Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.02.26

Is Europe still complicated and mysterious?

the japan times on February 19, 2019

In 1939, Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma resigned after making the famous statement, "With the conclusion of a non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, the situation in Europe is so 'complicated and mysterious' that we need a new set of policies instead of those already prepared."

Although globalization has made the world much smaller 80 years later, Europe is still a distant place from Asia. It is particularly so when it comes to national security and the outcome of the 2019 Munich Security Conference is no exception. The following are my take on this year's important trans-Atlantic event.

For those who don't know, MSC is an annual conference on international security policy that has been held in Munich since 1963 with the exceptions of 1991 due to the Gulf War and 1997 due to the retirement of the conference's founder. 2019 marks MSC's 55th meeting. Japan, China and India have joined the MSC since 1999.

Traditionally, the MSC has been the venue for the United States and its European allies to reconfirm the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Things started to change since 2016, however, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and the United Kingdom voted in a national referendum for Brexit.

Although I only watched it on YouTube, this year's MSC was probably one of the most disastrous moments for the U.S. delegation, which was headed by Vice President Mike Pence. When he spoke at the inaugural John McCain Award Ceremony on Friday, Pence began with a line he often uses in his speeches: "I bring greetings from a great champion of freedom ... the 45th president of the United States, President Donald Trump!" Pence might have expected applause at that point but was instead met with total silence for three seconds and then he continued in clear frustration.

Earlier Pence had received a not-so-warm but sufficiently polite applause when he made the same reference to Trump's greetings in front of the MSC's plenary audience.

Hours later, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke. He received a brief standing ovation after criticizing Trump's foreign policy and his treatment of allies. During the speech he said, "I promise you, I promise you. This too shall pass. We will be back. We will be back." In the eyes of Europeans, Americans might have looked truly drifting.

On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy and received a sustained standing ovation. She was against the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, arguing that this will only "strengthen Russia and Iran," and resisted Pence's calls to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

After listening to the speeches by European political leaders, I realized that the schism between the Trump administration and the NATO allies seems to have seriously deepened. What was most striking to me, however, was the difference in the ways how journalists in Munich and in Tokyo reported on the MSC.

The most distinctive differences were the news headlines. Japanese media stories carried headlines such as "U.S. and China confront over exclusion of Huawei" and "China and Russia rebut VP's speech," while the Western media went with "MSC reveals a growing rift between U.S. and its allies" and "Merkel says U.S. withdrawal from Syria will boost Russia and Iran."

I am not discrediting Japanese journalists. It's normal that they would focus on the issues they're most interested in. But while the Mainichi Shimbun ran a story headlined "Pence criticizes Huawei by name and emphasizes Chinese threat," for example, that was not necessarily the main issue at the MSC this year. Out of the approximately 3,500 words in his speech, Pence allocated only 150 words for Huawei while using more than 500 words on Iran, more than 300 words on NATO and about 330 words for other issues in the Middle East, including the Islamic State and Afghanistan.

This is the reason why I stated Europe is still far from Asia and vice versa.

Having said that, you cannot trust reports by the Western media, either, which assume that the gap between Washington and its European allies is widening.

More serious is the schism among the Europeans, which is growing bigger. Let me take up the example of a recent dispute between France and Italy. On Feb. 5, Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement and deputy prime minister, met with leaders of the Yellow Jackets in Paris and they agreed to potentially cooperate in the European Parliament election scheduled in May. French President Emmanuel Macron could not ignore this.

The other deputy prime minister of Italy and right-wing Lega party leader Matteo Salvini backed up Di Maio, saying France was looking to "extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies." The accusation was almost absurd, but the Italian politicians seem determined. Two days later, France recalled its ambassador to Rome after what Paris described as "repeated, baseless attacks" from the ruling Italian parties. The French Foreign Ministry dubbed them "unprecedented" since World War II. A week later, on Feb. 15, the French ambassador finally returned to Rome, but the disputes won't end soon.

This is not just a bilateral diplomatic episode. It is rather an Italian version of "right-wing nationalists and irresponsible populists combined" challenging pro-EU forces in France and elsewhere in Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Germany, to name a few counties. This shows that the schism inside Europe has spread more rapidly than expected.

The Franco-Italian showdown was hardly reported on in Japan. Few Japanese speak European languages other than English. Pundits warn that stories about European affairs though the lenses of the English-language media are not only misleading but also potentially dangerous.

Has Japan's understanding about the situation in Europe improved since 1939? To avoid being left behind again, Tokyo needs to deal directly and catch up with the rapidly changing European socio-political realities. Sending Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who is fluent in English, to the MSC was just the very first step.