilateral security networks centered on the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is a major "intellectual-political infrastructure" project, so to speak, that has given participating countries opportunities for intellectual discussion about politics and diplomacy. Germany has developed this intellectual-political infrastructure over half a century, though that started to attract worldwide attention from the beginning of this century. Therefore, the core of this framework is U.S.-Germany relations and U.S.-Europe ties. France's presence is somewhat weak, while Russia is participating in the talks as if it were investigating its enemies. It was at this year's MSC where Europe and the United States clashed head-on.

Merkel was uncharacteristically talkative. She probably realized that it was the last time she would speak at the conference as chancellor. Pence had just come from a Middle East ministerial summit in Warsaw and was calling for countries in Europe to scrap their nuclear deal with Iran. Merkel asked in return whether that would contribute to their common goal of diminishing the negative influence of Iran.

On a related note, the German chancellor questioned the wisdom of the United States in withdrawing troops from Syria, suggesting that the move could make Iran and Russia more arrogant. Pointing out Russia's insincerity with regard to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Merkel criticized the United States' unilateral withdrawal as undesirable. Regarding the call from the U.S. for Germany to increase its defense spending, Merkel said the country is trying to do so as planned, and then asked why U.S.-produced German cars would be a U.S. national security issue, eliciting support from the audience. In contrast, when Pence mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump in the hope of drawing applause, a wave of silence swept across the venue.

Anyone could see cracks between the U.S. and Europe and between U.S. and Germany at the conference, which is like a hall of fame gathering of the Atlantic alliances. Two years ago, the political elite in Europe had some hope that Trump might not be going to implement the policies that he had raised as rhetoric in his presidential election campaign. Last year, they had counted on the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the helm to maintain their alliance. But this year, many of them showed that they had abandoned such hope. Nathalie Tocci, Special Adviser to High Representative/Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini, said that no one could turn back the clock.

Fundamental differences in global perspectives and history underlie the cracks between the U.S. and Europe. Multilateralism and international cooperation are the flagship policies for Germany and Europe, with which they have revived since World War II. They think that the whole world should strive for multilateralism and international cooperation, and should not go back to old, crude power politics.

The U.S. had supported multilateralism and international cooperation in Europe for a long time after World War II. The European Union was established under pressure from the U.S., which wanted Europe to keep its unity as part of the West, as seen in the process of organizing the European Coal and Steel Community. However, the U.S. under the Trump administration has made a frontal assault on the value of multilateralism and international cooperation that the U.S. had backed before. At the end of last year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided the United Nations and the EU in a speech in Brussels.

Conflicts between the U.S. and Europe are nothing new. Germany and France argued intensely against the legitimacy of the U.S. invasion of the Iraq in 2003. At that time, it was memorable that the name of "French fries" was changed to "freedom fries" in the United States. Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ridiculed Europe that it was divided into new and old forces, and that the old ones such as Germany and France were behind the times.

Rumsfeld's comment were a major shock to European countries, as the U.S. was dividing Europe after it had supported the continent's integration in the postwar era. However, this was a confrontation over just a single if serious policy: the Iraq War. The current confrontation is about the fundamental principle of the basic perspective of international relations. Nowadays in Germany, Trump is considered a more serious threat than China and Russia.

This confrontation has reverberated in Europe, as it loses the major integrative force that is the U.S. Some European leaders insist on deepening integration because the region can no longer rely on Washington. But some leaders place emphasis on state sovereignty and nationalism.

Japan can learn something from this posture, since it has to rely on the U.S. even under the Trump administration, given the circumstances with very few friendly nations nearby in the Far East and so many threats and challenges.

The Japan-EU relationship has entered a new phase as the Economic Partnership Agreement/Strategic Partnership Agreement between them went into effect this year. The relationship is basically good, but it can be improved further. However, Japan's attitude toward the U.S. is significantly different from the EU's stance.

Japan should promote patient diplomacy toward Europe while keeping such differences in mind.

(By Ken Endo, professor of International Politics, Hokkaido University)

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