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What to expect at this year's Munich Security Conference

Simon Young
February 14, 2020

The 2020 Munich Security Conference gets underway on Friday to take the temperature of the state of international peace and security. Delegates include French President Emmanuel Macron and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

Kombobild Emmanuel Macron, Nancy Pelosi, Mark Zuckerberg

Would the United States use military force to defend a NATO ally? Should European Union countries work together more closely on defense? Is the world facing a "perfect storm" of climate change coupled with security threats?

These and other questions will loom large at the 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC). This annual gathering brings together presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defense ministers from more than 40 countries, as well as representatives from business and international organizations.

This year's attendees will include French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. US delegates will include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

Read more: Doomsday Clock suggests the end is closer than ever

A less 'Western' world

The security outlook for the world feels precarious — continuing the trend of recent years. The authors of the Munich Security Report, the thoughtful document intended to set the tone for the conference, write of "Westlessness" —  the idea that both the world in general and "Western" countries themselves are uncertain of their values and their strategic orientation.  

While some see the West under threat from "liberal internationalism," for others "it is precisely the rise of illiberalism and the return of nationalism that put the West at risk." And while disengagement is appealing to both left and right, the authors suggest "increasing Western reluctance to engage in violent conflicts abroad does not mean that these conflicts disappear." Indeed, they may become more violent.

USA Doomsday Clock in Washington
The clock is ticking on world security, which is the focus of the security conferenceImage: picture-alliance/newscom/K. Cedeno

One example: US President Donald Trump has signaled he wants to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, just as he has pulled special forces out of Syria. On the other hand, the overall number of American troops overseas has been increasing, especially to counter the perceived threat from Iran. The assassination in January of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was just the latest evidence of Trump's readiness to risk military confrontation to put his stamp on the Middle East. The Iranian response to that was limited, but the search will go on in Munich for ways to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf.

Outside Washington, the annual Munich conference is usually one of the best places to gauge the direction of US foreign policy thinking, because it attracts a cluster of high-level decision-makers. MSC 2020 will also be an opportunity to test international reaction to Trump's newly revealed peace plan for the Middle East.

Read more: EU slams Trump's Middle East peace plan

Crowd at funeral ceremony for General Soleimani
Soleimani's death was met with public outpourings of grief in Iran and has heightened Mideast tensionsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Noroozi

European assertiveness?

But this year it may be Europe's challenges — and any sign of changing responses — that attract more attention. With the rise of populist nationalism in many countries, some predict that the EU might turn inwards and become less engaged with the rest of the world. Panels will seek to understand how the bloc can become more effective, especially on defense cooperation. The urgency of dealing with the challenge of migration from the South has only been increased by the festering conflicts in Syria and Libya, while Europe's big neighbor Russia continues to destabilize from the East.

Many Europeans would like to see the EU assert itself as a global player in its own right, more clearly decoupled from United States thinking.  If the US is inclined to remain passive or even disengage from the Middle East — just as Russia and Turkey seek to extend their influence in places like Syria and Libya — this may be the moment for Europe to launch an approach more focused on its own interests in the region, both strategic and economic.

With Britain out of the EU, and collective defense under NATO's Article 5 occasionally called into question elsewhere, coordination of Europe's military responses and assets will be more important than ever. As the authors of the Munich Security Report put it: "NATO and the European Union are struggling ... For both of them, the rise of illiberalism in its member states presents huge challenges."

Given that, will the member states find common policies on defense, immigration and foreign policy? Balkan nations are strongly represented in Munich, so prospects for future EU enlargement will be hotly discussed, not for the first time.

Read more: NATO in a nutshell: What you need to know

NATO headquarters in Brussels
NATO's future has been cast into doubt, partly by Washington's seeming ambivalence toward the allianceImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Changing geometry

Russia is a perennial source of anxiety for European strategists. Europe is split between its impulse to maintain dialogue (and economic ties) with a large neighbor, and its wariness of Moscow's strategic aims.  While some even expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to be invited to this year's G7 summit in the United States, others think the focus should be more toward China, itself sometimes at odds with Russia. 

The changing geometry of global power will be the subtext of many encounters at Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel, where the conference is held. In 2019, President Xi indicated China was ready to push back against what it perceives as outside interference in its "backyard" — the East and South China Seas. Now Beijing is in a clinch with the US over trade, and — for the moment, at least — finds itself wrestling with a virus outbreak that has led some countries to impose travel restrictions. Add to all that the unabating battle over how close the links between Hong Kong and Beijing should be, along with Western worries about the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei — and the interest in China is strong.

Another Asian focus is the Korean Peninsula. In 2019, in an attempt to change the North's course on nuclear weapons, President Trump held two face-to-face meetings with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, as he tried a personal approach, dubbed by some "reality TV diplomacy." This year, the atmosphere is less congenial. North Korea has said it is no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing — and, in fact,  Pyongyang now possesses an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. The North's regime blames the United States for failing to show flexibility in the nuclear talks and imposing "brutal and inhumane" sanctions. Now it is warning of a bumpy road ahead. That issue, too, will get an airing in Munich, with senior figures from both North and South Korea expected.

Read more: Germans think Trump is more dangerous than Kim Jong Un and Putin

TV broadcast showing purported pictures of missile launch in North Korea
North Korea's missile program is widely seen as an international security threatImage: Reuters/H. Ran

Taking the temperature

This year, the Munich Security Conference will be, according to the Munich Security Report, "a prime opportunity to take the temperature of not just the state of international peace and security in general but of the West in particular."

 Alongside concrete questions, there were be the big-picture topics: Is our data safe? Can energy security and climate security be reconciled? What future for multilateralism?

As the West feels its values being contested both from within and from without, and the global contest between economic and political systems rages on, there will be plenty to talk about this February in Munich.                               

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