Munich Security Conference: The Search for the Missing Security Across the Atlantic

Holding this year's Munich Security Conference comes amidst a foggy European security situation, where the Ukrainian crisis dominated the Conference's activities. While the war has become a reality, has the West succeeded in preparing to deter Russia?

by Hazem Salem Dmour
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Feb 28, 2022

The 58th Munich Security Conference was actually, not virtually, was held during the period from February 18 to February 20, after nearly two years of an interruption that occurred on its regularity, and under exceptional circumstances; security and political tensions in Europe and the world, in addition to Covid-19 pandemic, which effect was demonstrated via the small number of attendees, and the limited representation of the international delegations.

Munich Security Conference is one of the most significant security conferences in the world. Its history is present in the global discussions, with the attendance of state leaders and officials, as well as experts and specialists. In this year's edition of the Conference, about 30 leaders of states and governments and 100 officials from around the world. The largest international organizations, such as the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union attended. However, the Russian official participation was absent from this year's Conference activities.

This year, like the last three years, a number of global challenges and threats dominated the atmosphere of the Conference. They were summed up by the President of the Diplomatic Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger "Our world is in danger. The traditional state of certainty is collapsing. Threats and points of weaknesses are increasing. The rules-based system is increasingly under attack. The need for dialogue has never been greater". This is especially due to the biggest event, resembled in the Russian-Ukrainian war, the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sudden U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the 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, but did the West prepare its capabilities to confront Russia?

Collective Helplessness

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 report issued the Conference (published shortly prior to it) reveals chief aspects of the Western reality. There is a phrase the report used, which summarizes such reality. The phrase is "collective helplessness" in facing the global challenges. The report sees that the Labral democratic states are particularly "threatened". They have the capabilities, strategies, and tools, but they are unable to clearly meet the global challenges. In fact, since the 2018 Conference, it was clear that transatlantic relations are strained, and that U.S. strategic leadership, simultaneously with the election of the then-President; Donald Trump. Before the discontinuation caused by the pandemic, the Conference, at its 2020 session, embodied the state of Western alienation "West lessness", the matter that was the Conference's main subject. This means that liberal and Atlantic forums (like Munich Security Conference and the G7) are becoming increasing signs of the crises depth in the Atlantic body, reflecting a state of uncertainty regarding the future and the destiny of the West.

At a time where the Russian-Ukrainian war is overshadowing the transatlantic relations, the United States is seeking to revive the NATO's effectiveness, take an advantage of the momentum of the war to highlight NATO's tools, role, and function, like in activating the Response Force for the first time in history. But the U.S.-European relations are still facing many questions; perhaps the most important of which, is whether Europe can return to U.S. custody and be drawn behind it, after the bitterness of the sudden U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and before that; the nuclear deal without a coordination with the allies. These phenomena, besides others, led the voices to raise inside Europe, demanding to be independent from the United States dependency. While the United States, at the moment, finds the current moment appropriate to assert its leadership, it must face a long era, in the foreseeable future, of the aforementioned calls, especially after France assumed the presidency of the European Union, earlier this year. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is focusing on the need to establish a "European army", a move opposed by Washington. It I to be mentioned that during a speech for the French Defense Minister, Florence Parley, included focusing on the need for Europe to be "stronger in Security and defense".

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Moscow: The Absent-Yet-Present in the Conference

The absence of an official Russian representation from the Conference, represented by the Russian foreign minister, who usually represents his country, reflects a development in the context of the Russia-West dispute. Even at the height of Russian President's actions against Ukraine, after Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian delegations continued to attend the Conference. This time, however, it seems that Moscow’s perception on the Conference had charged, regarding it increasingly biased for the favor of the West. Moscow also deems that such Conference shifted, from being a global forum into a forum for coordinating the Western stands against Russia and China, prompting the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, to say that the conference "lost the inclusiveness and objectivity”.

Russia has always been part of Munich Security Conference contents, since the President, Vladimir Putin, in his famous 2007 speech, presented his vision of a multipolar world, after he discussed the role of unipolarity in the world, in the outbreak of armed conflicts that left a large number of victims. Putin criticized the tendencies of the United States and the NATO to expand eastward toward Russia. Now, it can be said that circumstances changed a lot and effectively since then. Russia began to implement policies with regional and global dimensions. We can see that it intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, annexed Crimea in plain sight of the Western world in 2016. Russia now is seeking to impose a fait accompli policy, after recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions from Ukraine. Russia also expanded its offensive against Ukraine, which 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 President Putin will have any thought of reversing 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 meeting the two leaders "Putin-Xi" in an unprecedented phase of consensus reached by Russian-Chinese relations, and issuing a lengthy statement on the Partnership without Borders 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.

