The Munich Security Conference (MSC) is a three days long global platform where the elite gathers to discuss security threats and the future of security policies. No less than Angela Merkel, Mike Pence, António Guterres, Federica Mogherini, several European leaders, and about 47 foreign ministers, 30 defence ministers and 90 parliamentarians attended. This 53rd edition of the Conference also attracted guests from the business world and the civil society such as Bill Gates and Bono, probably making it one of the world’s biggest think tank conference.
Much like the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Conference’s unofficial and intellectual tone creates a great atmosphere for Security and Defence elites to meet and discuss some questions without feeling the pressure of a result-driven diplomatic summit. Nothing was decided on Ukraine, Syria, or North Korea. Some negotiations might have occurred there, but nothing should filter through before official arrangements. Even without official declarations, the MSC remains a major diplomatic event. Every key player in the field of Security and Defence closely follows the interventions of the speakers, and pays attention to the main driving lines of the yearly Munich Security Report. And this year’s expectation were especially high. Many countries and private actors were notably anxious about several recent developments in World Affairs, from the new U.S. Administration to ISIS, or increased risks of cyberwarfare.
“The international security environment is arguably more volatile today than at any point since World War II”.
The foreword of the 2017 Munich Security Report is unambiguous : we are at a turning point in international affairs, and the West seems weaker than ever. In the short run, the U.S. allies are worrying about the new Trump administration and what it might entail for NATO and the EU. In the short run, European countries also worry about Russia’s very assertive foreign policy, having their elections hijacked by foreign hackers or national populists, being a target for ISIS, and more generally about great instability in the Union’s close neighbourhood.
In the longer run, European States are concerned about what might be a new “illiberal era”. Liberal democracies face challenges both from outside and within. The Munich Security Report sums it up with three concepts: the world is going “ post-Truth, post-West, [and] post-Order”. The continuous rise of populism in most countries constitute a security threat when creating and reviving domestic and international tensions, or when suggesting their country to stop committing to its international obligations. Populist parties undermine the bases of today’s security order. When Donald Trump is calling all of America’s most trustworthy news outlets “fake news”, he discredits the world’s traditional sources of information. Populist throw the world in a “post-Truth” era, and the uncertainties it creates in the general population is likely to cause additional security threats. The prevalence of the theme of Europe’s decline in political discourses, and the decline of the Western middle classes in terms of relative wealth, trigger a fear of downgrading for both the security elite and the average voter. Furthermore, trust in the International Institutions’ ability to maintain the liberal international world order is also at a record low. If crippled by Donald Trump, NATO might end up to become an empty shell. The EU and the UN are facing a backlash after their inability to act decisively to solve crises unfolding in Ukraine or in Syria.
Two factors of uncertainty stood out of the Munich Security Conference : the striking unpreparedness and volatility of the new American administration, and the apparent powerlessness of the West to come up with a solution to effectively end terrorism and to defeat ISIS once and for all.
Mike Pence was by far the most eagerly awaited man in Munich. And he left the audience still wondering about the future of transatlantic security and defence cooperation. The U.S. Vice-president was here on a mission to reassure Europeans on the American renewed commitment to NATO and their long lasting allies. The fact that the American envoy had to confirm that the U.S. would fulfil their obligations to defend a fellow member if they are attacked is revealing of two tensions in today’s world order. The principle of collective defence (article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty) is the very core of NATO. It states that every member must defend another member when it is under attack. With the U.S. and two other nuclear powers in the alliance, collective defence has a massive deterring power. But any uncertainty about the commitment of the members to respect this obligation would clearly undermine the power of NATO. Hearing an American Vice-president declaring that the U.S. would respect their obligation under article 5 implies that it does not go without saying. Donald Trump creates a huge uncertainty about the role of NATO the U.S. in the security agenda of the next 4 years. He might favour the status quo just as he might as well develop a new doctrine based on protecting his nation’s cold interests in the world.
The easternmost members of NATO fear these possible changes even more than their Western counterparts. The recent developments of Russia’s foreign policy lead to a regain of tensions in European border regions. Having seen the very tepid reaction from the EU and the United States to the Russian annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine, some states fear for their own safety. If the US decrease their commitment in Europe, then someone will have to fill this void. To this day, the EU does not seem ready to engage in such security policies, but a radical shift of European doctrine from the American could possibly be enough to foster European integration in the field of security and defence. But this would require a clear cut change of doctrine from the Trump administration. It is impossible so far to guess whether Trump will really transform the European American cooperation, or if he will just push for cosmetic adjustments.
The apparent powerlessness of the West to come up with a solution to effectively end terrorism and to defeat ISIS once and for all contributes to making the West look like it has lost its grip over the world. Although the West would easily dominate the Islamic State in a traditional war, it seems almost powerless to respond to the guerrilla warfare ISIL conducts through a network of home-grown jihadists and foreign fighters. This situation reveals some internal weaknesses of Liberal Democracies. Both their social organisation and their values are increasingly challenged by a growing number of people who feel excluded. This exclusion creates a fertile ground for populist discourse on the one hand, and religious and identity claims on the other. Liberal democracies must find a new way to be inclusive if they want to be able to cope with these internal challenges.
Western countries also face external global threats. As the UN Secretary General António Guterres highlighted in his intervention, cyberwarfare allows third countries to acquire a lot of confidential information and to disrupt elections and the normal decision making process. Climate change threatens us all, and will have an impact on global security. Combatting climate change, fostering sustainable and inclusive development, promoting education, and women’s rights, are necessary actions to sustain global peace and security.
The end of an era?
This year’s Munich Security Conference did not suffice to reassure all the key players involved in the conference. The U.S. could not reassure its partners on its commitment to NATO and old alliances, international arms trade is at his highest level since the end of the Cold War. Europeans struggle to come up with common responses to common threats. Populism undermines most liberal democracies. All of these informations lead the authors of the 2017 Munich Security Report to wonder about the possible end of a liberal parenthesis in the global order. This era emerged from very troubled times, where populism and even totalitarianism thrived. And it might lead to a new illiberal era where the West is debilitated by both internal and external developments. New key players in security and defence are already emerging, and their full incorporation to the actual international order remains a challenge.
The name of “Munich Conference” rings a bell to every European. It reminds us our duty of memory. Democracies can be weak, but they must not compromise. Pursuing short term security to the detriment of core values does not safeguard peace and democracy. The Munich Security Conference must remind us every year to avoid a new Munich Agreement. The European Union was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for its outstanding contributions to peace. Now it must act to keep deserving it.