The theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) was encapsulated in a one made up word “Westlessness”. The conference’s report contextualized it by a dissolution of Western hegemony which had been prominent since the 1700s, weakening confidence of what Western values are in the face of widespread discontent with democratic institutions, the rise of populism, and an unclear picture of where the West is going and should go.
As the West looks inward to answer questions around identity and values, there are a myriad of pressing international security problems which were passionately discussed. These included environmental security, food security, pandemics and disinformation. The following represents some of my impressions and take-aways:
🌱 In the climate security panel, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s voice was notably impatient about the lack of consensus and inaction on the climate crisis. He said that “No country in the world is getting this done. We are on a terrible course. Costs of inaction are greater than the costs of action.” Kerry also sounded the alarm on climate refugees noting that when people in Africa and South East Asia have water scarcity problems they will seek to migrate to more advanced countries and that will pose a different set of national security problems. Kerry closed by making an insurance analogy saying “we buy insurance for our homes, insurance for our car, insurance for our health… why don’t we buy insurance for our planet?”
Apart from reading the news about extreme climate events (ex: fires in Australia), I have read David Wallace-Wells’s book “Uninhabitable Earth” which gave me tremendous perspective (article that instigated the book). He outlines what has been and is already happening (ex: increasing food insecurity, mass migration, deaths due to pollution etc) and through expert interviews projects into the next few decades what is expected to happen. His research points to the same findings that Kerry was talking about, that we are on a course to reaching 2C rise in the temperature of the planet. This is something that was deemed to be disastrous (and still is), however the inaction and lack of consensus Kerry spoke of was because there is a growing consensus among scientists that we would not only reach 2C but we would surpass it by 2050 — which is far too soon.
🍎 There was a Town-hall on Food (in)Security which highlighted an environmental issue that does not get as much traction in the news or political statements among powerful countries. The conversation talked about food as part of national security (which it genuinely should be seen that way). There is enough food to feed 12 billion people, however it is access that is the problem. Droughts, flooding and fire exacerbate food security by either disrupting or destroying harvests. One person brought up the second order effects of domestic violence that have been noted in countries experiencing food insecurity.
Here is a hunger map and a food insecurity and climate change map by the World Food Program. It is no coincidence that conflict, terrorist organizations and corruption thrive in areas of hunger and food insecurity. Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri the Emirati Minister of State for Food shared her initiatives in the United Arab Emirates and how she just recently finished putting together a strategy for food security, something she says that every government should do. You can read more about her Ministry’s research and initiatives here. In the U.S. there is an initiative called Fewsion which is mapping water, food and energy supply chain vulnerabilities and has an interactive map of the country with scenarios showing security vulnerabilities.
🗽 The Westlessness theme featured prominently in the side events on the West and Trans-Atlantic relations. The most common theme was that of communicating our values, it was reminiscent of what Hillary Clinton said six years ago and that “We have not been telling our story very well”. She was referring to the U.S. not telling its story well to the world, but now it is the West not telling its story well to the world and to itself. Another salient theme was that younger generations are not familiar with how government institutions work or the security alliance that has brought the West peace. A journalist from a prominent American publishing house shared a story of how he recently interviewed an American young recent college graduate for a sponsored fellowship in Germany and how the candidate didn’t know what NATO was. A college professor of political science who was a part of this conversation chimed in to say that her students’ knowledge about alliances and governance is very weak. It was in this moment that I started to reflect on our collective memory and how the memories of the world wars are starting to fade as each new generation comes of age.
The peace that the West experienced came out of two bloody world wars fought at the beginning of last century. This post-war peace produced (among other things) a trans-Atlantic security alliance (NATO), a common currency in the European continent and the European Union has melded nations together in cooperation spanning all industries. It occurred to me that the younger generations of today have never met anyone who has fought in the world wars, much less know anyone who knew someone who did — and that this mattered to their appreciation (or lack thereof) of the importance and value of Western alliances. This leads me to the big elephant that had been in the room for several years, and that was impossible for anyone to ignore this year… 🐘
📜 The Decline of the Rules Based Order. 2017 was the first time I can remember hearing prominent people speak about how the international rules based order was being threatened. Since then, the intervals in which I heard it at leading international security conferences grew shorter and shorter. It is my sense that this is the year that countries and leaders will stop pretending that the rules based order is intact. The challenge I saw Western leaders express in their talks was centered around defending Western values and the need for cooperation.
