The 58th Munich Security Conference was actually, not virtually, held February 18 to February 20 after nearly two years of an interruption that occurred due to exceptional circumstances: security and political tensions in Europe and the world, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Their ongoing effect was demonstrated this year via the relatively small number of attendees and the limited representation of international delegations.
The Munich Security Conference is one of the most significant security conferences in the world. As the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy, its importance in the global discussions is underscored by the attendance of state leaders and officials, as well as experts and specialists. This year’s conference involved about 30 leaders of states and governments and 100 officials from around the world The largest international organizations, including the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, attended. However, Russian official participation was absent.
This year a number of global challenges and threats dominated the conference. They were summed up by Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger: “Our world is in danger. Traditional certainties are crumbling, threats and vulnerabilities are multiplying, and the rules-based order is increasingly under attack. … The need for dialogue has never been greater.”
This is especially due to 2022’s biggest event—the Russian-Ukrainian war—as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sudden U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the need for appropriate dealings with China.
However, in the prevailing atmosphere of tension, the European issues, and the talk about an “imminent war” in Ukraine dominated the conference’s speeches. The Western leaders sought to consider such war a decisive moment in the history of the world order, in which it was important to find approaches to peaceful solutions instead of conflicts and armed wars. While the conference’s expectations of a Russian-Ukrainian war that began four days after the end of the conference on February 24 were true, did the West prepare its capabilities to confront Russia?
Munich Security Conference is one of the most significant western "family" forums, where the security-political elite meets. Since it was found, there have been many crises and challenges that have attracted the general debate of the Conference, and formed the Western and global position -implicitly- therefrom. Most of such issues, which are far from Europe, were forming the axis of the previous conferences, such as those on the African coast, Afghanistan, Iraq, even China and Russia. Nevertheless, at this round, Europe and the transatlantic security were the main subject.
In what may be described as the worst war since 1945 the European continent may see, Europe, and many countries around the world, fear the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the repercussions of the Iranian file, which is deemed a source of previous disagreement between the United States and Europe. In addition to the future of the Euro-Atlantic security system; the nature of the U.S. role in it, and relations with Britain post-Brexit. This introduction certainly paves the way to understand the rift in the Western family unity, and the features of the change in the mood of its states, regarding taking the initiative like before.
In this context, the Munich Security Index 2022, a report on global risks perceptions issued prior to the conference, reveals the chief aspect of the Western reality in facing the global challenges: “collective helplessness.” The report found that the liberal democracies are particularly “overwhelmed.” They have the capabilities, strategies, and tools, but they are unable to clearly meet the global challenges.
In fact, since the 2018 Munich Security Conference, it was clear that transatlantic relations are strained, especially concerning U.S. strategic leadership that began, not uncoincidentally, with the election of the then-President Donald Trump. Before the discontinuation caused by the pandemic, the conference’s chosen theme and subject of its last session in 2020 was “westlessness” to describe the state of internally divided Western countries that are “increasingly losing its claims to shape global policies.” This explains why liberal Atlantic forums such as the Munich Security Conference and the G7 are increasingly becoming signs of a crisis reflecting a state of uncertainty regarding the future and the destiny of the West.
At a time where the Russian-Ukrainian war is overshadowing transatlantic relations, the United States is seeking to revive the NATO’s effectiveness, taking advantage of the momentum of the war to highlight NATO’s tools, role, and functions, including activating the NATO Response Force for the first time in history. But U.S.-European relations still facing many questions. Perhaps the most important is whether Europe can return to U.S. custody and be drawn behind it after the bitterness of America’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and before that, its negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran without coordination with its allies.
These phenomena, among other examples, led voices to raise inside Europe demanding to be independent from the United States. While the United States, at the moment, finds the current moment appropriate to assert its leadership, it must also face a long era, in the foreseeable future, the aforementioned calls, especially after France assumed the presidency of the European Union earlier this year.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the need to establish a “true European army,” a move opposed by Washington and downplayed at this year’s conference by French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who focused on the need for Europe to be “stronger in security and defense” but stressed that the need for a European defense was for the distant future.
Moscow: The Absent-Yet-Present in the Conference
The absence of official Russian representation in this year’s conference for the first time in more than two decades—the Russian foreign minister traditionally represents his country—reflects a development in the context of the Russia-West dispute. Even at the height of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s earlier actions against Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian delegation continued to attend the conference.
