Munich insecurities conference 2018

The 2018 edition of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), a top level meeting on peace and security issues, was held on 16-18 February. Among the participants were “more than 30 heads of state and government and over 100 cabinet ministers from across the globe”. There was not much sense of actual security to be found.

?— and then again: ??

The MSC is the annual meeting of leading thinkers, influencers and deciders on Euro-Atlantic security issues. Some others were present who come geographically from outside that elite (such as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif), or are outside it politically (such as Beatrice Fihn, head of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), or from a different albeit related sector such as David Beasley of the World Food Programme and Erik Solheim of the UN Environment Programme, and, come to that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. But at its core, it is a meeting of a fairly specific community and a key moment for exploring the thinking in those minds. You go to Davos for a sense of what the west’s economic leaders are pondering and planning, Munich for their security counterparts’ preoccupations.

Commentary afterwards has picked up on the meeting’s uncertain, sometimes even melancholic tone. For The Economist, a magazine, “This year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) began gloomy—under the slogan ‘To the brink—and back?’—and got gloomier.” The slogan with the question-mark was the sub-title of this year’s Munich Security Report. The lead conference organiser, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger,* said in the closing session that he had hoped the conference would delete the question-mark by the time it finished but had to confess it hadn’t turned out that way.

The question-mark, to my mind, is as good a way as any to encapsulate the mood of the conference.

Diplomatic deficit — and leadership, and ideas, and…

Likewise Carnegie’s Judy Dempsey, depicted the conference as revealing “The inability of diplomats to deal with the plethora of threats affecting global security in general and the liberal international order in particular”, with too many leaders showing “a lack of political will and leadership” over issues in the Korean peninsula, NATO, Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East.

Those issues among others, a less generous pundit might say.

Ivo Daalder, head of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US Ambassador to NATO, described a conference that “was full of complaining, of listing problems, but lacked any sense of how things might improve.” Leaders, he said, “came to complain, even threaten each other, not to offer a positive vision for the future.”

My own immediate thoughts after the conference were about the downbeat mood. The five star Bayerischer Hof hotel where the conference is held each year was not a happy campus.

The worst hasn’t happened

The Munich Security Report’s sub-title this year — ‘To the brink—and back?’ — was comparatively optimistic next to its two predecessors. The 2016 edition was sub-titled ‘Boundless Crises, Reckless Spoilers, Helpless Guardians’ with nary a question-mark in sight. Last year we got ‘Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?’, the pessimism of the Trumpian reference barely lightened by the query.

Looked at this way, the anxiety today is still profound but the looming panic of 2017 has eased. A year ago, there were not only the problems that were on the agenda one way or another in 2018, there was also the Trump inauguration. There was the speech, the style, the things he had said as a candidate. Writing about MSC 2017 I reported on “an atmosphere of deep foreboding” in “a meeting that was not so much about western security as about the West itself.”

There is quite a list of issues to worry about — confrontation between the West and Russia, unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, in Ukraine and in Afghanistan, the rising pressures of climate change and water stress, increasing world hunger, the stalling of arms controlemerging military technologies, nuclear proliferation and North Korea. Different people may worry about them in different ways and the kind of policies that are to the taste of most at the Munich conference are not necessarily to everybody else’s taste too, but the basic agendas of concern are not dissimilar. And whereas many people from many parts of the political spectrum in North America and Europe were profoundly anxious a year ago about the impact of the new Trump administration, this year there was also a recognition that the worst hasn’t happened.

The benefit of doubt

Is that complacent? Perhaps after saying the worst hasn’t happened we should add, “Yet”. But banging on about impending disaster is not always smart. By definition the worst is one of two least likely outcomes and, by focussing on the possibility of cataclysm, we might miss the probability of something unfolding that is less bad but still not good. Just as what is urgent often distracts us from what matters more in the long term, so fear of the spectacular worst can desensitise us to the banal bad.

The people who gather in Munich each year worry about all those items on the worry list. You could almost say, that’s their profession. If they (and the rest of us) worry at a level that’s half a point below panic, maybe they can worry better.

I did not hear complacency at Munich but an enormous amount of doubt about their ability to come up with actionable ideas, approaches that would work and improve security.

You can be critical about that, of course. Respected commentators are not wrong to point to lack of leadership and will. But certainty when heading in the wrong direction is not comforting either.

Openness to doubt is evidence of a degree of honesty and self-awareness within that Euro-Atlantic security community. It is not by any means reflected throughout the discussions but it is there and when it surfaces it is refreshing. It was interesting that there was a session on the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was sparsely attended, true, but it was in the main hall. Most MSC participants aren’t suddenly going to back the Treaty but it is significant that it is treated with respect.

New ideas getting onto the big stage at gatherings like the Munich Security Conference is exactly what is needed so we can find sustainable ways out of today’s dangers. More like that, if you please.


* NB, Wolfgang Ischinger is also a member of the Governing Board of SIPRI, of which I am Director.

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