Published: February 12 2007
Maybe someone told Vladimir Putin that the annual Munich security conference was the place where Europeans and Americans always end up squabbling in public about who is responsible for the divisions in the Atlantic alliance. Or maybe he just felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, and did not care whom he offended.
Whatever inspired him, the Russian president certainly set the fur flying on his first visit to the Munich conference, where the cream of the Atlantic establishment has been meeting for 43 years. First he savaged the US for its unilateralism and disregard of international law. Then he rounded on the Europeans – especially his German hosts – for allowing the Nato alliance to enlarge and operate beyond its traditional borders.
But if Mr Putin expected to expose the splits in Nato, his truculent performance had the opposite effect. For the first time in at least a decade, the senior politicians, diplomats and defence ministers of the 26 Nato allies managed to close ranks against a common enemy. It was almost a relief to have a good old-fashioned Russian bogey-man to bash.
If he had played his cards with more sophistication, Mr Putin might still have achieved the desired effect. Many of his criticisms were ones with which the Europeans might sympathise: not least the inherent instability of a unipolar world.
The fact is that clear differences remain between the US and its closest allies, sorely exposed by the war in Iraq, but festering for a lot longer. They do not agree on what Nato is for, whether the organisation ought to go global, or how to bolster its military resources so that it can put more boots on the ground.
This year, the issue was Afghanistan. Before they were ambushed by Mr Putin, the US delegation – headed by Robert Gates, the new secretary for defence, and Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential contender – had intended to focus their big guns on the need for the Europeans to send more troops, equipment and money to that benighted land, to ensure that Nato does not fail in its most far-flung “shooting” war.
If it had been Donald Rumsfeld asking, he would have got short shrift. He was a terrible bully, albeit with a sense of humour. But Sen McCain and Mr Gates command much more respect. “The future of our alliance is now intimately bound with the outcome in Afghanistan,” Sen McCain declared. “Our success or failure will impact not only on the security of each of our member states, but also the credibility and effectiveness of Nato.”
He called for more European troops, and for countries – such as Germany – to drop their “caveats” restricting the rules of engagement for their soldiers.
Mr Gates was politely scathing about the Europeans. “An alliance consisting of the world’s most prosperous industrialised nations, with over 2m people in uniform – not counting the American military – should be able to generate the manpower and material needed to get the job done in Afghanistan.”
Perhaps the Europeans – and in Munich that really means the Germans – are just being defensive. But they think the Americans spend far too much time demanding troops on the ground, and far too little worrying about reconstruction and economic development. It was a common theme of most German participants. They do not believe that more troops will provide the answer, as the Russians discovered with three times the Nato force.
The tactical divide on Afghanistan is mirrored by deeper attitudes towards Nato itself. Mr Gates insists that it is a military alliance that should concentrate on its core role, albeit focusing as much on global terrorism as on traditional soldiery.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, came back to a long-standing German concern: that bigger issues of global security should be on the Atlantic agenda, such as energy security and global warming. So Nato should take on a broader agenda.
The old divide remains. But this year, the mood was much better. Almost nobody mentioned Iraq. As for Mr Putin, he helped improve the atmosphere, even if he did grab all the headlines.