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European Defence Spending – Is Anyone Listening in Munich? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

As there will be no commentary from me tomorrow and due to the importance of the Munich Security Conference taking place in the Bavarian capital this weekend, what follows is a short opinion based update of what has been said by some of the many leaders attending the conference so far.

The Munich Security Conference agenda this year has been sensibly designed to focus on the future of transatlantic relations and NATO following the election of Donald Trump as US President, combined with the state of EU cooperation in security and defense matters, the Ukraine crisis and relations with Russia, the war in Syria, and the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, including in the Korean peninsula. Participants will also discuss terrorism, information warfare, as well as major threats to global health and climate security.

For the record, leaders and government ministers attending include the new UN Secretary-General António Guterres, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and the Presidents of Ukraine, and Afghanistan, Petro Poroshenko and Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi have also confirmed their participation, as have Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Adel Al-Jubeir and Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Ministers of France and UK – Jean-Marc Ayrault and Boris Johnson respectively and the Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman. German Government representatives included Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen. US delegates included Vice President Mike Pence plus Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, General James Mattis and General John Kelly respectively. In addition, a Congressional Delegation led by Senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse plus I believe as many as a dozen other members of Senate and Congress have also been in attendance in Munich this weekend.

With such prominent and high level attendance, it was clear that much was hoped for although so far, apart from delegates getting to know members of the new US administration and listening to obvious rhetoric, I am not sure that the 2017 Conference will go down in the annuls of history as being one that achieved much in the way of leadership or of positive, forward thinking ideas and approach to the many security related world events that we face.

Founded in 1963, this should have been an opportunity for Europe and the US to decide how better to work together in relation to the NATO alliance and how the west should together face up to the increasingly challenging international environment. Instead, it seems to me that although the event has brought together decision makers it has also led to rather a lot of mincing of words, covering up disagreements as opposed to speaking openly and of leaving Russia and other would-be enemies to conclude that far from agreeing on common values, interests and approach the western alliance is now divided. There is a day to go yet so the above remarks may yet prove unfair but with France and Germany seemingly intent on destabilising NATO through the putting forward of an unnecessary and unwanted collective EU approach it is clear that despite some American reassurance as to commitment to NATO that serious issues remain to be resolved.

Calls by US Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis and others In Munich this weekend calling on all members of the alliance to increase their defence spending contributions [to NATO] or face the prospect of US presence within the alliance being reduced really should be taken very seriously in my view and particularly by those that have yet to begin the process of raising defence spending to the minimum agreed level of 2% of their GDP on defence. That effectively means that all but two European members of the alliance need to significantly raise spending on defence.

Following completion of the 53rd Munich Security Conference, my understanding is that both US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence will be taking their respective reassurance messages to Brussels. Here they will meet with senior EU political leaders and officials. Yesterday, both men went out of their way to provide reassurance to NATO Foreign Ministers that the Donald Trump administration in Washington DC remains fully committed to Europe’s security and to playing its part within NATO.

Not surprisingly, the much needed reassurance was loudly applauded but regrettably, presumably for what the individual speeches did not contain rather than for what they did, it was noticeable that some remaining parts of both the Vice President’s and Secretary of State’s speeches received only muted applause.

At issue is that in America’s eyes European members of NATO must get their act better together and pay a much more significant share of the NATO cost burden. Vice President Pence said that America expects its NATO allies to [now] rise to the challenge of spending more on defence and to paying a higher percentage share of NATO costs. The US contributes approximately 70% of NATO costs and Pence warned that others must now pay their fair share to support NATO, noting also that many lack a clear or credible path [yet] to so do.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel who addressed the conference earlier in the day stressed the need to maintain international alliances. However, while she reiterated Germany’s commitment to the NATO alliance and aid that Germany would do its best to reach the NATO mandated defence spending [minimum] target of 2% GDP she gave no new signals in respect of German intentions to  further raise defence spending (Germany currently spends about EUR 37 billion on defence – approximately 1.2% of GDP) any time soon and her remarks that “NATO was in the interest not only of Europe but was in the American interest” as well can of course be taken in two ways. Mrs. Merkel held separate talks with Vice President Pence later in the day and one notes too that German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel said later at the Press Conference that “while the US was driven on defence spending there was in his view “more to achieving peace than increasing military budgets”.

The American power presence at the Munich conference this weekend has been formidable and most have been talking lines from the same book emphasising that European members of the alliance must spend more on defence. Amongst these also included the new Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly. The exceptions were Republican Senator John McCain, a well-known critic of Donald Trump and who on the first day of the Conference on Friday said that the new Presidents team was “in disarray” and the other was Democrat Senator, Chris Murphy who was reported as having tweeted from Munich that “it looks like we have two governments [in Washington DC] – The Vice President just gave a speech about shared values between Europe and the US while the [US President] openly wages war against those values”.

Also using Twitter, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Twitter expressed his disappointment that Pence’s speech contained “Not a word on the European Union”, although the vice president will take his message to EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday.French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Twitter expressed his disappointment that Pence’s speech contained “Not a word on the European Union”, although the vice president will take his message to EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday.French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed disappointment that the Vice President’s speech contained “not a word on the European Union”. In his own speech delivered at the Conference on Saturday Ayrault defended” Franco-German leadership in Europe” and he lauded the virtues of multilateralism at a time of rising nationalism reminding the audience that President trump had promised ‘America First’. “In these difficult conditions” Ayrault said “many are attempting to look inward but [that] this isolationism makes us more vulnerable. We need the opposite” he said.

Vice President Pence who had separate meetings with with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was also due to meet with Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim on Sunday and also to meet with leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan shortly.

CHW (London – 19th February 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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