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But beneath the surface, all was not well. Merkel harked back to the old days and did not offer a way for Europe to succeed in a world defined by great-power competition. She said little about China, confining herself to some comments on unfair trade practices and saying nothing of the broader authoritarian challenge it poses to the international order. The German and British defense ministers and the EU High Representative all seemed stuck in the mid-2000s, offering little on the great-power competition unfolding around them.
There was also a notable absence. French President Emmanuel Macron canceled his joint appearance with Merkel after a dispute about the EU’s energy policy. The French are exasperated with the Germans, with whom they believe they cannot and will not work on needed reforms to the EU. The Germans, on the other hand, see the French as hopelessly nationalist, dreaming of Franco-German leadership with nothing to offer the Italians, the Poles, or others. Meanwhile, the British have just decided to continue to work with the Chinese technology firm Huawei, cutting against the prevailing winds in Western democracies. This is the sort of concrete issue that should have been discussed by the alliance, but it was lost in theological debates about leadership and the order.
The Americans and the Europeans seemed destined for at least two more years of mutual distrust. The Germans are not even trying to charm Trump anymore. In 2017, the German chancellor befriended Ivanka Trump in the hope of cementing ties with the United States. It may be why the first daughter attended Munich this year. But Merkel’s anointed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, kept a cool distance from Ivanka during a joint breakfast appearance.
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The European position is understandable, but fraught with risk. Help, if it comes, will not arrive until 2021. Rumors are rife in Washington of a new Trump move against the NATO alliance, which is preparing for a major meeting in Washington in April. Trump still has to choose a new defense secretary. The acting secretary, Patrick Shanahan, was at the Munich conference but, oddly, did not speak. He is losing support on Capitol Hill, and whether he will be nominated is unclear.
But despite all the problems of policy and personnel, the alliance cannot afford to wait two years. The Trump administration may believe that it does not need Europe, and the Europeans may believe that America is temporarily lost, but meanwhile, China and Russia gain ground. In Munich, Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese official, gave a long and meandering speech about win-win solutions and the benefits of multilateralism, which was completely at odds with China’s increasingly assertive and disruptive behavior. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reveled in the disarray between the allies and sought to drive a wedge between them, weaponizing the Trump administration’s rhetoric about sovereignty.
Wolfgang Ischinger was right. There is a big problem. Western leaders are retreating into their foxholes, taking potshots at one another, rather than figuring out how to deal with new challenges. We’ve been lucky so far that there has not been a major crisis on Trump’s watch, but the luck is unlikely to hold forever. When it breaks, it won’t matter who is to blame. It will only really matter whether we are equipped to deal with it.