In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Munich Security Conference

How Big a Threat Is Russia?

February 26, 2019
RM Staff
Graham Allison
Graham Allison

The Munich Security Conference is the largest annual gathering of political and security leaders from government, think tanks and academia worldwide. This month more than 600 key decision makers and policy shapers from across the globe gathered in Germany to discuss and debate pressing security issues.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has often figured prominently at the conference. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin shocked the audience with a speech forcefully challenging what he saw as U.S. hegemony; two years later, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden offered Moscow a “reset.” Below we offer insights on how Russia fit into this year’s conference from Graham Allison—Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and author of nine books, most recently “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?”

RM: What are your main takeaways from this year’s conference?

GA: I’ll share them in terms of superlatives.

The most interesting unanswered question concerned a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Respondents in 26 large countries were asked which countries’ power and influence they see as a threat. Among Russia, China and the U.S., which do French citizens rank as the largest threat? Some 49 percent see the U.S. as a top threat, while Russia and China were tied for second at 40 percent. What about Germans? Forty-nine percent see “U.S. power and influence” as a major threat to Germany, whereas only 30 percent see Russia’s power and influence as a threat. The specific question was put to Chancellor Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: In a democracy whose policies are supposed to reflect the will of the people, when half of your citizens see U.S. power and influence as a major threat and fewer than a third see Russia as a threat, how can the German government side with its American alliance partner rather than Russia on key issues? What is the content of an alliance in which the citizens of a state fear their ally more than they fear the adversary? I think this is not lost on the Russians.

The most deafening silence at a speechwriter’s applaud lines in the prepared speech of a major leader unquestionably came after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s repeated quotation from President Donald Trump telling Europeans what they must do: Follow the U.S. lead in withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal]; stand against Nord Stream 2 [the Russia-led gas pipeline project]; reject Chinese telecom companies like Huawei; meet the 2 percent defense-spending threshold for NATO members and, by 2024, invest 20 percent of defense spending on procurement.

The most striking contrast between two leaders’ speeches was Merkel’s reaffirmation of the verities of the transatlantic alliance, multilateralism and cooperation in upholding the current order versus Mike Pence’s reiteration of the Trump administration’s policy of “America First,” which is upending much of the architecture and procedure that Merkel and others have become accustomed to.

If you were to ask me which presenter gave the most successful presentation of his country’s perspective, making the case for his country’s views and interests, I would say Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. Rather than give a long, prepared speech, he engaged in combat with a very effective and aggressive BBC reporter, and with challenging questions from the audience. But he did so succinctly, pointedly and even at times humorously. The second most impressive presentation came from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He gave a very short, fast speech, maybe five minutes, then a Q&A, responding with a very direct answer to every question. Since I don’t agree with the Russian or Iranian views, I’m not endorsing them, but if you judge a minister’s performance by how well he presented his client’s case, those two did the best.

RM: Could you expand a little on Lavrov’s presentation?

GA: One very interesting wrinkle that he introduced—and maybe he’s done this before—was the distinction between international law, which he says Russia is eager to uphold, and the rule-based order, which is, he says, an American trick to agree with some parties on some rules that actually violate international law, and then call out Russia for failing to comply with those rules. In his words—this is, again, the way he was presenting the Russian case—Russia subscribes to international law, which it sees as something it signed on to in the U.N. Charter, U.N. resolutions, or conventions. But it has not agreed to some further rules that the Americans have agreed to perhaps with some other people. So, for example, he always goes back to the events in Kosovo in 1999. International law says use of force against a sovereign nation needs to be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, but unable to win a vote in the Security Council, the U.S. formed a coalition of parties who agreed to use force against then Yugoslavia. That, according to Lavrov, violated international law as agreed to in the U.N. Charter. Similarly with Ukraine: In his view, the clauses of the Minsk agreements are very clear, but now U.S. envoy Kurt Volker is proposing 30,000 peacekeeping troops from other parties for Donbass. This and other further proposals to settle the conflict, according to Lavrov, are contrary to the criteria agreed to by Russia and the other parties in the Minsk-2 agreement.  

