What to expect as world leaders meet in Munich for ‘Davos of global security’

A general interior view of the Munich Security Conference venue. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

High-ranking security leaders descend on Bavaria this weekend for the Munich Security Conference, often dubbed the ‘Davos of global security, as flashpoints across the world multiply and the rift between Europe and Washington widens. Here are a couple of issues to watch.

Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Iran are just five of ten conflicts that the Brussels-based NGO ‘International Crisis Group’ considers to be particularly important in 2020. Syria, which recently has made headlines again, is not even in the top ten.

More than 500 high-level international decision-makers, 40 heads of state and government, 60 foreign ministers, several dozen defence ministers, plus leaders from business, academia, and civil society, will discuss current crises and future security challenges.

This year’s attendees will include French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi,  and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.


As the world faces an increasingly wayward US, as well as more assertive Russia and China and an internally divided NATO, one word is set to dominate the debates:

It’s ‘Westlessness’, or the idea that the world in general and ‘Western’ countries themselves are uncertain of their values and their strategic orientation.

The authors of the Munich Security Report, meant to set the tone of the gathering,  paint a rather gloomy picture of disintegration of transatlantic cohesion.

According to the authors, the threat inside comes in the form of “illiberalism” that prizes ethnic, cultural and religious unity over the rules-based order that has guided the West for decades.

“We appear to have lost common understanding of what it even means to be part of the West (…) and it appears uncertain whether the West can come up with a joint strategy for a new era of great power competition,” MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said in his preface.

The forum will therefore be “a prime opportunity to take the temperature of not just the state of international peace and security in general but of the West in particular.”

Europe’s torturous approach

Is there really a coordinated and cohesive Europe? In two big sessions on the future of the EU, expect some inner-European differences to surface.

As the year got off to a rocky start, optimists hoped the crises might be the long-awaited catalyst to strengthen EU foreign diplomacy but the bloc has continued to struggle for a united response, with financial and political obstacles besetting its joint defence policy efforts as well.

With transatlantic relations under strain, EU-US relations will be high on the agenda.

Europeans will be respresented by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell. The US sends Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. In addition, Republicans and Democrats are expected to send delegations, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Western leaders are also expected to continue squabbling over military contributions to NATO, while confidence in the military alliance has sharply declined in France, Germany and even the US, after Trump and Macron questioned the value of the Western alliance.

“NATO and the EU are struggling … For both of them, the rise of illiberalism in its member states presents huge challenges,” the Munich report states.

While Europeans also offer no effective solutions to the trouble spots and wars on the EU’s external borders, the Middle East and North Africa, Europe would currently not even be able to suppress Russia’s attack on the Baltic States without the US.

Against the backdrop of stronger illiberal, nationalist and right-wing extremist movements in Western countries, Ischinger described von der Leyen’s efforts to give the bloc a stronger geostrategic role “necessary, right and good”.

According to the report, Europe would currently not even be able to suppress Russia’s attack on the Baltic States without the US. The Europeans also offer no effective solutions to the trouble spots and wars on the EU’s external borders – the Middle East and North Africa.

Macron is set to make his first appearance at the forum, with expectations he might make yet another big directional speech, after his NATO “brain death”-comments raised eyebrows among Europeans late last year.

His post-Brexit nuclear deterrence speech in front of French top brass last Friday was an indicator of where he might be going.

Macron said Europeans “cannot confine themselves to the role of spectators” in the face of the nuclear arms race, called to strengthen nuclear deterrence for Europe and the launch of joint nuclear arms control agenda, coordinated with the EU and NATO.

After the UK left the bloc, France is the only nuclear power in the EU. Macron’s push comes at a time when the nuclear umbrella of the United States has been thrown in doubt after Trump adopted a more critical approach to NATO’s engagement in European security.

Western Balkan countries are also strongly represented in Munich this year, which leaves a lot of room for a hot EU enlargement discussion.

Bad UK optics

The UK, on the other hand, has downgraded its attendance and will be almost absent.

According to UK sources, Downing Street has prevented its senior ministers from attending the gathering. Although some British MPs are set to appear, both Defence secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign secretary Dominic Raab will be absent, so far without official explanation.

Their absence has raised eyebrows, considering the UK’s position as one of Europe’s biggest defence powers and announcements of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’.

Middle East conflict talks

With the prospects of a potential US-Iran escalation fading, Europeans are willing to maintain the Iran nuclear deal as long as Tehran fulfils its commitments in order to achieve it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sarif has confirmed his attendance and his speech is likely to highlight the future of the Iran nuclear deal.

Ischinger hinted he expects talks between Iranian and US representatives behind closed doors.

The urgency of dealing with the challenge of migration from the South has only been increased by the festering conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Leaders are expected to uphold the “momentum” after the Berlin Libya conference in January, in which the EU had been largely sidelined as the Berlin summit thrashed out a shaky ceasefire.

According to Rainer Breul, deputy spokesman for the German Foreign Office, the German government is betting on potential progress to be made on peace efforts during bilaterals. “We very much hope that we can welcome a ceasefire in Munich”.

The conference will also be an opportunity to test international reaction to President Trump’s new peace plan for the Middle East, the latest stress test for transatlantic relations.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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