This time, however, Moscow’s perception on the conference had changed, regarding it as increasingly biased in favor of the West. Moscow also thinks the conference has shifted from being a global forum into an opportunity to coordinate Western stands against Russia and China. This is evidenced in Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declaration that the conference is “losing its inclusiveness and objectivity.”
Russia has always been part of Munich Security Conference. In his famous 2007 conference speech President, Vladimir Putin presented his vision of a multipolar world and discussed the role of unipolarity in the world regarding outbreaks of armed conflicts that left a large number of victims. Putin also criticized the tendencies of the United States and NATO to expand eastward toward Russia.
Since then, circumstances have effectively changed a lot. Russia began to implement policies with regional and global dimensions. In plain sight of the Western world, it intervened militarily in Syria in 2015 and annexed Crimea in 2016.
Russia is now seeking to impose a fait accompli policy, that recognizes the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions from Ukraine. Russia also expanded its offensive against Ukraine, a step that paves the way for its final exit and separation from the rules of the post-WW2 order, especially since a war integrates Moscow’s regional and tactical issues with the fundamental issues of the world order.
It seems unlikely that Putin will reverse his current course in the escalation against the West. In particular, with the continued support of Beijing, in which Putin finds himself armed therein, especially after the two leaders met in an unprecedented phase of consensus reached by Russian-Chinese relations and issued a joint statement on their “no-limits” partnership ” on February 4. While Russia can now exercise its policy in the European strategic depth, it is turning its attention to testing the West’s ability to hold together and deter, or to produce further cracks in the transatlantic security system.
During his speech at the Munich conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized a “particular force” for inciting “antagonism” by advocating a rational approach that involves weakening the strategic military presence of the United States in the South China Sea and restoring Eastern Europe to its former strategic significance in the 1990s. Additionally, he mentioned that this entity is able to assess the Western response and plan its future actions with respect to Taiwan, while also recognizing the distinctions between the two scenarios.
On the other hand, China can measure the Western reaction and, thus, prepare the West for its future steps toward Taiwan despite the understanding that the two cases are different from one other.
Threats Instead of Strategies
Most of what Munich Security Conference discussed was to provide a simulation of the massive Russian military action in Ukraine that included mobilizing nearly 150,000 troops at multiple points along its border with Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be the largest war in the region since World War II. U.S. President Joe Biden said he was confident that Putin had made his decision to invade Ukraine.
While the West succeeded in expecting the war, it showed a big failure to avoid it. This is for the West stance was more like a U.S-led noise backed by its notable and prominent presence at the conference, apparently in an attempt to reassure allies, as President Joe Biden declared at the conference that transatlantic alliances returned to be a priority for the United States. It is clear that the administration is seeking to use the Ukrainian crisis to confirm its new strategic leadership of the transatlantic after the uncertainty and loss of confidence that prevailed in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Even if the U.S.-European goal of threatening to impose sanctions, in the context of an unprecedented media campaign at Munich Security Conference against Putin, is to send a unified deterrence transatlantic message, and preventing the Russian president from taking the war decision, but it has also failed. The war is in its fifth day and the West continues to bet that the sanctions against Moscow will restrain its military advance in the near term and increase the political cost to the Russian regime in the long run.
However, unless the Western leaders think that sanctions are no longer easily obtained, after the West resorted early to use its last bet and winning card to exclude Russian banks and the Central Bank of Russia from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications) system. So, even as the West is following a unified pace of sanctions, it should re-examine its tools to assess their impact they required against Russia.
For instance, in 2019, SWIFT prevented the Iranian banks from using its messaging system, which had a little or no significant impact on the stability of the Iranian political system. When compared to the Russian case, these sanctions are unlikely to undermine the Russian regime’s ability, or be effective in changing its foreign policy, especially since Moscow looks at China to compensate for economic losses and circumvent sanctions in this regard.
On the other hand, Russia has an alternative payment system called the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS). It was established in 2014 to work with China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS).Therefore, the Western countries seem to be besieged even before the recent Russian moves with limited options in negotiations with Moscow, the implicit recognition of Russian security concerns and interests, Beijing’s regional and international interests, and the implementation of an integrated Atlantic strategy that obliges Moscow to return to compliance with the rules of world order.
