Held from 17 to 19 February 2023, the Munich Security Conference 2023 coincided with several significant events at the international level. The previous 58th round of the conference witnessed an escalatory discourse by the West while attempting to dissuade the Russian military operation in Ukraine. The last round of the conference coincided with the first anniversary of the Ukrainian crisis outbreak and the escalation of tension between China and the United States. The latter accused Beijing of sending a spy balloon over its territories. Additionally, there is a high level of escalation between the two Koreas following the increase in South Korean exercises with the United States. The conference also coincides with Japan's announcement of a strategic shift in its military doctrine, a change that occurred during intensive ballistic tests conducted by North Korea in the surrounding territorial waters of both South Korea and Japan.
Over the course of three days, the Conference witnessed a wide participation of representatives from 96 countries, including leaders, decision-makers, experts, and officials of international and non-governmental organizations, in the absence of official representation of Russia and Iran, as they were not invited to attend the Conference, at the same time that figures of the Russian and Iranian opposition were invited to participate in the Conference.
A Turning Point in the World Order
The Munich Conference is considered to be an important platform to understand how the United States and European countries think, especially with regard to the challenges to the existing world order and international security threats. The Munich Conference, in its last round, may have recognized -for the first time- that the world order has become on the threshold of multipolarity, as the Conference report divided the world into two camps: the first camp includes the "democratic" countries, while the second camp is represented by countries that have been described as "authoritarian". Such recognition said that the competition between the two camps governs the future of the international order, in light of the growing efforts of the authoritarian camp (represented by Russia and China) to reshape the rules and values of the international order. The Russian military operation in Ukraine is only an example of such efforts.
The existing international order, however, is facing more opposition than just from China and Russia. Countries like those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who did not denounce Russia's military intervention in Ukraine demonstrate their displeasure with the current international order, making it easier for Russia and China to gain allies and undermine the rules and principles of the system, according to the report.
In fact, the Conference did not succeed in presenting itself as a global platform where challenges and threats are discussed. Discussing various topics came from the standpoint of competition between the two camps, as such discussions came as a continuation of the NATO meetings discussions, in the same formulas put forward by leaders in the G7, in terms of referring to the great concern of the West about the future of its "hegemony". On the other hand, the Conference highlights the intensity of rivalries and conflicts between the two camps, instead of providing joint solutions to human rights, infrastructure, digital, development cooperation, energy, climate change, nuclear and strategic threats that become the subject of dispute, controversy, and division amongst geopolitical rivalries, and in the wake of the efforts of each camps to spread its models around the world.
Munich 2023 Perspective on World Order Trends
Although the Munich Security Conference does not make policy, it provides important indications on the Atlantic bloc sources of concern, as well as the North-South relations, and the dangers facing the global system and its rules.
Before it was interrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Munich Conference of 2020 came to address "the Western family reunion". The Conference was held again in 2022, revealing the state of inability of "democratic" countries in facing the global challenges and threats to the "democracy" of the West. The Conference, in 2022 round, witnessed divisions and tensions in the Atlantic bloc, specifically during the period of former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose policies deepened crises in the Atlantic body.
However, the Conference, in its last round, reflected the dominance of Western policy on the Conference’s course. It also showed the unified position on the Ukrainian crisis, and the consistency of the European-American vision, especially towards both China and Russia, an opportunity provided by the Ukrainian crisis, where such crisis unified the views of Western countries concerning the dangers to the European continent and to the democracy itself, though the Conference, in return, revealed a trend opposed to the international order. This trend moved from being theoretical, by the speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he attacked the idea of the U.S.-led unipolar international order, saying "no one feels safe in a unipolar world", towards being of the actual application of Putin’s visions, after the military operation in Ukraine.
To the West, this attack is not so much aimed at Kiev, as it is to disrupt the present world order and its rules. Thus, the Conference report described such attack as an attack on "the basic principles of the international order’s rules, established after the Second World War." Thus, the Western position on the Ukrainian crisis is a case of defending the "democratic" camp in the face of the actions of the "authoritarian" camp. Therefore, the Ukrainian crisis is a future model for what the world order shall witness. The success and victory of Russia, by force, would be an incentive for China to overcome its crisis with Taiwan. To realize this fact, we find that the West provided all forms of support to Ukraine, except for direct confrontation with Russia.
