Warning lights flashing red

Each February, Munich hosts big names in security, defence, geopolitics and strategy for the Munich Security Conference (MSC). This year, more than 500 participants, among them some 30 heads of state, arrived in the city to debate this year’s theme: ‘To the brink—and back?’, reflecting the worrying state of security in the world.

With his declaration that ‘red warning lights are flashing’, Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger welcomed delegates with a gloomy outlook: ‘At no time since the collapse of the Soviet Union has the risk of armed conflict between major powers been as high as it is today. It couldn’t be worse.’ He noted that Munich represented a chance to build trust and find concrete steps to solve global conflicts, and said he hoped that the question mark in this year’s theme could be removed after three days of debate.

Following Ischinger’s remarks, the defence ministers from Germany and France stepped to the podium, the first time that two women had opened the conference. Both reiterated that Europe remains committed to contributing more to its own security and to global security.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen stated that her country wants to ‘remain transatlantic but become more European’, remaining a committed US ally but increasing German (and EU) efforts to boost their own defences. German leaders had delivered the same message at recent MSCs, and last May Chancellor Angela Merkel put the proposition in stark terms when she said Europe could no longer rely on others for its security.

The list of senior US government officials who attended, and the issues they covered, spoke volumes. Only National Security Adviser HR McMaster addressed the forum. Some Congressional representatives joined panel discussions, but Defense Secretary James Mattis kept a low profile. McMaster focussed his remarks on Iran and efforts to fight international terrorism. By contrast, last year Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence both sought to reassure Europeans of America’s continuing commitment to Europe’s defence.

Rather than seeking the dialogue that Ischinger encouraged, the stage in Munich—following a trend from past years—provided a platform for exchanges of barbs and condemnation, a blame game in front of an A-list audience.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chilling speech suggested that tensions between Israel and Iran have reached boiling point. ‘Don’t provoke us’, he warned while presenting what he said was a piece of wreckage from an Iranian drone that Israel had shot down earlier this month. He threatened to ‘act if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself’. Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, dismissed the remarks as ‘cartoonish’ and later called for closer regional cooperation in the Persian Gulf.

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the West for the deterioration in its relations with Moscow and for failing to build a strategic partnership with Russia, while repeatedly blaming Ukraine for torpedoing solutions to the conflict there. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko returned fire, using his time on stage to direct verbal arrows at Moscow, claiming that ‘there is nothing for us but to acknowledge that the hybrid war being waged by Russia is gradually turning into a full-fledged World Hybrid War’.

Nevertheless, some European heads of state and ministers did take up Ischinger’s call to discuss Europe’s future. Poland’s new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called for ‘more steel tanks and not only think tanks’, arguing that Europe did too much talking and had too few weapons to deal with both hybrid warfare and traditional military threats. However, his position seems to be quite a lonely one among Europeans.

Acting German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the EU’s military weakness could create immense difficulties as it found itself the ‘sole vegetarian in a carnivore world’. However, he again refused to commit Germany to spending 2% of its GDP on defence, citing the alleged ‘stomach pains’ it would cause its neighbours if his country became a military power again. But that’s just an excuse. Instead, NATO and other European partners would welcome actual engagement rather than empty promises. In 2017 Germany spent about 1.2% of GDP on defence.

Gabriel also raised some eyebrows when, in a personal rather than an official statement, he called for loosening sanctions on Russia. He later skipped the first scheduled Normandy-format discussion—aimed to resolve the conflict in Ukraine—in five months. The meeting had to be cancelled as a result, much to Ukraine’s disappointment.

Kevin Rudd attended the MSC in 2014 when he was foreign minister, and was also a guest this year. However, Canberra didn’t send an official delegation. Only Dr Tobias Feakin, Australian Ambassador for Cyber Affairs, spoke at one of the side events this year. While the origin of the MSC lies in transatlantic relations, it now discusses global challenges. The Australian government should be more involved. It could contribute an Indo-Pacific perspective and perhaps even stimulate the delegates to find ways of tackling common threats.

Ischinger soberly concluded that this year’s MSC had produced good analytical debates and great ideas and visions for Europe. But the weekend left a pessimistic and disappointing aftertaste overall because there were few specific solutions and measures offered.

Perhaps more will come in the longer term from the more than 1,000 bilateral meetings that took place on the sidelines. For now, the question mark in the 2018 MSC’s theme remains in place. The world hasn’t moved away from the brink.