The West still lacks a comprehensive strategy to deter or agree with Russia even though the Munich Security Conference in 2016 discussed the need to address Russian aggression before security and political risks increase on the European continent. The West also still lacks a comprehensive strategy to deter or agree with Russia. Perhaps this is because the Western society itself is conflicted on how to best confront Russia without increasing the likelihood of crises within Europe, as it is today with the Ukrainian crisis.
Furthermore, such confrontation could have implications for the rules and pillars of the world order, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who warned the conference attendees, “The events of these days could reshape the entire international order.”
While the West is seeking to show a harmonious and consistent attitude towards the Russian war in Ukraine, it will find itself in the future—if Russia wins the war—facing the question about the stand from Russia and the nature of assessing it. The United States insists on viewing Moscow as a regional, not global power and therefore seeing its steps as extra boldness. Meanwhile, if Russia wins the war, Europe will find itself under a new security system with redrawn geopolitical borders. Europe, then, would realize the importance of recognizing Russia as a security actor for the European continent.
This geopolitical reality cannot be addressed by militarizing the east of the continent, as the United States and Britain seek via strengthening NATO forces in Eastern Europe. U.S policies appear to be primarily driven by global considerations rather than by the balances and interests of the powers. While the Europeans look with suspicion at the idea of escalation and confrontation with Russia, there will still be rising European voices demanding that the content of Putin’s 2007 speech be taken into account. Italian Prime Minister Franco Frattini and former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl have both called on world leaders to read Putin’s speech again to avoid turning a snowball into an avalanche.
The West will conclude that attempts to demonize and isolate a country the size of Russia are ill-considered, especially when the West would feel the effect of this policy across the European continent.
Multiple and Overlapping Crises
Ischinger, after spending 14 years at the helm of the Munich Security Conference, declared, “I cannot remember that we witnessed such a critical multidimensional development.” The Russian-Ukrainian war, though huge, is not the only issue that occupied the minds of the 2022 conferences attendees. There is a status caused by exacerbating crises around the world, in Afghanistan, the African coast, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the Yemeni crisis, the appropriate way to deal with China, the climate change, Covid-19 pandemic and others.
As mentioned earlier, the report describes a state of collective helplessness, calling on the West to take the lead and solve global problems. The weakness of the Western response to these challenges is reflected in the structure of the international system and its overall interactions. The paradox here is that while the Western world is unable to save the world from the brink of disaster, it also stands in the way of allowing other states to contribute in finding solutions to those worsening challenges, which, in turn, has a negative impact on international security and peace.
This state of helplessness, as noted in the report, affects not only states but individuals worldwide. Results of the referendum, which included 12,000 people from all over the world, showed an individual sense of risk, threats, and insecurity worldwide, though such threats vary across countries.
- India’s population is concerned most about the possibility of enemy states directing and using nuclear weapons against India.
- Germans are mostly concerned about the worsening climate change.
- Americans are frightened by cyber-attacks from China and Russia.
- The Russian people fear widening domestic inequality.
- The Chinese people fear the United States is plotting conspiracies against their country.
In contrast to the earlier Munich conferences, Middle East issues occupied a limited presence in its activities. This is, apparently, due to the recent transformations and developments in many issues that pose a threat to Europe. This includes, in particular, the situation in Libya, the Syrian crisis, the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the continuing fallout from former U.S. President Donald Trump escalation against Tehran. Discussions regarding these issues were conducted on the sidelines of the conference.
These are challenges that find clearer paths to resolution under the Biden administration. According to a Wall Street Journal article quoting U.S. officials, the announcement of an agreement between Tehran and Washington may be “within the next couple of days.” While some Arab countries, especially in the Gulf States, are drawing closer to Tehran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is engaged in talks with it, an observer may note less Arab fear of any upcoming nuclear agreement.
On the other hand, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s speech at the conference demonstrated a loss of confidence in the United States regarding a new Iran nuclear agreement. “A nuclear deal, if signed with Iran, does not mark the end of the road,” he stated, adding, “All steps must be taken to ensure that Iran never becomes a nuclear-threshold state. The world must never come to terms with it and Israel will never come to terms with it.”