RM: Speaking of the rules-based order, the main question posed by the 2019 Munich Security Report is: Will the defenders of the post-1945 international order succeed in preserving and piecing back together at least some of its main elements or will the world continue moving closer to a perfect storm of crises that could destroy the old international system before we have begun to build a new one? What do you think?

GA: Basically, if you look at the piece I wrote for Foreign Affairs last year—about which there was great controversy—it argues that the concept of the liberal international rules-based order is mostly mythology. Contrary to the conventional claims about this “liberal international rules-based order,” as I explain in that article: (1) The primary cause of the “long peace” of the past seven decades has not been some liberal international order, but rather, for the first four decades of that period, the stalemate between two deadly adversaries in the Cold War; (2) the primary driver of U.S. involvement in the world over these decades was not to build some liberal international order but to defeat what it saw as an existential threat to itself posed by an expansionist, revolutionary, Communist Soviet Union; (3) and although Trump is undermining key elements of the current order, he is far from the biggest threat to global stability. The main changes that have happened in the arrangements and procedures of the past seven decades are: the decline in U.S. share of global power as China has risen meteorically; the return of Russia as a player that is still a nuclear superpower, or certainly second to none with respect to destructive power, with a military that’s willing and ready to fight for the Kremlin’s objectives; and the discrediting of the American foreign policy establishment in the 21st century, from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to attempts to create a democracy in Afghanistan. All those, in my view, are much greater factors in the changing world order than Donald Trump—though most people want to avoid these painful truths and just blame Trump.

RM: One idea that Russian representatives routinely raise at such events—and the latest conference is no exception—is of a “shared” or “common” European house, which would include Russia and goes back to Mikhail Gorbachev’s days. How did the audience react to Lavrov’s repetition of that proposal?

GA: I don’t think it resonated much. Most of the people gathered there see Russia as an adversary and a spoiler, a “malign actor” as Joe Biden called it. But these are the security experts. As I said, the fact that the German population thinks that the Americans are a greater threat to them than the Russians means their politicians have to dance gingerly. That was the most silent elephant in every room: the ocean-wide gulf between the national security mavens gathered in Munich and the views of their own populations about security issues. This surrealism is most evident in Germany: Its citizens see no serious security threat to their nation, and that’s reflected in their unwillingness to pay 2 percent of their GDP for defense against a threat they don’t believe really exists. But a similar elephant was just over the shoulder of almost every expert there talking about what their country “should” do—since they know that most of their own fellow citizens do not agree with them. As far as the idea of a common house, I think mostly the agreement would be that unless and until there’s a different Russia, it would be unrealistic. And I think the idea that there’s soon going to be a different Russia seems not very likely. In which case the United States is going to be living with our insufferable, inseparable Siamese twin—and that’s going to be painful.

RM: One of the early press reactions to the Munich conference was that the discord between Washington and Europe was evident and Russia and China will be eager to exploit that. How would you respond?

GA: If you simply think of it from a strategic point of view, if you are playing Putin’s hand and if the Americans and Europeans are saying you’re the malign actor, then to whatever extent the alliance can be undermined and the differences among these parties can be accentuated that’s good for you. Russia’s not the main source of these developments. But I think a Russian strategist would say this is all great and if Russia can do anything to move this along they should. So, undermining NATO and undermining the EU are understandable strategic objectives for a Russia that thinks of itself as the adversary of NATO and America, or for a Russia that believes that it’s seen by them as an adversary. Ditto for China. The weaker the American-European relationship is, the more opportunity there is for China to thicken its relationship with the EU. Again, from a strategic point of view, the more problems the Americans and the Europeans have with each other, the more opportunity that is for the Chinese. That’s just the logic of the situation—and it’s not likely to have been missed by the Chinese or the Russians. The question is whether they have much impact on that. And, I would say, while the problems are mostly homegrown, where they can encourage it, they do.

Prof. Allison also discussed some of these issues at a recent event on world leadership. The video below was originally published by the Atlantic Council, which hosted the event.

Photo: 2019 Munich Security Conferene by MSC/Kuhlmann.