As for China, whose Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, described the Russian security concerns as "legitimate". In his speech During Munich Security Conference, Yi criticized "a certain force" that provokes "hostility", it formulates a rational policy based on dispersing the strategic military momentum of the United States in the South China Sea, as the east of the European continent returned to the same strategic importance, which it had in the 1990s. On the other hand, China can measure the Western reaction, and prepare it for its future steps toward Taiwan, despite the understanding that the two cases are different from each other.

Threats Instead of Strategies

Most of what Munich Security Conference discussed was to provide a "simulation" of massive Russian military action in Ukraine, and that Russia had mobilized nearly 150.000 troops at multiple points along its border with Ukraine. The 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. The U.S. President, Joe Biden, said he was "confident" that Putin had made his decision on invading Ukraine.

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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 Munich Security 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 comes to its fifth day, and the West continues to bet that the sanctions, that have come into effect against Moscow, will strain its military advance, increase its momentum in the near term, increase the political cost to the Russian regime, and increase the political cost 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 the Russian banks and the Central Bank of Russia from the SWIFT system (the acronym stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications). So, even as the West is following a unified pace of sanctions, it should re-examine its tools, and see how much of an impact they required against Russia. 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, the 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) was established in 2014, with another system in China called “Cross-Border Interbank Payment System” (CIPS).

Therefore, the Western countries seem to be sieged before the recent Russian moves, within limited options in negotiations with Moscow, and the implicit recognition of the Russian security concerns and interests, in addition to Beijing's regional and international interests on a hand, or the implementation of an integrated Atlantic strategy, that obliges Moscow to return to the compliance with the rules of world order on the other hand. The West still lacks a comprehensive strategy to deter or agree with Russia, since Munich Security Conference in 2016 discussed the need to address the Russian steps before the security and political risks would increase on the European continent. The West still lacks a comprehensive strategy to deter or agree with Russia. The stances are contradicting within the Western society itself, on how confronting Russia may increase the likelihood of crises to happen within Europe, as it is today with the Ukrainian crisis. Beyond, such confrontation could have implications for the rules and pillars of the world order, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, at the conference, who said, "The events of these days could reshape the entire international order."

While the West is seeking to show a harmonious and consistent state of attitude towards the Russian war in Ukraine, it will find itself in the future — if Russia wins the war — facing a the question about the stand from Russia, and the nature of assessing it. The United States insists on deeming Moscow as a regional power, seeing its steps as extra boldness. Meanwhile, Europe will find itself under a new security system and geopolitical borders on the continent. 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 the NATO forces in Eastern Europe. The 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, and reread like Franco Frattini, the Italian Prime Minister, and Karen Pancell, the former Austrian Foreign Minister, who called on world decision makers to read Putin's speech again, in order to avoid turning snowball into an avalanche. The West will conclude that attempts to demonize and isolate a country the size of Russia, are an ill-considered step, 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, which occupy the minds of Munich Security 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.

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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, in the face of 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, it also stands in the way of allowing other states to contribute in finding solutions to those worsening challenges, which effects thereof have a negative impact on international security and peace.

This state of helplessness, as noted in the report, is not only limited to state, but also to individual. Results of the referendum, which included 12,000 people from all over the world, showed an individual sense of risk, threats, and insecurity around the world, though such threats vary across countries. India's population are concerned the most from the possibility of directing and using the nuclear weapons from India's enemies. While Germans are mostly concerned about the worsening climate change, while Americans are frightened by foreign cyber-attacks from China and Russia. The Russians fear the widening domestic inequality. In addition, the Chinese people accuse the United States of plotting conspiracies against their country.

In contrast to the earlier Munich Security Conferences, the Middle East issues occupied a limited presence in its activities, compared to the discussion regarding the same on the sidelines of the conference. This is, apparently, due to the recent transformations and developments in many issues, that posed a threat to Europe in particular, such as the situation in Libya, the Syrian crisis, the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the policies of Former US President Donald Trump escalation against Tehran. These are challenges that find clearer paths today under the administration of US President Joe Biden. According to the Wall Street Journal, quoting US officials, the announcement of an agreement, between Tehran and Washington, may be a few days away. While some Arab countries, especially in the Gulf States, are converging with 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 contrary; the Israeli Prime Minister Bennett's speech, at the Munich Security Conference, demonstrated loss of confidence in the United States, as he said that "the nuclear agreement to be signed does not mean Israel at all". Adding "Israel will continue its pursuit of Iran, not only for nuclear weapons, but to prevent it from developing its missile weapons, and conducting operations in the Middle East.

Hazem Salem Dmour

General Manager / Specialized Researcher in International Relations and Strategic Studies