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At MSC, West seeks 'rebalance' of security status quo

William Noah Glucroft in Munich, Germany
February 20, 2023

For the "political West," Russia's war in Ukraine was a wake-up call to long-standing grievances held elsewhere in the world. Addressing them is the hard part.

One man stands at a rostrum speaking into a microphone, while another sits on the stage watching and listening, a large screen projects the speakers' image to the crowd seated in front on him
The Munich Security Conference 2023 convened foreign policy elites, hoping to balance Western security concerns with those from elsewhere in the worldImage: William Noah Glucroft/DW

The regal Bayerischer Hof is running short on space for a growing Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has long taken place at the hotel in the southern German city. Veteran participants note how the MSC used to fit into a single room. Nowadays, delegations from around the world, trailed by gaggles of security and press, elbow through packed passageways and compete for free seats in lobbies and lounges.

A large group of people can be seen in the lobby of the Bayerischer Hof hotel
Munich's Bayerischer Hof has struggled to contain a growing MSC, as it tries to include more viewpoints from around the worldImage: William Noah Glucroft/DW

For Christoph Heusgen, former adviser to ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and chair of this year's conference, the growing list of participants is a sign of inclusion in the annual, Western-centric gathering of foreign policy elites. He touted this year's focus on the voices and needs of the "Global South," a sweeping term for what most of humanity more simply calls home.

"North-South, South-North cooperation is key," he said, introducing a panel discussion on that issue.

Yet from the main stages to the sidelines, critics pointed to fundamental flaws in the "world order" that make cooperation difficult and perpetuate power imbalances between the world's rule-makers and rule-takers. Western leaders themselves say they want to address them, as they confront a growing list of crises that demand multilateral agreement.

Doing so will require a "critical look at institutions" of the West's own making, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told the audience shortly after Heusgen exited the stage.

West's square peg, world's round hole

"Many of the political institutions that govern the world today were created to resolve postwar problems," said Akufo-Addo. "The problems of redevelopment and revival of Europe after the devastation of the Second World War."

Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo speaks while panel members look on. Further from the circle, journalists, photographers and participants can be seen watching on
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo (seated, front left) tells an MSC panel, which includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, that the tools of global finance need to change if the 'world order' is to meet the needs of more countries todayImage: William Noah Glucroft/DW

African, Asian and Latin American countries, many of which were European colonies until then, were largely left out of the postwar framework. The United Nations itself, which many smaller states rally around in the hope of keeping mightier ones at bay, is a reflection of the world as it was in 1945.

After eight decades, cracks in the status quo have become difficult to ignore. A world order built on Euro-Atlantic needs has helped feed a sense that "Europe's problems are the world's problems, but the world's problems are not Europe's problems," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his MSC address, quoting India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

"He has a point," Scholz added.

MSC 2023: Ukraine war has been a 'wake-up call' for Europe

Russia's war against Ukraine, and the mixed global reaction to it, has brought this inequity to the fore. As conversations at the MSC showed, that has rarely weighed more on Western powers than now, as they seek broader support in isolating Russia as well as confronting Moscow's ally, China.

Give and take

To get it, countries around the world — some of which have become powers in their own right — are looking for support in return. Throughout the MSC, of which DW is a media partner, participants expressed frustration with Western tone deafness toward climate change, debt relief, health care and food and energy security, while being pushed to care more about Ukraine's fate or American primacy in the Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic is just the most recent, transnational crisis to leave a sour aftertaste in the mouths of many countries that broadly belong to the Global South. They are crying hypocrisy, as the rich North largely failed to practice the liberal values of free trade and open markets it has been preaching for decades. Inequities in the pandemic response, such asvaccine supply, are one cause for some governments to be rethinking their ties.

"Partners are less interested than the West would have thought to actually build those relationships," Daniela Schwarzer, Open Society Foundations executive director for Europe and Eurasia, told DW. "And if they are economically interested, they are much more aware of their own strengths."

The globalization backlash: A new world economic order?

Meanwhile, China is offering a competing worldview that, though full of its own contradictions and false promises, Schwarzer said has become an alternative.

"There's a big group of in-between countries, which don't naturally fall into the Western camp," said Schwarzer.

More complicated than 'Cold War'

That dynamic may sound to some like a new Cold War, in which China takes the place of the Soviet Union, and a collection of nonaligned countries sit between Western, democratic and Eastern, authoritarian blocs. This is broadly the view of US President Joe Biden, which the MSC largely echoed in a report  it released ahead of the conference.

"It's very natural that you try to judge things by your knowledge and experience," Tobias Lindner, minister of state at Germany's Foreign Office, told DW. "I believe what's happening now is something new."

While US policy appears to be coalescing around a bipartisan hawkishness toward China, the German view is more "nuanced," said Lindner. Despite fundamental differences, "we need to take into account that some of the challenges worldwide, like the climate crisis, can only be solved with China."

"That means we also need to define spaces in which there's an option for partnership, taking that systemic rivalry into account," he added.

It remains an open question if the European Union can forge its own position on China, as the US pushes its allies to reduce their dependency, seeing close ties with Russia as a warning. China was Germany's largest trading partner of goods in 2021, according to the Foreign Office, which calls China a "key partner in Europe."

'China is changing the rules of the game'

Breaking from the past

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, German officials have gone on a travel spree to shore up relationships that span the democratic-autocratic divide. Doubling down on global outreach has as much to do with the realpolitik of securing energy supplies and economic growth as it does higher-minded statements about the universality of "many values of the international, rules-based order," said Lindner.

"The worst thing you could do is to go on to have interest in bilateral relations to some countries if it [only] fits your purpose," he added.

If and how to build something new was a central question in Munich. Western leaders expressed hope that their counterparts in countries on the receiving end of the world's "rules" will not be guided by a sense of historical injustice, however warranted it may be.

One way to demonstrate a break from the past, in the view of Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, the chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, is for those countries to take an active role in shaping the future.

"We shouldn't put it through the prism of if we're taking a stand, we're taking a stand with the West," she told DW from Johannesburg ahead of the MSC. "We're taking a stand for certain principles."

In that regard, when a country like South Africa takes its place in the world, the rules it adheres to should be a more important consideration than its feelings about the US.

"What Russia did is wrong," she said, which is reason enough to condemn the war.

Edited by: J. Wingard