Press play to listen to this article By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN PRESENTED BY Send tips here | Tweet @herszenhorn | Listen to Playbook and view in your browser TEAM TRUMP TOPS THE BILL: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were the early attractions at the Munich Security Conference on…
Press play to listen to this article
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
TEAM TRUMP TOPS THE BILL: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were the early attractions at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, projecting America’s special brand of superpower self-confidence, in the even more special Trumpian tones that have become familiar over the last three years.
That meant Pompeo quoting leaders of allies like Canada, France, Germany and telling them they were wrong, even as he sought to declare collective victory.
“I am happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated,” Pompeo told the conference. “The West is winning. We are collectively winning. We are doing it together.” There was no applause from the audience.
Pompeo even pushed back against the conference theme of “Westlessness” — the idea that Western values are under threat, in the West itself and elsewhere. “Let me give you an idea of what’s real,” Pompeo said. “The west is winning. Freedom and democracy are winning.”
While Pompeo chided Russia over its annexation of Ukraine, and scoffed that migrants are not rushing to Iran or Cuba, Esper took aim at China, saying the country is heading further “in the wrong direction” under President Xi Jinping. Esper said America’s concerns about Beijing should be Europeans’ concerns too.
Land of the free, home of the debt: America’s allies often express awe at its military power and worry that one day it may not be there to protect them. This may be a good moment to recall that there’s a synonym for American hard power: It’s called unlimited deficit spending. A truly bottomless national credit card, the ability to print the currency it borrows, and a citizenry willing to abide spending more each year on defense than the next 10 biggest-spending countries combined — Trump’s proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2021 is $740.5 billion.
Racking up the bills: The most recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows U.S. borrowing has ballooned under Trump, and the resulting consecutive, huge annual deficits (more than $1 trillion this year, 4.6 percent of GDP) are something that has never been seen before except in war-time. Normally, when the economy is as strong as now, deficits average 1.5 percent of GDP. (EU budget rules limit national deficits to 3 percent, and some EU countries run surpluses).
Bonjour, Monsieur le Président! Next up was French President Emmanuel Macron who used a Q&A format to defend his recent outreach to Russia. “I’m not crazy,” Macron said. Thanks for letting us know.
GOOD AFTERNOON and Happy Saturday from Munich, where it’s Day 2 of the annual Security Conference at the elegant Hotel Bayerischer Hof. Like an aging, battle-worn general, the Bayerischer Hof retains its five-star ranking, and still has gravitas, but its best days are clearly past. We’ll come back to the mouse that one of Playbook’s top intelligence officers saw scurrying around a first floor salon in a few moments.
I’m David M. Herszenhorn, POLITICO’s chief Brussels correspondent, which makes NATO headquarters part of my brief, and this is your special pop-up Munich Security Conference edition of Playbook. POLITICO has a small special forces unit on the ground here to bring you all the details. But we’re wondering what to call ourselves: Politico Team Six? Red berets? Politicommandos? Send us your suggestion. The winner gets bragging rights and choice of a Bavarian pretzel or Belgian chocolate.
Boldface names: To give you a sense of what it’s like in the Bayerischer Hof lobby, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was waiting for the elevator this morning, as your Playbooker chatted briefly with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte breezed past with a smiley handshake and hello for POLITICO. (Rutte knows well who will be covering the EU budget negotiations when he’s in Brussels next week).
Stay EUnified: Borrell said Europe needs to carefully choose its place in a new world order, and not get caught in the crossfire of great-power gamesmanship. “We live in a new world, in which the old categories, East, West, North, South, realities of the Cold War, don’t count anymore,” he said. “We see a bipolarity in which Europe needs to situate itself so as not to be squeezed by it. What is required to do this, is unity among us Europeans.”
Translated puns are not as fun: Pompeo may not have gotten much applause for trashing the Westlessness theme, which many of attendees think is a spot-on description of the mood of the moment. But there were a couple of glitches with the theme that MSC organizers probably didn’t expect: First, to non-native English ears, the play on “restlessness” was not immediately obvious. There were more than a few “ah-haaaahs, I didn’t get that” upon further explanation. And second, as with any creative pun, it created a big challenge for translators. One French official suggested “Occidation” might catch the spirit, playing off occident, the French word for west. Russians made do with Беззападность “byez-zapadnost.” Sort of makes the point, but without the anxious, fidgety connotation.
Standing up for NATO: In a speech, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg took a passive aggressive dig at some of the alliance’s critics (hint: a certain French president): “We should not compete with ourselves while talking up our differences and talking down our strengths.” If Stoltenberg was throwing a bit of shade at Macron (who famously said NATO was experiencing “brain death”) one could say it extends about as far as the (still-limited) French nuclear umbrella.
Playbill: We are now in the very heart of the headline sessions. Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and Macron, the big names coming on the main stage today include: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy; Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu, who will be part of a panel on security relations in Asia; Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov; and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Nothing to party about: Also on the bill is German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who announced Monday she’ll resign as leader of the governing Christian Democratic Union, throwing Germany’s political future up in the air. The fall of Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had been Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred successor, has only added to the panic among the world’s top security officials about the disarray and decline of the West.
