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The Munich Security Conference 2018

The Munich Security Conference 2018

By: Ali Ahmad

Can the world come back from the brink?

The Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2018 brought together statesmen, politicians, military chiefs, CEOs and human rights campaigners from across the world. Combatting terrorism, relations between countries and concerns over military confrontations by using nuclear weapons featured high on the agenda MSC. The participants debated for three days on the international defence and security in order to try and bring order to an uncertain world – or at least help make sense of it. This year’s motto was “To the Brink – and Back?” which was an accurate portrayal of the prevailing geopolitical situations in most regions of the world. But, after several days of senior decision-makers bickering back and forth, the negativity in the atmosphere only means one thing: A global conflict between nuclear superpowers is lingering.

“The world is about to explode, and something must be done to stop it.” This was the general impression that came out of the 54th Munich Security Conference that was held in February 2018 in Munich, a city in southwestern Germany. The MSC, a yearly meeting where world leaders meet and discuss burning issues, proceeded in a boiling atmosphere.

This year’s motto ‘To the brink – and back?’ was an apt description of the current state of international security, but also as the rhetoric question if this year will be a year when some of the issues might be solved or even escalated. But, this year’s conference proved that there has to be done a lot more in order to move away from the abovementioned brink.

In his opening remarks, the MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger asked, almost begged, the line-up of senior politicians, diplomats and generals to present solutions, not to embark on blame games or fear-mongering. As an experienced and shrewd diplomat, he was probably not surprised that his request fell on deaf ears. After three days of speeches and debates, the question mark in the conference’s title “To the Brink — and Back?” remains as valid, if not even more so, as it was when the delegates first arrived.

There were several key issues that dominated this year’s Conference which demonstrate that the world is not that far away from the edge. It encapsulated the profound paradoxes in our current security conditions. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that the international community is tackling poverty, disease, gender empowerment and other aspects of global development better than ever, with measures that, on the face of it, should reduce the likelihood of conflict. Yet, as Ischinger pointed out: “The warning signs are flashing in bright red… The world has moved much too close to the brink of major interstate conflict.”

There is a general agreement that the biggest threats to international security come from civil wars, terrorism, climate change, organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyberspace and small arms (which kill up to 100,000 people every year in conflict zones). These security threats are often inter-related and exacerbate one another. A further consensus is that addressing such global security challenges requires leadership – but unfortunately this is in short supply, as is any in-depth understanding of the complexity of worldwide security issues, and how their political, economic and social aspects are inter-linked.

It was noticed and noted that this year’s Munich Conference was short on world leaders’ participation and/or demonstration of such qualities. While the absence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was mainly due to her difficulties in forming a coalition, the absence of the US and French presidents, for example, demonstrates the weakening of transatlantic security cooperation, and consequently NATO’s ability to provide adequate answers to any future threats.

A major reason for this is that for nearly a quarter of a century, Europe has stalled on defence spending. This was one of the dividends of the end of the Cold War, enabling resources to be diverted to public services instead. The 2008 financial crisis led to further cuts in expenditure on defence; nevertheless, this trend has stopped and even reversed since 2014 due to gradual improvements in economic conditions. An increase in GDP was only one side of the equation. The other was an increased perception of threats originating in the Middle East and Sahel region, and from the East, especially following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine. Security threats are closer to home and more immediate than they have been for a long time. Terrorist attacks claiming many lives and spreading fear across the continent have added a new security threat dimension.

There has been a noticeable and significant shift in attitudes to different security issues. It has become apparent that countering terrorism is not only about chasing militants around the world and using force and the weight of the law against them. It requires countering their narratives and changing the conditions that give extremists fertile ground for nurturing hatred and swelling their ranks: This is what matters in the long run. Not unrelated is the need to strengthen cybersecurity worldwide, not only with regard to direct cyberattacks, but also to the way information can be manipulated and distorted, and affect what we believe to the detriment of the democratic process. Eric Schmidt, the former Executive Chairman of Google, has asserted that: “The trust that has been built up in democracy is much easier to destroy than rebuild.”

But if anyone wanted proof that old-fashioned interstate hostility is alive and kicking, they need look no further than the war of words between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Netanyahu, waving a chunk of Iranian drone brought down in Israeli airspace, claimed that Iran was the “greatest threat to our world” and asked Zarif: “Do you recognize it? Don’t test us. You should, it’s yours.”