The Munich Security Conference, in its last round, witnessed a focus on the Ukrainian crisis specifically, it also witnessed a high level of anti-Russian rhetoric, as U.S. Vice President Camilla Harris charged Russia with "crimes against humanity" since the start of its military operation in Ukraine, which requires "justice and accountability for the perpetrators".
At the same time, the United States continues to provide support to Ukraine, as the U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed, during his visit to the Kiev on February 20, 2023, that Washington will provide new military support to Ukraine worth $ 500 million, including artillery ammunition, anti-armor systems, and surveillance radars, in addition to announcing additional sanctions on companies that try to evade sanctions and support the Russian war machine.
For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron pointed out, during his speech at the Conference, to the need to increase support for Ukraine, in order to enable it to withstand and carry out a counterattack, the matter that will allow it to enter into credible negotiations. Macron also said that the Western allies are ready for a long-term conflict in Ukraine, and that "now is not the time for dialogue or negotiation, Russia has chosen war and it must be confronted", calling on Europeans, Americans, and the Group of Twenty-Seven to invest more in the field of defense, along with holding a dialogue with partners in order to strengthen French and European deterrence, pointing to the need to think in strengthening Europe's nuclear deterrent. While the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, urged Ukraine's allies to "double" their support. The Polish prime minister stressed that his country is ready to support Ukraine with its MiG fighter jets, but only if a broader US-led coalition is formed.
Back to the Era of Conflict Between Two Camps
The existing world order is facing an a turning point in the competition and conflict between the two camps, a stage similar to the return of the atmosphere of the "cold war" between the Soviet and Western camps. At the Munich Security Conference, it was difficult –perhaps- to get a sense of the atmosphere without taking into consideration the views of NATO, which had previously labeled China as a security threat in its strategy paper. This shift in NATO's stance was made apparent during the member states' meeting in Madrid in June 2022, and it showed the West's worries about the increasing ties between Russia and China. NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned of this development at the Munich Conference, imploring countries that support "democracy and freedom" to unite and challenge "the forces of tyranny."
Perceiving China as one of the challenges facing NATO countries, in fact, paves the way for a new wave of militarization and the arms race: Germany has already witnessed a historic turning point in its defense and military policy. At the Munich Conference, the German Chancellor confirmed his country's intention to increase permanently the defense spending up to 2% of Germany’s GDP, in conjunction with Japan's change of its defense strategy adopted after World War II, which is based on excluding force in settling disputes, in exchange for doubling its defense spending on over the next five years.
Deeming China as one of NATO's security challenges would strip the latter of its "regionalism" to expand into international spaces, and expand its activities to include endopacifs.
In contrast to NATO strategic vision, we can phantom the features of the military alliance and its future between Russia and China, an alliance that the Deputy Minister of Defense for Political Affairs, Colin Kahl, warned about in November 2022 by saying: "We should expect a deepening of relations between Russia and China", as the two countries are "more willing to indicate that they are moving towards the alliance, not just a virtual partnership" referring to the joint Russian-Chinese military exercises in which 50,000 soldiers participated in September 2022.
It is too early to tell how Russian-Chinese military relations will shape the international order in the future, however, the two countries have made great strides in strengthening their alliance, not only in the military sphere, but in many other areas as well. This includes making progress towards their goal of controlling the Western Pacific, from the Akhotsk Sea in the north to the South China Sea in the south, in an effort to alter the current international order.
In conclusion, despite the nature of the role the Munich Security Conference has, which is limited to reviewing the risks that threaten the international security, the implications of its convening in terms of timing, participants, and research agendas carry many indications, as the Conference came a year after the Russian military operation in Ukraine, a year of "radical changes" for the whole world in general, and for Europe and NATO in particular, a year that intensified the fears and expectations the Conference report summarized, which means the possible future strategies to be set, which some of them are expected to lead t multiple tracks, such as increasing pressure on Russia politically, militarily, and legally, seeking to co-opt China, and trying to weaken its alliance with Russia, in order to overcome the turning point in the current international order.