Et tu Germany? Shocking as it may seem, the security establishment has a heavy preference for security and for the establishment — and not necessarily in that order. So the chaos and erratic policymaking of the Trump presidency, and the distraction of Brexit that has made the U.K. a non-entity at MSC this year, are hardly as upsetting as disorder in Germany, where people still wait for the Don’t Walk sign to turn green even in the rain, after midnight, when the roads are empty.
**A message from the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU: Croatia will continue strategic discussions on the EU’s development in the area of security and defense. The Presidency will place emphasis on projecting stability, strengthening the response to external conflicts and crises, building our partners’ capacities, as well as on the protection and security of the Union and its citizens.**
SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER EUROPE (AND ME)
MSC PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: GENERAL TOD D. WOLTERS
Ha, ha, nah: Playbook and three colleagues sat down Friday morning with NATO’s top military commander, General Tod D. Wolters, who is known as SACEUR, Supreme Allied Commander Europe. With Trump pushing to expand NATO’s role in the Middle East, an effort the president said could be branded “NATO-ME,” Playbook asked General Wolters if his title might change to SACEUR-ME. Wolters smiled but did not seem amused.
Back to business in Iraq: Wolters said that the Iraqi government had sent a letter pledging to help protect NATO forces on the ground, and therefore NATO was poised to resume its mission in Iraq that was suspended after the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The mission was suspended as the U.S. braced for reprisals from Iran, and some NATO allies had redeployed forces after the suspension. Wolters said the mission to train Iraqi forces would resume within weeks.
Mission expansion? Given Trump’s call for NATO to take on a bigger role, Wolters said he did not worry that the alliance’s overall mission, originally focused on the Euro-Atlantic sphere, might creep out of control. But he also didn’t offer too many specifics about what more NATO might do in the Middle East, beyond the training of local forces it is already doing. He said NATO’s civilian leaders were still discussing that.
Wolters said that Esper had suggested, at meeting of NATO defense ministers earlier this week, that the alliance might potentially take on a greater role in missile defense. “One of the things he alluded to is in NATO we possess integrated air defense capability and one of his discussion points was that NATO could offer some form of Patriot-like activity in the Middle East that has to do with integrated air and missile defense.”
It’s unclear, however, where such capabilities would go. A logical place would be Saudi Arabia, where oil production facilities recently came under missile attack from Iranian proxies. But Saudi Arabia already possesses U.S.-owned Patriot missile defense systems.
Keep on keeping on in Afghanistan: Wolters also said he was not deterred by the disclosure of Pentagon documents raising serious questions about the 18-year war in Afghanistan. “The mission in Iraq has been and continues to be insuring that we can neutralize external op-planners so that they don’t cause booms in far away territories — I am sorry. What did I say? I meant Afghanistan. I apologize. We have to neutralize this nefarious threat where it emanates from, and Afghanistan happens to be one of those places. That’s why the mission started. That’s why the mission continues. We have to remain vigilant in that area.”
He continued, “It is incredibly important that we stay on mission to neutralize those terrible terrorist threats that cause great loss of life — in the borders of America in the past — and we want to ensure that we do everything we can to stay on mission.”
Incoming: Lots (and lots) of U.S. soldiers: Wolters, a fighter pilot who previously commanded the U.S. air forces in Europe and Africa, said that one of his main focuses at the moment was a major new training exercise called Defender 20. “It’s the largest lifting and shifting of a U.S. ground-maneuver force across the Atlantic to the European Continent that we have embraced since the mid to late 80’s,” he said. “We’re very, very excited about the exercise. The hardest part is underway as we speak, and that’s the lifting and shifting of a division-size force from the Continental United States with U.S. soldiers to Europe.”
The exercise, he said, would demonstrate “solid U.S. readiness and NATO readiness.”
FRIDAY STARTS THE WEEK: DAY 1 RECAP
THE AMBASSADOR SPOKE
Wolfgang Ischinger, the retired German diplomat who runs the show here, opened the 56th Munich Security Conference Friday on a somber note, warning that the West appears to be in a dangerous state of decline, reminding everyone of the “Westlessness” theme, and making a strong pitch for strengthening multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“We are not seeing enough collective action at all to address the world’s most violent crises and most dangerous threats to peace and security,” Ischinger said. “The present state of global insecurity is absolutely unacceptable. It is dangerous and it breeds apparently more hate and conflict, rather than cooperation and peace.”
THE PRESIDENT SPOKE
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier followed Ischinger’s remarks with a sweeping keynote address that is worth reading in full. Noting the world had changed since his speech at MSC in 2014, Steinmeier said: “The ‘we’ of ‘the West’ that was then a given is something that can no longer be taken for granted.”