Zarif later dismissed Netanyahu’s performance as “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”. But he responded all the same, and accused the Israeli leader of attempting to instigate anti-Iranian “hysteria.” Israel’s growing tensions with Iran and its Hezbollah proxy along the borders with Syria and Lebanon, not to mention Netanyahu’s difficulties at home, might well lead to its first direct confrontation with Iran, especially with this kind of toxic rhetoric in the air.

The exchange may have added some theatricals to an otherwise subdued conference, but it gave everyone a taste of the reality that, beyond the polite conversations on a range of security threats, lie many international rivalries that are on the brink — one step away from the abyss of war.

Pakistan at the MSC 2018

From Pakistan, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa addressed the MSC 2018. In his address, the COAS gave Pakistan’s perspective on global and regional security by informing the world that Pakistan defeated al-Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban and other outlawed militant groups and can now proudly say that no organised militant camps exist on Pakistani soil today. He said:

“Jihad can only be sanctioned by a state authority and nobody else. However, there is no denying the fact that the powerful concept of Jihad can be easily misused for propagating extremism and terrorism particularly as many Muslims in the world over are feeling not only as alienated but disowned and targeted and devoid of all positive expression. Same is true for the concept of Caliphate, which is more of a nostalgic response, rather than the actual possibility for most Muslims. In Pakistan, the notion of Caliphate has not found any traction, but Jihad has definitely been used to radicalise a large tract of population. However, this phenomenon is not a recent creation that started after 9/11. The Frankenstein was actually created by the liberal free world with a willing, but myopic cooperation from my side after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Therefore, we all are responsible for making the world population in general, and the Muslim population in particular, a hostage to this extremist ideology. Times have surely changed since the noon March 10, 1982, when President Ronald Reagan dedicated the launch of the space shuttle to the valiant Afghan Mujahedeen or Jihadis and termed their struggle against the Soviet occupation forces as a representation of man’s highest aspiration for freedom.”

Five Takeaways from the MSC 2018

1. A world searching for leadership

The world is in need of leadership on the global stage – but in Munich, no leaders were in sight. The lack of US leadership was the most palpable.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis attended, but he did not make a speech, nor did he give interviews, while those US officials who did speak underlined other countries’ responsibilities, such as Presidential National Security Advisor H.R McMaster who noted that “we must all share responsibility”, as “international peace and prosperity depends on all nations”.

Israel blamed Iran, Iran blamed Israel, the US blamed Russia, Turkey blamed the Kurds. Many statesmen brought props to make their point, with Benjamin Netanyahu waving a piece of an Iranian drone, Petro Poroshenko bringing an EU flag, and Japanese Foreign Minister Tarō Kōno showing photographs of North Korean tankers. These provided the attending journalists with good pictures but did little to further dialogue.

2. European defence, where art thou?

At the beginning, it seemed that Europe might provide the missing leadership as the conference was opened by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her French counterpart, Florence Parly. This was noteworthy in itself, as last year’s MSC had been opened by the German and the US Defence Ministers. But, it quickly became clear that the Europeans are not ready to fill the void that the US’s turning away from the international system is creating. Despite talk of unity, the ministers’ speeches highlighted continuing divisions in EU priorities, with von der Leyen emphasising development, and Parly speaking of the need for a common strategic culture.

In addition, Theresa May’s Brexit speech highlighted Europe’s internal struggles. Reaching out to the European Union, May called for a security treaty between the UK and the EU, but the fundamental question of the future relationship between the union and the soon-to-be-former member remains. A more united European defence could be the answer to some challenges, but so far Europe does not seem up to the task.

3. Tech is scary. And cool.

Technology was a theme that ran through the conference. ‘Sophia’ the robot opened a debate on Artificial Intelligence in conflict. The co-founder of big data firm Palantir, Alexander Karp, discussed how to use Silicon Valley’s innovations for European defence, and Human Rights Watch’s Mary Wareham warned of killer robots. The panels featured much expertise, but the overall impression was one of confusion on whether to welcome these technological advances or not, and on how to regulate them.

4. It’s all about the bilaterals

It is an MSC truism: “The main event is what is happening behind the scenes”. But one needs to attend MSC to understand just how true that is. It must be the only conference where the audience shrinks when the UN Secretary General takes the stage.

The absent delegates were not out sightseeing in the cold and sleet, but rather busy with hundreds of ‘bilaterals’. So far, the world has not been informed of any new deals emerging from these discussions.

5. A long way to diversity

It is another MSC truism that the typical MSC conference attendee is white, male and rather old. This is not only the fault of the organisers, but a consequence of the fact that the higher up one goes, the less diversity there is in the field of international security.



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