MUNICH — A deep sense of war weariness marked the mood during three days of talks in Munich, where international leaders tacitly acknowledged the era of grand military interventions is ending, even as they grappled with how to approach a growing list of festering global hotspots.
At the 50th annual Munich Security Conference, political and military leaders and policy experts wrestled with what to do about the civil war in Syria, where there are fears that the country could evolve into a home base for Islamic militants who have migrated there. They also talked about the complicated aftermath of the Arab Spring, which created security vacuums in parts of northern Africa.
In Munich, there was almost a sense of nostalgia for the unifying threats of yesteryear, when allies were united against any expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence. Now, as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close after more than a decade, the U.S. and its allies in Europe are struggling to find unity in how to deal with new, emerging threats of today.
“The largely bipolar world of the Cold War, East-West, was relatively straightforward compared to the forces that have been released with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of sectarianism, the rise of religious extremism, and the failure of governance in many places,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference on Saturday.
Finding consensus on how to deal with those new threats also is challenging. Some, such as Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, a long supporter of tougher action in Syria, said it’s not too late for an intervention of some kind as part of an effort to bolster anti-government forces and counter the growing presence of al-Qaida-affiliated groups fighting against the government and more moderate opposition groups.
“The United States may want to leave [behind] all the things happening in the Middle East,” McCain said. “But those dedicated to our extinction will not leave the United States alone.”
But he acknowledged the toll more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken on the American public. “It is an understandable desire of the American people to stop this involvement, and the administration is to some degree reflecting that.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, also a proponent of more concerted action in Syria, such as the enforcement of a no-fly zone, also acknowledged the difficulty of galvanizing public support for complex security questions abroad.
“Most Americans want me to pivot back to south Carolina,” Graham told the conference on Saturday — “pivot” is the word the administration has adopted to describe its refocus toward the Asia-Pacific region. “We’re a war-weary country.”
While strong public opposition and fear of lengthy entanglements abroad make the prospect of larger interventions in places like Syria, or African trouble spots unlikely, the international community still must find ways to remain engaged, political and military leaders said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that strategic and nimble military assets can lend support to diplomacy.
“The trans-Atlantic partnership has been successful because of the judicious use of diplomacy and defense,” Hagel said on Saturday. “With the United States moving off a 13-year war footing, it’s clear to us, it’s very clear to President Obama, that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies, especially here in Europe.”
The stakes of inaction are high in places such as Syria, where there are concerns that battle-hardened extremists could migrate to Europe to launch attacks, said British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, echoing concerns expressed earlier by Kerry that jihadists from America, Britain and elsewhere “have flocked to learn the trade of terror” in Syria “and then perhaps to return to their home shores.”
In Syria, “we are creating a new hotbed for international terrorism,” Hammond said.“We’re allowing this to happen.”
In Munich, much of the discussion took place behind closed doors, where Kerry and others engaged in a series of bilateral talks over the weekend. Political upheaval in Ukraine was a major point of discussion.
There also were the usual tensions between Russia and the West as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traded barbs over alliance missile defense plans in Europe.
Meanwhile, leaders from Germany, a country long reluctant to get involved in complicated security missions, signaled a willingness to be more assertive in working with allies to confront challenges abroad.
But, NATO’s longest operation in history — the war in Afghanistan — received scant attention.
With the combat mission there set to end later this year, questions still remain about whether the U.S. and its NATO partners will maintain a presence in the country for a post-2014 training mission. President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to pave the way for a continued foreign troop presence.
NATO’s credibility is at stake if Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan completely, as the U.S. did in Iraq because of failure to conclude a similar security agreement, Graham said.
“I think the future of the alliance is at stake here,” Graham said. “All hell is going to break loose (in Afghanistan). We have a chance in Afghanistan to get this right, despite Karzai.”
Looking past Afghanistan, officials examined ways to promote security with a smaller military footprint.
Hammond said political leaders will need to establish well-defined objectives and end games as part of any effort to sell even small interventions to a skeptical public.
If missions are preventative in nature, aimed at supporting fragile states before they become engulfed in violence, public support might be gained for small stability operations, he said.
“We have to find a way of funding the marginal costs of deploying this standing force” Hammond said.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, said the challenge of such an effort is getting an entire alliance behind such an idea. “How do 28 nations agree on how to choose?” Breedlove asked during a panel discussion Saturday on “The Post-Conflict Conundrum.” “These are the hard parts of turning aspirations into progress.”
But, in an interview Saturday with a select group of reporters, Breedlove cautioned that NATO must retain its readiness. As the mission in Afghanistan gets smaller, more resources must be dedicated to exercises to keep the alliance combat ready, he said.
“I don’t believe anyone in the room believes NATO has answered its last call. We need to be prepared for the next time NATO is asked to come to the fore,” he said. “If we allow all the capability to go away because we don’t pay attention to it, shame on us as military leaders and political leaders.”