50 Years of Munich Security Conference
Many urgent security challenges confront the international community in early 2014 – from the catastrophe in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program to the NSA disclosures and European defense integration. Thus, only limited time will be available to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Munich Security Conference this year.
However, we will have two special anniversary features at this year’s conference.
First, on January 22, the book Towards Mutual Security – Fifty Years of Munich Security Conference, edited by the MSC Foundation, has been published. In it, numerous prominent participants – including current and former heads of state and government as well as foreign and defense ministers such as Helmut Schmidt, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Frank Walter-Steinmeier – reflect on the conference’s history and significance, on some of the major issues debated, and on key security challenges facing the international community. Moreover, dozens of pictures and selected documents give an impression of the conference's history. More information about the book can be found here.
Second, during the conference weekend, we will convene a special anniversary panel on Saturday afternoon, which will bring together participants of the very first Wehrkunde conference, including Henry Kissinger and Helmut Schmidt, with younger decision-makers.
About the conference’s history and evolution
Since its inception in the fall of 1963, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) has changed in many ways – not just in terms of its name. Yet in some ways, it has not changed at all. The main rationale behind the first conferences – then called Internationale Wehrkunde-Begegnung – remains true today. Munich was, is, and will continue to be an independent venue for policymakers and experts for open and constructive discussions about the most pressing security issues of the day – and of the future.
For the first decades of the conference, the participants did not hail from as many countries as they do today—and that was entirely by design. Back then, the audience was relatively small, not exceeding a few dozen people. While Wehrkunde was an international conference from the very beginning, it was first of all a venue where German participants met their counterparts from their most important ally, the United States, but also from other NATO member states. As a result, the conference has often been dubbed a “transatlantic family meeting.” Debates in Munich concentrated on Western policy within the overarching framework of the Cold War confrontation. Just like today, these intra-alliance debates were far from uncontroversial, at times even heated.
When the Cold War came to an end, both Ewald von Kleist, who had founded the conference, and his successor as chairman, Horst Teltschik, built on the unique character of this transatlantic meeting, but they also decided to invite participants from countries that had not been part of the Western world before. They made room for participants from Central and Eastern European countries, and also from the Russian Federation. The conference – much like NATO – had to move beyond the confines of one “side” of the Cold War if it was to remain relevant.
Over the years, as the number and variety of important players in international security increased, the circle of conference participants continued to grow wider. At the same time, the core of the conference will always be transatlantic. Today, we welcome high-ranking participants from key rising powers, such as China, Brazil, and India. In addition, in recent years, both the Arab uprisings and the debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions brought leaders from the Middle East to Munich, sparking both controversial arguments and the opportunity for further dialogue on and off the conference stage. The audience today is not only more diverse in terms of geography, it also mirrors the broader understanding of security itself. Now, when the participants gather at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, you still see military leaders—and rightly so. But you also see CEOs, human rights activists, environmentalists, and other leaders representing global civil society.
It is a testament to the extraordinary work and personality of Ewald von Kleist, who sadly passed away in March of 2013, that it developed and kept such a high reputation throughout the decades. The Cold War, the conflict that dominated the conference for many years, is long gone, but that does not mean that the Munich Security Conference’s reason to exist has become obsolete. Quite the contrary: it may well be even more important in an era in which global governance in general, and international security in particular, is certain to become messier and more difficult to manage, and in which the transatlantic partners will have to both stick together as well as reach out to new partners.
This text is adapted from Wolfgang Ischinger’s essay “Towards Mutual Security. From Wehrkunde to the Munich Security Conference,” published in 2014 in the book Towards Mutual Security – Fifty Years of Munich Security Conference by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2014. You can download the entire essay here.
Fifty Years of Munich Security Conference – a brief timeline
The “I. Internationale Wehrkunde-Begegnung” takes place on November 30 / December 1.
For its third edition, the date of the meeting is moved from the late fall to February, which is why there is no conference in 1965.
After the closure of the Hotel Regina, the Hotel Bayerischer Hof becomes the new location for the conference.
The conference is scheduled to take place shortly after the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. Fearing for the safety of the meeting, the Hotel Bayerischer Hof decides not to be available as a venue for the conference. Thus, the planned and prepared conference was canceled at the very last minute, but was always counted toward the overall number.
The Hilton Park Hotel becomes the new conference venue. The conference’s name is changed to “Munich Conference on Security Policy.”
Ewald von Kleist indicates that he will not continue the conference. The 1997 conference is cancelled. Von Kleist receives many heart-felt letters. One example: “When I ... received ... the answer that there would be no Wehrkundetagung next year or indeed any time, I could hardly believe it,” Javier Solana wrote to von Kleist. Richard Burt, urging Chancellor Kohl that the conference should continue, wrote: “[I]n creating and sustaining the Wehrkunde meetings, Ewald von Kleist made a significant contribution to stability and peace in Europe. It would be a terrible shame to lose this legacy.”
After many participants have expressed their dismay at a potential end to the conference, the search for a successor for von Kleist is eventually successful. Von Kleist chairs the conference for one final time in 1998 and presents Horst Teltschik as the new chairman.
The conference returns to its longtime location, the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.
At the conclusion of the 2008 conference, Horst Teltschik introduces Wolfgang Ischinger as future chairman of the conference.
The conference is renamed into “Munich Security Conference.” Wolfgang Ischinger introduces the MSC Core Group Meetings, which would take place annually in capitals around the world, and the “Munich Young Leaders Round Table on Security Policy.”
Beginning in 2012, the conference also hosts a number of smaller events on specific subfields of security policy.