'World on the brink,' warns Munich Security Report
With the US's international role waning, Europe must define its own future, says a highly anticipated report. This assessment sets the agenda for leaders in the run-up to Germany's pre-eminent conference on security.
Security experts are rarely optimists and security reports rarely optimistic. That holds true for the latest Munich Security Report published on Thursday. Titled "To the Brink — and Back?" it forecasts a new era of uncertainty on the horizon.
"In the last year, the world has gotten closer — much too close — to the brink of a significant conflict," wrote Munich Security Conference (MSC) Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, who has served as Germany's former ambassador to the US and UK.
Ischinger pointed to ever-louder saber rattling between the US and North Korea, the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and ongoing tensions between Russia and NATO in Europe.
The latest MSC report followed up on last year's forecast that the United States under President Donald Trump could forfeit its established role as the guarantor of international security by acting unilaterally and furthering an American-centric vision at the cost of its traditional allies.
Under Trump, the US has given up on policies based on shared values, showing little interest in developing regional or global institutions that shape international relations, and instead favoring bilateral ties that serves its own interests, according to the report's assessment.
That attitude goes hand-in-hand with the White House's lack of interest in advancing diplomacy. The budget at the US State Department has been mercilessly slashed since Trump came into office while defense spending has increased significantly.
"The world's most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created," the report said, quoting John Ikenberry, a US foreign policy expert at Princeton University.
US President Donald Trump has offered both candid praise and unabashed criticism of Germany and its policies. From calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel "possibly the greatest world leader" to describing her open-door refugee policy as a "catastrophic mistake," here are his most memorable quotes regarding Germany.
"Germany's like sitting back silent, collecting money and making a fortune with probably the greatest leader in the world today, Merkel," Trump said in a 2015 interview with US news magazine Time.
"The Germans are bad, very bad ... Look at the millions of cars they sell in the US. Terrible. We'll stop that," Trump said during a NATO leaders summit, according to German news magazine Der Spiegel, which cited sources at the alliance's meeting.
"As far as wiretapping, I guess, by - you know - [the Obama] administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps," Trump said in March during a press conference with Merkel. He was referring to his unproven allegations that ex-President Barack Obama tapped his phone. There was widespread anger in Germany in 2013 when it was revealed the US National Security Agency tapped Merkel's phone.
"I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals (sic), you know taking all of the people from wherever they come from," Trump said in a joint interview published by German daily Bild and British newspaper The Times, referring to Merkel's open-door policy for refugees fleeing war and persecution.
"Despite what you have heard from the fake news, I had a great meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany," Trump said in a two-tweet statement after meeting with Merkel for the first time in March 2017.
"The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition," Trump tweeted in the midst of a row within the German goverment. He went on to claim that: "Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!"
A new era for Europe
For Europeans, the US's policy shift means doing more to provide for their own security, including rethinking defense spending, streamlining capabilities and defining a defense union.
If EU member states and Norway would abide by NATO's so-called "2-percent rule" and invest 2 percent of their GDP in defense, it would translate into a spending increase of nearly 50 percent, taking total expenditures up to roughly $386 billion (€314 billion).
But if the EU's militaries are to become more efficient, they will need to become better connected. The report's authors pointed to what they describe as the "interconnectedness and digitization gap" in Europe. However, to close this gap, EU countries would need to commit even more funds. Meanwhile, a consolidation of Europe's scattered defense industry would be crucial to securing the continent's own capabilities.
Even with such challenges, the report managed to identify a few positives on the horizon. One is that European states are growing closer to one another in some respects. For instance, 25 states have decided to coordinate their defense and security policy on an EU-wide basis in what is known as the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO.
Meanwhile, France and Germany have declared their desire to design and build a new generation of fighter aircraft. Moreover, the idea of a joint European army has found a major supporter in French President Emmanuel Macron.
The report quotes German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a reminder of Europe's newfound predicament: "The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over … We Europeans will have to take our fate into our own hands."
With 25 of the EU's current 28 member states joining the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), there seems to be a great deal of consensus among member states but a few remain on the fence. The new defense union is expected to address immediate threats without having to rely on NATO for all of the EU's defense needs.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had been campaining for PESCO for several years. He expects the new military pact to deliver a "European Security and Defence Union (which) will help protect our Union, which is exactly what EU citizens expect."
EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Chief Federica Mogherini welcomed the establishment of PESCO as the dawn of a "new era." Mogherini further described the initiative as "an inclusive framework to facilitate the joint investments and projects that we so much need to strengthen the ability of the European Union to be a credible security provider for its citizens and globally."
