MUNICH, GERMANY - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pentagon chief Mark Esper will join hundreds of global leaders in Germany Friday for the three-day Munich Security Conference.
Numerous security flashpoints around the world, from Syria, Yemen and Iran to Hong Kong, Ukraine and Libya, add to the growing tension and unease ahead of the summit, which takes place against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak and a global climate emergency.
The United States’ large delegation is a sign that the Washington wants to counter accusations that it is disengaging, says analyst Elisabeth Braw of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, who is attending the annual Munich conference.
"As we speak actually the U.S. is beginning its largest military exercise in Europe in a quarter of a century,” noted Braw in an interview with VOA. “And that’s worth remembering when we talk about the U.S. disconnecting or disengaging from Europe.”
Washington’s biggest showdown in Munich is likely to be with Iran, which is sending Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to the summit. He and several other world leaders and government ministers will be given around 15 minutes to address the conference, before question and answer sessions. Several bilateral meetings usually take place on the sidelines of the conference, which is seen as a key annual event to sustain dialogue between global strategic rivals.
The U.S. killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike earlier this year. Retaliatory air strikes by Iran on U.S. bases culminated in the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian Airlines passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.
Conference host, former German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, hopes the conference will offer a lifeline for the Iran nuclear deal that the U.S. withdrew from, with Europe at the forefront of negotiations.
"To stick to it and to expand on it through negotiations on ballistic systems, regional security architecture, the fight against terrorism. Could Iran stop supporting Hezbollah?” Ischinger suggested at a press conference Wednesday ahead of the conference.
The killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil triggered a backlash from Baghdad, and a non-binding vote in the Iraqi parliament to expel the five-thousand U.S. troops in the country.
NATO is discussing taking over the training mission for Iraqi forces battling Islamic State – a proposal welcomed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper, who spoke to reporters en route to Europe.
"To the degree that NATO can offset the U.S. presence, that would over time allow us to bring some forces home,” Esper said.
Meanwhile the conflict in Syria continues to destabilize the Middle East region, with Ankara warning of revenge against Damascus for the deaths of Turkish soldiers in clashes this week.
The escalating war in Libya is also top of the European agenda, with fears growing of a proxy war as global powers back rival sides in the conflict. The EU fears a spike in migrant arrivals across the Mediterranean. Europe is also pushing for the climate change to top the security agenda at the meeting.
There is hope that peace talks may be progressing in Afghanistan, with reports the U.S. and the Taliban could be close to a deal.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi will attend the conference against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and U.S.-led efforts to halt the rise of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, will update the conference on the global fight against the spread of the coronavirus, which has been officially named as ‘COVID-19’. The WHO recently warned that the global threat from the virus could exceed that of terrorism.
Meanwhile Russia’s support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine continues to stoke tensions with Europe. France recently called for re-engagement with Moscow, and President Emmanuel Macron will attend the Munich Security Conference for the first time. His message will not be universally welcomed, says analyst Braw.
"Many central and eastern Europeans would be very concerned if other European countries and the U.S. made overtures towards Russia.”
Moscow will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
As global tensions soar, leaders from across the world will be confined to the historic Bayerischer Hof hotel in central Munich, for three days of what will likely be fiery talks.