The most compelling speech came from President Suzana Caputova, of the Slovak Republic who chose to use her MSC spotlight to speak to her fellow European heads of state and broadly to liberal democracies outside the continent “We are a community of values whose strength originates from our ability to live by these values and to defend them. If we political leaders resign on this duty and responsibility, a Europe that protects will cease to exist.”
Her full speech can be found here. While it was evident that many leaders acknowledged in one way or another that there was a decline in the rules based order, the more pressing order of business for liberal democracy leaders was articulating democratic values. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made a comment on democratic values saying “Our values have not lost their value.” Perhaps this year we will better define our values and next year there will be more discussion on the decline of the rules based order and the emergence of a ‘durable disorder’ paradigm.
🕊️ Peace, prosperity and identity conflict. Almost two decades ago I was an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in international relations. I was studying all the great thinkers and their theories including Francis Fukuyama and his 1989 ‘The End of History’ concept. It was a delight to be able to attend an MSC Conversation with him and hear him speak about his take on the world. He said he still stands by his belief that liberal democracy is the socio-governance system that would constitute an end in humanity’s sociocultural evolution and also serve as the final and form of human government. However, he said that “if China is thriving and is a stable country in 20 years then I will admit I was wrong.” After that, he dove into identity politics explaining how people want to have dignity, feel respected and recognized. It is precisely this, he explains, that is what is undermining our liberal democracy. Liberal democracy has offered peace and prosperity; however Fukuyama explains that people don’t just want ‘peace and prosperity’, they want “respect and recognition”. He said people of who identify in groups who have suffered especially want to be recognized. And so as we reached peace and prosperity, all of our more serious governmental, stability and economic needs were taken care of and as a consequence we have more mental space to demand and seek the recognition of our identity. Fukuyama’s book “Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment” expands on this and argues that identity is more important than economics.
A Chinese professor asked Fukuyama why people were threatened by China? The Chinese professor explained that China is like Singapore and Japan, both have a one-party system. He said that over the past decade, Chinese government efforts have gotten 800 million people out of poverty and that the country was prospering economically. So why are people threatened he asked. Fukuyama responded and said that China is not like Singapore and Japan because free speech does not exist, and that people needed to express their individuality. Fukuyama expanded on human agency such as the right to vote and freedom of association. However, Fukuyama said that once you have this, it is not enough because after acquiring this people will want a form of recognition, whether it is being recognized as (1) equal or (2) better than the other. This turned the conversation back to identity politics…
🌅 The dawn of a new generation. During one of the moments in which the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, was addressing the conference at the podium in the main conference hall, he said that there have been some MSC participants who have been regulars for many years (even decades) and that next year more young people would be invited and that some (very) old participants will not receive an invitation next year. [Considering the conference venue, (Hotel Bayerischer Hof Munich) has its capacity limits, it is the only way for new people to attend.]
At the opening of the conference Ambassador Ischinger appointed the COO Benedikt Franke as the new CEO of the Munich Security Conference. This appointment was another indicator of its commitment to the next generation of leaders.
The new CEO is part of the broader millennial demographic and over the past eight years as COO he has been an instigator in bringing about fresh ideas to the conference. Some of those are the well-received Town-hall format and most recently the Munich Security Cup ️ as an opportunity for participants to engage in some sports diplomacy with tournament of Foosball.
I look forward to what the next Munich Security Conference will bring!
Check out my MSC instagram post for a video from the Munich Security Cup and some more pictures from the conference.
Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos (@Lkcyber) is a Strategy and Innovation Advisor who loves to experiment and push the bounds of the possible. She helps her clients posture themselves to make the most of new technologies in the context of changing and emerging trends. She is currently conducting strategic research on technology and the future operating environment for the J5 at the U.S. Special Operations Command. She addressed the United Nations member states at the CCW GGE meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and keynotes at technology and national security conferences. She speaks and writes on disruptive technology convergence, innovation, tech ethics, and national security. In efforts to raise awareness on AI and ethics she makes reflectional art #ArtAboutAI, and made a game about emerging technology and ethics called Sapien2.0 .