Steinmeier recalled that the world is commemorating 75 years since the end of World War II. “Without that war and without Auschwitz, the inner and outer face of today’s Germany would be inconceivable — Germany’s view of the world cannot be explained without reference to those experiences,” Steinmeier said. “I wish I could say that the lesson we Germans have learnt from history is a lesson that will last forever. But I cannot say that when hatred and hate speech are spreading.”
Lessons learned, and forgotten: Steinmeier noted the creation of international institutions, including the U.N., after World War II. “The catastrophe of excessive nationalism had lessons to teach, not only for my country,” he said, but then lamented how those institutions are now at risk, if not crumbling.
THE FOREIGN MINISTER SPOKE
More from Maas, less from U.S.: Rounding out the trio of German opening-day speakers, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, had some tough words about the U.S. and about Europe’s own state of denial.
The cop has left the beat: “The real game changer is the fact that the era of the omni-present global policeman is over,” Maas said. “Everyone can see that. Think of Syria, think of Afghanistan, Africa. Not because the United States are lacking military or economic power, but because the commitment of those responsible in the White House has changed when it comes to the world order that the United States had helped bring about. This is a geopolitical gap that is especially apparent in the Near East and this gap is filled by others, Russia Turkey Iran and they often stand for different values, different issues, different concepts of world order. So the future of the Middle East is decided upon in Astana or Sochi, rather than Geneva or New York.”
DIVERSITY, IN FASHION, AT LEAST
On the sidelines of the conference, European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager chatted with POLITICO’s editor-in-chief Stephen Brown, and senior policy reporter Lauens Cerulus — and noted that the crowd at MSC is still dominated by men. At least all of them are not dressed the same — the military uniforms break up all the blue suits, she joked. “But that being said, it is a very, very, very male event. I see they really make an effort in the panels. And that of course, is very much appreciated. I think maybe it’s food for thought to some of the delegations,” Vestager said.
**A message from the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU: The Croatian Presidency will continue to work on ensuring substantial and credible European defense cooperation in full respect of the autonomy, ownership and decision-making processes of individual member states. The Presidency will focus on the implementation, consolidation and coherence of the defense initiatives already under way — Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), military mobility and the European Defence Fund (EDF) — and on their alignment with the defense planning processes of the member states. The Presidency will continue to strongly support close, fruitful and complementary EU-NATO cooperation, which is considered a key investment in European security and a contribution to transatlantic relations. There will be a special emphasis on achieving results in the areas of military mobility and hybrid threats, and on providing support to partners in building capacities and resilience, in particular in South East Europe.**
IT’S THE STUPID ECONOMY
NO SECURITY WITHOUT FINANCIAL SECURITY
The economy, in a word … International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva treated the conference to some dark humor from the Cold War to illustrate the state of the world economy.
When Leonid Brezhnev was asked by a reporter to define the state of the Soviet economy in one word, he replied: “Good.” And in two words, asked the reporter? “Not good,” said Comrade Brezhnev.
That’s how Georgieva feels about the world economy right now: The IMF has downgraded its growth forecasts for 2020-2021, but expects things to pick up thanks to receding tensions in global trade (after the U.S.-China “Phase I” trade deal), and also thanks to action by 49 central banks who cut interest rates 71 times in total, boosting global growth by half a percentage point in 2019.
“The moral of the story is that policy action when it is synchronized, and even better when it is coordinated, makes a difference,” she said.
On the down side, Georgieva said, “uncertainty is becoming the new normal,” citing geopolitical instability, climate emergencies and Coronavirus, as examples. From this, the IMF chief drew another moral: “We should not create uncertainties on our own, when we have plenty that are dumped on us by Mother Nature.”
**The relationship between Europe, the U.S. and Africa is at a critical juncture. POLITICO’s new editorial series “EU in Africa” will feature reporting and a series of Playbooks written from Addis Ababa, the headquarters on the African Union, and elsewhere in Africa. Sign up today.**
OVER AND OUT
CLOAK AND SWAGGER
Pompeo and Lavrov met briefly on Friday in a session that the Russian side said was a short meeting but the State Department never announced, saying it was merely a “pull aside.” In fact, Pompeo visited Lavrov’s dedicated meeting room, then said “good luck” to folks gathered in the hallway as he left. Russian press knew about the meeting but exactly what was discussed is still not clear. More on the strange episode here.
A MOUSE IN THE HOUSE
Never mind the skunks at the garden party, the MSC has a mouse on the premises — maybe more than one. Just as conference participants were getting ready to head for dinner on Friday, a brown mouse popped up under a vase in the Gallery Café above the lobby of the Bayerischer Hof.
The rodent appeared distinctly unimpressed by the caliber of the MSC grandees and quickly disappeared back behind a radiator grill. But not before folks in the room with quick trigger fingers (it is a military crowd after all) managed to take a few pictures. The Politkommandos are scribblers, not snappers, so if you happened to get a picture of the MSC mascot, please do share.
DANKE SCHÖN: Natasha Bernard, Stephen Brown, Laurens Cerulus, Andrew Gray, Matthew Karnitschnig and Rym Momtaz in Munich; Jeanette Minns and Ivo Oliveira at HQ.