The international security conference tell

And so to Beijing, as I might write in the diary I don’t keep, for the Seventh Xiangshan Forum, a big day-and-a-half conference on international security affairs. It is the third such event I have been to this year – first Munich, then Moscow and now Beijing. In some ways quite similar yet also very different, what can be gleaned from each?


Three security conferences, 2016

Three conferences, two worlds

All three conferences are big, expensive affairs. They get high level attendance. They discuss issues of grand strategy and global, geopolitical import. Each in its own way is an important event in the annual strategic calendar – Munich in February, Moscow in April, and the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing in October. Some background information on each comes at the end of this post.

The conferences were of particular interest this year because the world is in a state of flux and uncertainty. Not only, as I reflected in recently, does peace seem to have been getting a terrible kicking in 2016, but also the distribution of world power is evolving. Less ominously, perhaps, but equally significantly, so also concepts of security are shifting.

When I started as Director of SIPRI last September, I got a passport into the security world. It’s a bit different from the peace world I was more familiar with though subject matter and personnel overlap. I am not the only one gliding between the two worlds. One way to encapsulate the difference is to reflect that in a peace world meeting in October and November 2016, the big discussion item would be Colombia and how to mend the peace process. By contrast in the security world, in Beijing, top topics are North Korean nuclear weapons and the South China Sea; in Munich and Moscow alike, they are Ukraine, Crimea and the Middle East; and in all three, terrorism and great power relations.

The tells

So what does each one tell us? What does it give away? One attraction of these conferences is the networking and the informal meetings. The set speeches, plenaries and panels do often offer much of interest but a considerable amount of what you hear there is what you’ve heard before. Not infrequently, you heard it that very day because there’s a tad too much repetition at these things. The sidebar tends to be more revealing of mood and general feeling, along with how the event is reported.

Munich: A new Cold War?

That was especially true at Munich. The mood was grim, captured by the Munich Security Report – ‘Boundless chaos, reckless spoilers, helpless guardians’. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev was reported as saying the world has entered a new Cold War by the FTWall Street Journal, BBC, CNNDeutsche Welle and more. Interestingly enough, the man who organises the Munich event says that’s not what Medvedev said. Rather, Wolfgang Ischinger, in this interview at SIPRI, says that what the Russian Prime Minister did was to warn of the risk.

That’s a not insignificant distinction but it was lost to many at the conference. And I don’t think the tone and content of the reportage can be explained simply by reference to the media’s predilection for bad news and dramatic headlines. That mood was real.  Many were asking, what has gone wrong and what can be done? There was little common ground about a possible answer. Critiques and proposals flowed freely in a cacophony of ideas and angst. Much later in the year, these questions continue to exercise security luminaries, an abiding and troubling theme of 2016.

Moscow: confidently cooling it…

By contrast, the Moscow conference a couple of months later evinced considerable confidence on the part of the Russian government and supportive representatives from around the world. A central contention of many speakers was that Russian leadership of a new war on terrorism will be successful because it avoids US-style double standards. The conference was not a place where it was easy to toss that barb back at the hosts. There was no cacophony here; pretty much everyone was using the same song sheet. But while there was plenty of sniping at the US, the tone was quite restrained. Some at the event noted a much less heated rhetoric than at the 2015 conference. Russia persistently calls for US cooperation on tricky issues.

The significance of this needs to be weighed carefully. Part of the picture is made up of Russian attitudes towards the West, diagnosed by some observers as straightforward loathing following the perceived humiliation of Russia in the 1990s. And Russia has complex strategic waters to navigate, including in the Baltic-Nordic region and its off-and-on relationship with Turkey, as well as its interests in Ukraine and Syria as well as Crimea. It is Russia’s willingness to use force in these three cases that most disturbs Western governments and many observers.  In each case, Russia turned to force when diplomacy did not produce what it wanted.

Perhaps what Western policy-makers should be thinking about is not just the ease with which Russia now turns to the military instrument. There is evidence of growing diplomatic pull so it may not need to resort to arms so much. The conference’s gentling down of the anti-US rhetoric is obviously consistent with calls for American cooperation but it is also not inconsistent with willingness to use force. Seen in this light, the  summary is that the Russian government is determined to be taken seriously both as a partner for solving problems cooperatively and as a state you don’t mess with.


Even so, I was left feeling that the confidence did not go very deep. The agenda and the range of speakers at the Moscow conference was strikingly narrow compared to Munich and Xiangshan. A deeply grounded confidence not only permits but welcomes diversity of views and gets stronger through them. I had an urge to find out what, in West Wing  parlance, the next ten words would be. They are the bit where you have to go beyond the sound-bite and explain what you mean (about a new war on terror, for example) and show that you have thought it through. I was not convinced at any point in the conference that the next ten words have yet been written. To be fair, regular readers of this blog know I think the same of a fair amount of Western policy and commentary on it.

Beijing: That deeper confidence

Marking a further contrast, the Xiangshan Forum reflected that deeper level of confidence. More than might be expected, the agenda covered a broad concept of security including the impacts of climate change, rising inequalities and the evolving distribution of world power. Though Chinese speakers stayed on the same official page, the range of international speakers was good. In plenary, some differed over whether and how it is possible to distinguish between terrorists and worse terrorists. On the South China Sea, New Zealand’s defence minister, spoke in favour of the international arbitration process and was quickly criticised by the hosts. In the workshop I attended, a Ukrainian and a Russian panellist argued about Ukraine, Russia and the West.

That’s how it should be. Without disagreements, issues don’t get clarified and the need for the next ten words gets lost.

And in that spirit, the obvious ten-word issue for China is indeed the South China Sea. Speakers and background documents alike emphasised the importance of win-win cooperation and dialogue in addressing the world’s major security challenges. Yet Chinese speakers emphasised there would be no concession on China’s claim of sovereignty in South China Sea. It is self-evidently hard to reconcile the two statements except by expecting China to turn out to be a great power just like any other. And it is unproductive for China to turn deaf ears to everything contrary that anybody says.

It remains to be seen whether China’s leaders are, in the end, open or closed for genuine dialogue over this and other sensitive security and foreign policy issues.

The three conferences

The Munich Security Conference  is a February event. First meeting in 1963, it attracted 600 participants in 2016 , including heads of government and foreign ministers. It is organised by a not-for-profit set up for the specific purpose.


There is a large number of independent side events. SIPRI convened a roundtable on dilemmas over Syria, which got some high-powered think tank participants and showed just how deep and intractable those dilemmas look to those who really know.

The Moscow Conference on International Security takes place in Spring. This year’s iteration was the fifth. About the same size as the Munich conference, it is organised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. There was plenty of top level participation from defence ministries and forces around the world.

Venue of the Moscow International Security Conference

But there were very few participants from the West and no senior official or politician. So I heard, invitations are offered but not accepted. That seems collectively short-sighted but, of course, while the invitations may be sent, they don’t necessarily get to the right places.

The Xiangshan Forum comes in Autumn. It is organised by the China Institutes for International Studies and the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, both official state institutions. This was the seventh forum. It had over 470 participants from 60 countries, with plenty of uniforms and plenty of participants of all sorts from the West. The most senior participation is at the level of defence ministers and Chiefs of the General Staff.

Xiangshan Forum

2 thoughts on “The international security conference tell

  1. Pingback: SIPRI & Dan Smith – Ringvorlesung: Welt aus den Fugen

  2. Pingback: Impressions from Moscow – MCIS 2018 | Dan Smith's blog

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