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Munich conference confirmed where the world stands and it was not good news

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing at the Lublinsky district court in Moscow. (REUTERS)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing at the Lublinsky district court in Moscow. (REUTERS)
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25 Feb 2024 03:02:13 GMT9
25 Feb 2024 03:02:13 GMT9

The annual Munich Security Conference, which took place last weekend, was dominated by strong undercurrents of uncertainty about the fragile state of global security.

Rising geopolitical tensions and mounting economic uncertainties mean the world is less safe than it has been in a long time. Moreover, the tragic news of the sudden death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, on the very day this biggest annual global security conference commenced, was a stark reminder of the dark forces destabilizing our security, from the personal right up to the international level.

In this case the culprit is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has for years been inflicting extreme aggression against neighboring countries and his own people alike. The inspiring spirit of Navalny, who fought so courageously for a better future for the Russian people, and of his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who attended the conference when the terrible news of her husband’s death started to filter through, made it all too clear that we are at the dawn, if not the midst, of what might develop into the most unpredictable and insecure era in recent history.

If anyone needed a reminder that the post-Cold War world order, with its obvious dividends of win-win international politics, is well and truly over, it was expressed loudly and clearly throughout the conference.

Assessing the success or failure of the 2024 event has more to do with whether or not our expectations about the tangible outcomes that could be achieved over one weekend are realistic or not.

Beyond a record attendance by the main stakeholders in the world of security — including about 50 heads of state and government and more than 100 ministers, in addition to hundreds of representatives of think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, and leading businesses — it is the free flow of views on the complex security challenges the world is facing, and precisely identifying the participants’ priorities, that ensure such a gathering is invaluable.

For a start, the conference’s annual report acknowledged that the world stands at a perilous moment in which states increasingly define their successes in terms relative to those of others, and in which lose-lose dynamics “are already unfolding in many policy fields and engulfing various regions.”

This, unfortunately, has superseded the more hopeful days when fighting over limited resources was replaced by cooperation over increasing the availability of such resources for everyone’s benefit. Additionally, the vision of a world order that is rules-based, through adherence to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, characterized by a commonality of values, interests, and the peaceful resolution of disputes to prevent war and conflict, now seems rather far-fetched.

The world is facing a new turning point, of greater military competition and, with it, increased military expenditure.

Yossi Mekelberg

Over the years a number of catastrophic developments have shattered the trust between many international actors, and increased the fears and suspicions that have created a more pessimistic environment of uncollaborative and frictional world affairs.

A survey conducted by the conference’s researchers revealed that more people in major economies now expect their countries to become less secure and less wealthy, than think the opposite.

And who can blame them? First, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caught societies unprepared and exposed many governments as being less than capable of responding to a crisis of this scale.

This was followed by the naked aggression of Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, which led to damaging increases in the cost of living and raised fears about Putin’s possible intentions to expand into other former Soviet states.

More recently, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has cost many thousands of civilians their lives as a result of their failed governments and an international community that has proved to be useless in preventing such wars from happening in the first place, or stopping them from dragging on with devastating consequences.

While conflicts such as those in Ukraine and Gaza attract the most attention because of their ferocity, others fester elsewhere. Fears of a similar escalation of violence in the Indo-Pacific — where the West is deeply suspicious of China’s quest for hegemony through increasing militarization in the region, accompanied by economic and diplomatic policies in an effort to lure East Asia into its exclusive sphere of influence — are a major cause for concern.

So is the political instability in the Sahel region, where the spread of religious extremism is threatening to reverse efforts to advance social-political developments and reduce the capacity to combat terrorism and manage migration.

All of this is hardly an environment conducive to optimism about a more stable and predictable world.

But the Munich Security Conference did not only address the more traditional security threats, such as countries jockeying for hegemony, competing for resources or aggressively expanding their borders. It also highlighted examples of the threats arising from climate change, the development of artificial intelligence, and the growing sense of malaise in societies, for a variety of reasons, that threatens their stability and thereby makes conflicts between neighbors more likely.

Furthermore, while not officially on the agenda, the possibility of a second Trump presidency lent a further degree of trepidation to the discussions. His outburst only a week earlier that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member country that fails to meet the alliance’s defense spending guidelines, which to all intents and purposes represented an abandonment of the core NATO commitment to collective defense, was perceived by other members of the alliance as an outburst based on sheer ignorance and madness.

As a matter of fact, the recognition among many NATO members that they will have to increase their defense spending to meet the target of 2 percent of their gross domestic product, a benchmark set long before Trump decided to make it his hill to die on regarding US relations with the alliance, is already becoming a reality and this has more to do with the behavior of Putin than Trump. Eighteen of the 31 members of NATO have already hit the target.

The very idea that the volatile Trump, known for his bullying tactics toward fellow member states, might occupy the White House in January next year instills real fear among America’s NATO allies. After all, Trump is not one to follow the Munich rule of “engage and interact with each other; don’t lecture or ignore one another.”

If there was a clear message from the delegates in Munich, it was about the magnitude of the challenges the world is facing, the sources of such threats to stability, and what should be the guiding principles to at least attempt to mitigate them. The world is facing a new “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, of greater military competition and, with it, increased military expenditure, which places an additional burden on already strained economies.

It is up to like-minded countries that prefer collaboration and cooperation to conflict and friction to translate this into operational and implementable strategies where they have failed so far.

• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg

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