A Munich (In)security Conference?

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.



This year’s gathering of diplomats, government officials, and experts to discuss security challenges around the globe was just getting started when the news of Alexei Navalny’s death shocked the Munich Security Conference. It came as a reminder that there was one person who was not attending the conference but seemed to be sending a message to us all. Vladimir Putin, who had last spoken to the MSC in 2007, was declaring with his well-known impunity, “I am invincible, with no rivals. I am restoring Russia’s empire as I see fit right now in Ukraine.”

The grim reports from the Ukrainian front—the Russian troops taking over another town in eastern Ukraine and pushing forward, Ukrainian troops running out of ammunition and uncertain of supplies—highlighted another person who was not attending the conference but also loomed over it: Donald Trump. A small group of Republicans under the control of Trump held up additional congressional support for Ukraine, causing more anxiety about the possibility of his return to the White House next year and what that would mean for the survival of Ukraine.

In contrast to last year when the MSC community appeared steadfast in its support of Ukraine while Moscow’s offensive seemed weak, discussions in Munich this year were about the capacity of European partners to sustain Ukraine’s battle with Russia and fill the gap potentially left by the United States—a prospect long discussed but not with urgency across European capitals until now.

The prospect of Ukraine succumbing to Russia emphasized the vulnerability of all of Europe. The threat of war, sooner or later, was openly discussed on the agenda. And Europeans were challenged to recognize it and prepare for it.

The focus on the American congressional delegation in Munich was intense given the obsession with Trump’s potential reelection and his comments right before the conference that he would invite Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to those NATO partners who, according to Trump, have not contributed enough to collective defense. On support for Ukraine, responses from some Democrats as well as Republicans were ambiguous on whether congressional funding would be forthcoming. Republican Senator J. D. Vance maintained that he was hearing all too much self-congratulation from his European counterparts in terms of support levels and that they needed to do far more. But his argument was also that the United States was in an era of scarcity and it would not be able to shoulder burdens in Europe while dealing with the main challenge for America: China. Other senators argued that there were simply other U.S. priorities such as the Mexican border crisis and that Europe had to now deal with the Ukraine crisis themselves.

The focus in Munich kept returning to the United States and its domestic battles.

Burden-sharing debates are as old as NATO, but the stage of the Munich Security Conference has always been an opportunity to emphasize the strong bonds of the transatlantic alliance. But this year there is a palpable sense of uncertainty, indeed insecurity, about the future of that alliance.

European participants emphasized the need to increase support for Kyiv as well as beef up their own defense capabilities. This included NATO members who have reached the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, while noting that Russia was now on a war footing, spending 6 percent of GDP on defense. Europe is now the source of more overall support for Ukraine than the United States, although more military support is coming from America.

Putin has made clear his intention to return Ukraine to Russian control, ending its existence as a sovereign state. His goal is to undermine the cohesion of NATO, and he is in league with China, North Korea, and Iran in challenging the West in general and the United States in particular. He is also waiting for the U.S. elections with the expectation that Donald Trump in the White House may be more cooperative. After all, Trump boasted he would make a deal with Putin in twenty-four hours to end the war in Ukraine.

Yet the focus in Munich kept returning to the United States and its domestic battles with the election heating up daily. Assurances from Vice President Kamala Harris and some members of Congress that the United States would stay the course of support “as long as it takes” began to sound more like “as long as we can.” Volodymyr Zelensky made a dramatic appeal in Munich for support, arguing that the war in Ukraine was about European security as well as the survival of Ukrainian democracy. But his appeal only underlined that the support of the United States remains indispensable. That the help he requests is urgent was underlined in his quip, “Please remember dictators don’t go on vacation.”

The concerns at the conference about a possible reelection of Donald Trump remain widely shared in Europe. Indeed, they are also widely shared in the United States. While it is too early to conclude that Trump will win, his influence on the debate over U.S. foreign policy priorities is already significant. If Biden wins a second term, he will still be confronted with a Congress and a substantial part of the American public demanding that the United States focus its resources on domestic needs and concerns. Should Trump return to the White House, the climate of transatlantic relations will be influenced by his expectations and demands for Europe’s defense or economic policies. It is wise for Europeans to prepare for those exchanges, but they are also likely to come from a Biden administration—if expressed in a less aggressive manner. But it should not be forgotten on either side of the Atlantic that the combined strength of Europe and the United States is much greater than any of the challenges we both face.

The MSC focused on other challenges in the world—the continuing war between Israel and Hamas, turmoil in Africa, the increasing influence of China, and establishing more connections between the Global North and Global South.  But marking its sixtieth anniversary, the Munich Security Conference was drawn back to its original focus on transatlantic relations. There have been many occasions over the past six decades where worries about those relations have been the subject of the conference. Often those transatlantic dialogues were tense, even angry. One remembers the atmosphere in 2003 in the run-up to the war in Iraq, among many other disagreements.

Yet, the stakes today remain as high as they have ever been when it comes to the transatlantic partnership. The post-Cold War era is over. We can only expect that competition over what will constitute a more multipolar international order will be continually evolving as will the roles of the United States and Europe.

The foundation of transatlantic relations jointly built over the past eight decades requires both deterrence against its threats and reassurances that it is sustainable. That formula has been and remains the basis of the most powerful partnership in the world today. It should remain the basis for meeting tomorrow’s challenges.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.