International relations are more ‘more volatile’ than at any time since 1945, conference is told
An uncomfortable phenomenon underlies the numerous existential dilemmas facing world leaders gathered at this weekend’s Munich security conference: it is the scary sight of three superpowers – the US, Russia and China – all behaving badly, all at once.
In the past, presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers attending the annual meeting could focus on a single, common threat. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was the obvious worry. Post-Soviet Russia continues to present big security concerns. So does an expansionist China. Its rapid rise, economic and military, is throwing up a range of challenges to the global order.
What has changed is that the US is becoming a problem too. Donald Trump’s America First nationalism and his iconoclastic, isolationist inclination to undercut status quo organisations such as the UN and Nato is deeply destabilising.
The idea of a post-1945 “Pax Americana” could be and often was overdone. The US made terrible strategic blunders, as in Vietnam and Iraq. But Washington mostly kept the bipolar superpower peace.
After the Soviet collapse, the Americans grandly declared a uni-polar world, with them as pivot. But that did not last long, partly due to hubris and complacency. What has emerged since is a tri-polar world, dominated by the US, a resurgent Russia, and China, with all three frequently acting irresponsibly and in competition with each other.
For modern Europe, built on rules-based multilateralism, it’s a nightmare that was never supposed to happen. Reflecting unprecedented levels of strategic stress, a conference report previewing Munich was entitled: “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” Rarely have the guardians of global security felt so insecure.
It is possible that Trump could yet turn out to be mostly talk. But his potential for serious, lasting disruption is evident. His attempted travel ban signalled a shocking willingness to alienate and confront the entire Islamic world on the pretext of fighting its terrorist fringe.
By September, Merkel and her reassuring brand of consensus politics may be gone
Trump’s trashing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal underscored his hostility to multilateralism of all kinds. He has abandoned a decades-long commitment to a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. And he has shown contempt for long-term allies in the EU by applauding Brexit and encouraging others to follow Britain’s example.
Trump’s narrow, jingoistic focus on what he perceives as US interests sets him apart from postwar American presidents. But it finds an echo in Vladimir Putin’s behaviour, perhaps explaining their mutual attraction. Like Trump, Russia’s leader operates from a basis of grievance. Putin feels Russia was humiliated after the Soviet collapse. Channelling Trump, he vows to “make Russia great again”.
If restoring Russian power and influence means illegally annexing Crimea, invading Georgia and Ukraine, conspiring in Afghanistan, or committing war crimes in Syria to prop up Moscow’s client, Putin is up for it.
If he can intimidate former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe by cyber-warfare and other means, he will do that too.
And if the cause of national restoration requires it, the Kremlin is apparently only too happy to exploit and manipulate a vain American president and his gullible advisers, to boot.
The breakdown of a legally defined international order is likewise being hastened by China’s aggressive bullying of regional countries involved in South China Sea disputes, its contempt for UN court rulings, its recent sabre-rattling over Taiwan, and its refusal to do anything meaningful to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons build-up.
Little wonder, in this deteriorating climate, if Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, believes he can assassinate troublesome relatives on foreign soil with impunity. Little wonder Iran feels obliged to prepare for new confrontations, as its landmark 2015 international nuclear treaty is rubbished by Trump and Israel.
Little wonder, too, that Isis and likeminded groups welcome Trump as a recruiting sergeant for the politics of division and hate, and that autocrats such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi feel emboldened to crush democratic principles.
Europe’s pig-in-the-middle plight looks dire. Problems with rising far-right nationalism, Brexit-related political divisions, and financial weakness are being compounded by audacious Russian subversion and unprecedented levels of friction with the unreliable, unpredictable Trump regime.
With Theresa May rashly throwing in her lot with Trump, and France paralysed by the spectre of Moscow-backed Marine Le Pen, Angela Merkel’s Germany is desperately trying to hold things together. But by September, Merkel and her reassuring brand of consensus politics may be gone.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the Munich conference chairman, warned this week that the global security environment was “more volatile” than at any time since 1945. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, says Europe is under threat from all sides, including the US.
Transatlanticism, while not dead, has been badly wounded. It is unclear whether it will recover. What is painfully clear is that when three superpowers stop playing by the rules, there are limits to what the rest of us can do.