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen are among the chief supporters of the PESCO defense union. Von der Leyen stressed that with the United States taking a critical stance on NATO, launching Europe's very own defense initiative was "important - especially after the election of the US President," referring to Presiden Donald Trump.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (pictured left) welcomed the launch of PESCO in the face of those fears over US President Donald Trump's commitment to the transatlantic defense alliance. Stoltenberg said that PESCO will "strengthen the European pillar within NATO" adding that it will be "good for NATO" as well.
The majority of EU states signed up to PESCO. Malta still mulling over it, Denmark has opted out for the time being, and the UK is expected to reject the proposal, as it is set to leave the EU by 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May is free to join PESCO at a later date however - even after Brexit - if the terms of that cooperation would benefit the entire EU.
It is unclear to what extent there will be concrete military cooperation between EU states, as is the case with the EUFOR peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The signing of PESCO initially provides only the framework for expanded collaboration and more efficient spending of military funds.
Climate change, conflict, migration
While the report detailed traditional and non-traditional threats to liberal order and international relations, it noted that climate change should continue to be a major factor when states consider security risks. The report pointed out that 2017, which was one of the hottest years ever recorded was marked by catastrophic storms, droughts and floods.
Moreover, the US's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and its decision to remove climate change as a security threat from its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) is a step in the wrong direction, according to the report.
Climate change's impact on international relations will also go beyond natural disasters. "While climate change will affect economic, security and political systems all over the world, it will mainly act as a 'threat multiplier' in those states with limited capacities to deal with it," the report said.
Notably, low-income countries will be hit hardest. Climate disasters, especially droughts, will continue to have a knock-on effect, especially in parts of Asia and Africa, where it has the potential to fuel conflict and, consequently, displacement.
For Europe, which has witnessed hundreds of thousands of migrants make the dangerous journey from Africa to its shores each year since 2015, that means taking decisive action on how to re-position its development strategy south of the Mediterranean.
Understanding the interconnected nature of today's threats and how to stop them from snowballing will continue to be a core challenge for the international community, especially in the years to come.
Unprecedented heat waves swept across the globe in 2017, leading to droughts, wildfires and even deaths. Australia started the year with temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), the "Lucifer" heat wave brought the mercury above 40 degrees Celsius throughout Southern Europe in July and August and scorching heat hit India's most vulnerable people. Get ready for next summer...
Earlier this year, scientists realized that coral bleaching in Australia's Great Barrier Reef was worse than first thought. In some parts of the UNESCO World Heritage site, up to 70 percent of the coral has already been killed. By 2050, scientists have warned 90 percent of the reef could disappear. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification are the main culprits.
Armed conflicts are pushing millions of people to leave their homes or live in terribly precarious situations — and climate change is making it worse. A lack of natural resources increases the risk of conflict and makes life even harder for refugees. South Sudanese families, for instance, are escaping to neighboring countries like Uganda and Kenya — countries already suffering from drought.
From New Zealand to Spain, from California to even Greenland: the world has seen a nonstop year of wildfires. Global warming has been blamed for the increased fire risk, and in some countries that risk has turned into reality. Wildfires engulfed large areas of Europe's Iberian Peninsula, causing death and destruction, while firefighters in California have had no rest for more than six months.
Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which hit the Caribbean region in August and September, were two of the year's most damaging weather events. The list of deadly storms also included Ophelia in Ireland, Harvey and Nate in Central America and the US, and Xavier and Sebastian in Germany. Warming of the ocean surface has led to more evaporation, and that water may help fuel thunderstorms and hurricanes.
In July, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded separated from the Larsen C ice shelf — one of Antarctica's biggest — reducing its area by more than 12 percent. While calving icebergs in the Antarctic are part of a natural cycle, scientists have linked the retreat of several Antarctic ice shelves to global warming and are closely monitoring potential long-term effects.
Deteriorating air quality causes thousands of deaths around the world every year. India's capital, New Delhi, is one of the world's most polluted cities. In November, large parts of northern India and Pakistan were engulfed by a blanket of thick smog carrying harmful particulate matter. Schools were forced to close, and hospitals were full of people with respiratory problems.
The high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere represent a major threat for our oceans, already in danger due to plastic pollution, overfishing and warming waters. Ocean acidification could make these waters — covering more than two-thirds of our planet's surface — a hostile environment for sea creatures. And without marine animals, entire ocean ecosystems are at risk.
Superstorms often trigger flash floods and mudslides. In late December, more than 230 people were killed when a storm hit the Philippines' second-largest island of Mindanao, a tragedy exacerbated by years of deforestation. In 2017, severe floods also hit countries such as Vietnam, Peru and Sierra Leone. European countries, including Greece and Germany, also felt the damaging effects of heavy rain.
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