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Security is a moveable feast at Munich conference

This year's Munich Security Conference has opened up with world leaders reacting to the unrest in Egypt and North Africa. Critics question, however, whether the Munich conference is the right venue for such crisis talks.

Police officers with Munich's Marienplatz towers in the background

The conference goes hand-in-hand with demonstrtions and a police presence

With unrest still raging in North Africa, Egypt and Tunisia have stormed the world's consciousness and made it onto the agenda at this weekend's Munich Security Conference.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the events in Egypt highlighted the necessity of defense in the ever-changing modern world.

"The outcome of this turmoil remains unclear, its long-term consequences unpredictable. But one thing we know: Old certainties no longer hold; tectonic plates are shifting."

Guttenberg and Rasmussen at the Munich Conference

Guttenberg and Rasmussen both support the protests

"So why, now of all times, should Europe conclude that it no longer needs to invest in defense?" he asked.

Germany's Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said the West must also heed the Egyptian people's call for democracy, which he called a "legitimate demand" that Europeans and Americans can only support."

"In Tunisia, Egypt and in other countries people are rising up and demanding from their regimes more freedom, justice and democracy. We should not give the impression on both sides of the Atlantic that as a rule authoritarian regimes or dictatorships are preferable to us than governments chosen in free elections," zu Guttenberg said at the opening of the conference.

Changing agenda

The three-day event, which attracts high-profile and high-ranking guests from all over the world, is due to focus on issues such as cyber war, the effects of the financial crisis on global security and Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin earlier this week, conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said he would also devote time to the situation in North Africa, adding that he thought leaders in Egypt and the Middle East could learn from Eastern European countries which have only recently become democratic.

"In the last two and a half decades, here in Europe we have been able to gather more experience on the switch from dictatorship to democracy than any other continent," the former ambassador to the US and Britain said.

Egypt 'not a priority'

A protester is holding a rock about to throw it into a distant crowd

Protesters throw stones during clashes on Cairo's Tahrir Square

But Markus Kaim, security expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told Deutsche Welle that events in Egypt have been unfolding too fast for the Munich conference to be able to offer anything but a hasty response to them.

"Egypt and Tunisia will be on the agenda, but I don't think they will take priority," Kaim said. "There is not enough time for lengthy debate and what should decision-makers in Munich say that has not already been said in the past couple of days."

He believes the conference will not deviate massively from its planned schedule, which includes discussions on the relationship between NATO and Russia, and addresses from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on the withdrawal of NATO troops, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the importance of the transatlantic security relationship.

Clinton is also expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to exchange documents on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which the two countries ratified recently, and to take part in a Middle-East quartet meeting on the sidelines of the conference.

The fringe versus the fray

Henning Riecke, security policy expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told Deutsche Welle that Munich is the perfect forum for unscheduled talks.

"This is a conference where world leaders speak to one another at a coffee table," Riecke said, adding that informal meetings are equally as important as official sessions.

Angela Merkel's head in a sea of men in army uniforms

Angela Merkel will be there to share her thoughts on security

In the case of the latter, however, he believes Munich is an ideal forum both for highlighting unexpected areas of possible cooperation, and for increasing public awareness for security policy. The fact that what is said at the conference is not only documented by the media, but also broadcast on a live stream, makes comment public global property.

"If someone goes to the conference, talks rubbish and fails to focus on genuine problems, they receive bad press, and that then feeds into public debate back home."

For his part, Ischinger welcomes the opportunity to bring together senior figures from all over the world - including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron - without the pressure of having to present any official results.

"The good thing about this conference is that we can use our time to look for solutions and maybe to generate the right impulses, but that we don't have to produce a communiqué," the chairman said. "We can get into the meat of an issue and argue until three in the morning."

Meeting new challenges

A room filled with guns

There's more to modern security than guns

Ischinger says this year's conference has generated unprecedented levels of interest, so much so that he has had to turn people away. And that, he says, is a "good sign."

A good sign, Kaim adds, that security has been taken out of the hands of the gray old men who tended to dominate proceedings as recently as two decades ago, and opened up to women and younger generations with fresher insights into the ever-evolving security needs of an ever-evolving world.

While 20 years ago it was about classical topics such as military deployment and disarmament, it now focuses on non-traditional security challenges such as energy, food, migration and cyber war. That, in turn, has ensured Munich's popularity with a whole new crowd.

"Even people with no deep and lasting interest in security can now see that food security is security," Kaim said, adding that Ischinger has played a shrewed game in managing to preserve the status of the conference while simultaneously adapting it to changing circumstances.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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