Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), gives a speech during the 55th Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2019 in Munich, Germany.
Alexandra Beier—Getty Images
By Marc Champion / Bloomberg
February 17, 2019

(Bloomberg) — At the close of this year’s annual gathering of the transatlantic security community in Munich Sunday, its organizer Wolfgang Ischinger — a former German ambassador to the U.S. — offered a bleak conclusion: “We have a real problem.’’

The nature of that problem was on display throughout the three-day event: The U.S. is at odds with not only its great power rivals Russia and China, but also with its allies in Europe and elements of the international system that Washington itself was largely responsible for building.

Just as tangible was a fear that the glue of shared democratic values that has bound together western countries with historically different economic and security interests is dissolving.

You could trace the divisions through the hands that were and were not clapping during Vice President Mike Pence’s address to a hall packed with some 600 delegates including presidents, prime ministers and defense ministers on Saturday. Pence claimed a renewed U.S. leadership under President Donald Trump to a scattering of applause from mainly U.S. officials.

“We have just seen two days of data that says that is manifestly untrue,” said Kori Schake, a former Director for Defense Strategy and Requirements in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, and now deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Schake, a Republican, pointed to the awkward silences during pauses in Pence’s two speeches –- German Chancellor Angela Merkel was met with a standing ovation.

Equally jarring for many were the vice president’s demands that France, Germany and the U.K. join the U.S. in withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran –- an agreement the Europeans are instead trying to save with efforts to help their companies avoid U.S. sanctions when trading with Tehran.

Other U.S. positions meeting varying levels of resistance included opposition to German plans for a new natural gas pipeline to Russia and a potential transatlantic trade war if the U.S. Treasury should designate imports of automobiles a threat to U.S. national security.

“The actions of the U.S. are getting a lot of people worried and they’re thinking, well, what do we do? Do we go it alone?’’ said former Estonian President Thomas Ilves.

Essential Ally

The answer so far is no.

The U.S. security umbrella and its economic pull are simply too great. Even those proposing a new European army acknowledge that without the U.S. and, after Brexit, the U.K. it would be incapable of providing security for the continent.

A large, bi-partisan U.S. turnout, including more than 50 members of Congress, sought to fill the void and former Vice President Joe Biden looked to persuade U.S. allies that normal service would resume as soon as Trump leaves office.

Yet Europeans are divided by the Trump administration, too. Poland, under pressure from the EU for allegedly undermining its democratic institutions, is a particularly strong backer and hosted a U.S.-convened conference on the Middle East last week.

Shared Values

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed repeatedly that U.S. spending on Europe’s defense had increased significantly in the last few years, as had Europe’s own defense budgets –- in part due to pressure from Trump.

Two initiatives aimed at rescuing the common values written into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty betrayed a wider fear that these are no longer shared.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was among the signatories of a Declaration of Principles for Freedom, Prosperity and Peace which she described in an interview as a “renewal of vows.” From Munich she was on her way to Poland and the Czech Republic to persuade the governments there to renew their commitment too.

Another initiative by two former U.S. represenatatives to NATO, Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute, produced a report –- NATO at 70: An Alliance in Crisis –- which listed 10 challenges to overcome, including the absence of “principled’’ U.S. leadership.

In reality, NATO was always a military alliance first, and one that was happy to accommodate both Turkey and Greece when they were ruled by military juntas. But the values laid out in 1949 became far more important with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when NATO had to find a new binding principle beyond a common enemy, said Albright.

“I was there when we were admitting new members and we talked about it as an alliance of democracies,’’ she said. That was important, she added, because NATO was “trying to be not just against the Soviet Union, but to be for something.’’

‘It’s a Cancer’

Lute and Burns say NATO’s current troubles are different from episodes such as the Suez crisis in 1956, or the Pershing missile crisis of the 1980s. This time, they say, the challenge comes largely from within.

“It was clear in 1949 that there was a democratic part of Europe and an authoritarian part of Europe,’’ Burns said in an interview. NATO was created to defend the democratic nations. The same division exists today, only now part of the authoritarian threat comes from inside NATO, in countries such as Hungary and Poland, according to Burns, who is now a professor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

He said he and Lute interviewed 60 current officials and others for their report. While virtually all agreed with their diagnosis of the problem, “hardly anyone agreed with us that we should really try to do something about this.”

The two former diplomats have proposed penalizing NATO governments that stray from the democratic path.

“It’s a cancer,” Burns said.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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