- Isaac Bly
The State of the World from Munich
Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference; source: The Kyiv Independent
Starting February 17th of 2023 and ending on the 19th is the 59th Munich Security Conference. Munich Security Conference is one of the most significant international security and foreign policy meetings, hosting more than 850 participants, including some 40 Heads of State and Government, as well as defense ministers and security experts. Notable absent from the assembled delegates of the world are those from Russia and Iran (as well as North Korea). Unsurprisingly, the conference has been dominated in discussion and documentation by the war in Ukraine, being opened by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with key topics including the energy supply disruption, Russia as a hostile entity, climate change, and concerns about national economic crises. With a bristling agenda, there are many discussions from panels on food security and building a rules-based international order, as well as highlighting the state of Brazil, Germany, and Yemen, to name a few.
The 58th Shadow
The last summit occurred from February 18th to 20th, ending just days before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. While Russia was not present for this conference, Russia had abstained from sending a delegation. The contrast between that conference and the current one is striking beyond just the fear of war maturing into open conflict. There had been questions at the last summit about the United States' role in Europe, whose answers may not have yet been reached but certainly have developed, and it seems unlikely the United States will be stepping away in the short term. While many of this summit's concerns and ambitions can be seen in last year's conference, there is no denying things have changed.
The absence of Iran and Russia is noteworthy beyond just the symbolic exclusions of these pariah states, creating almost a feeling of battlelines being drawn. It shows another avenue of diplomacy for these states being shut down, something not being extended to China. As well as shutting these states out, in some ways, reinforces their lack of significance. States that are threats but not threats that have to be negotiated with at this conference, in some ways, can be neglected as ‘others’ outside of the security and foreign policy embraced by the other participants. It should not be understated the significance of excluding a leading nuclear power and a state with advanced designs on nuclear weaponry from the discussion of nuclear security.
Germany at Low Tide
It is worth looking into the statements of France and Germany from the 17th. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz’s presentation, showed more of a culmination of policy than a transformation. Subtly defending Germany’s more measured decision-making and restating Germany’s commitment toward unity of action while encouraging others to follow its example. Importantly, the Chancellor also assured that Germany intended to meet the NATO 2% of GDP defense investment guideline “permanently.” Though it seems unlikely that Germany will meet this promise for the next two years as they reorient themselves for this new responsibility.
Russia’s Four Defeats
French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech did support the assessment that Ukraine’s allies should prepare for a long war and declared that Putin had made four mistaken assumptions, that the war would be a swift victory, that it would legitimize the creation of spheres of influence, that it would intimidate their neighbors and consolidate Russia’s power, and that the world would be content to let Russia have its way as long as it provided them with raw materials. These assumptions became his four failures. Macron went on to concede several failures, including his misplaced faith that Putin had no connection to Wagner group and that he and the West as a whole have failed to be accountable to the global south.
Maturing in the United Kingdom
British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, reinforced a similar sentiment, though seemed to move between focusing on assisting Ukraine in a quick victory (with tools such as long-range munitions, a capacity that they have lacked and the Russians have used to hem Ukraine in) as well as negotiating long-term support with his allies. He also emphasized the importance of the upcoming NATO conference in Vilnius and preparing for future Ukrainian recovery.
The US made a strong presence with a large number of representatives from Congress. However, some of the most poignant commentaries came from Vice President Kamala Harris, who declared that the Biden administration was determined to pursue justice for Russian crimes against humanity, an important distinction from the past acknowledgment of Russian war crimes. The Vice President went on to reaffirm the US commitment to supporting Ukraine to the end and briefly on the Inflation Reduction Act as well as issues of climate, mostly clarifying the existing policy. However, this was perhaps not the more important issue discussed by the American delegation.
The Simmering Pacific
The waters between the US and China are particularly heated, with heightened tension over the future of Taiwan, relative Chinese neutrality on the Ukraine war, and the recent downing of Chinese balloons over North America. Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi made a point of opening peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, seeing it as a top priority for China abroad and other peace projects. Including that of the Taiwanese strait, which would involve opposing further Taiwanese independence. Additionally, Wang sharply criticized the US response to the discovery of the Chinese surveillance balloons, calling them "absurd and hysterical” and suggesting that the US change its course and seek to mend the harm their response had formed in US-Chinese relations.
Ending the Beginning
With the end of the uneasy Munich Security Summit, key delegates continued maneuvering with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returning to Ukraine to meet with US President Joe Biden and Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi moving on to Moscow; it is hard to say anything has ended. Indeed this seems to be just the beginning, the open claims of the year upon the stage.
“What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.