Picking up the Pieces – Report from the MSC 2019

From February 15 to 17, the 55th Munich Security Conference (MSC) brought together more than 600 international decision-makers. Key issues were the advent of renewed great power competition, the future of transatlantic relations, European defence, and the role of middle powers in world affairs. The conference also acted as the venue for more than 180 side events and 2,500 bilateral meetings.

A view at the main conference hall at Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the venue of MSC 2019. (Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann)

The Munich Security Conference 2019 welcomed an unprecedented number of high-ranking international decision-makers, including more than 35 heads of government and heads of state, as well as more than 100 cabinet ministers. Among the participants were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union Federica Mogherini, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Tawakkol Karman and Beatrice Fihn.

The overarching question of the conference, posed by the MSC’s annual digest, the Munich Security Report, was who would pick up the pieces of an eroding international order and put them back together. In this context, the conference saw the EU "alive and kicking," as the MSC's Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger put it. In light of a rising great power competition, European leaders emphasised the need and their willingness to make the European Union a more capable actor in world affairs that can stand its ground for liberal values. German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged, "Whether we want it or not, Germany and Europe are part of this power competition. We are not neutral." In particular the need for more cooperation on European defence was a point of emphasis.

The conviction that increased engagement of the EU and like-minded states in global affairs is needed was shared by Tarō Kōno, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs. "If the U.S. can't be the policeman alone anymore, Japan, Europe, and other like-minded countries need to increase the burden sharing." Some participants, however, voiced doubts on whether middle powers will be up to the task of asserting themselves against competing interests of great powers. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, addressed the call of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for Europe at the conference to step back from the Iran nuclear deal and warned, "Europe needs to be willing to get wet if it wants to swim against the dangerous tide of U.S. unilateralism."

Another key topic was the future of arms control. Much of the debate revolved around the likely end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Participants urged the United States and Russia to return to the treaty. Some suggested that the INF Treaty could be transformed form a bilateral treaty to a multilateral one that could include China. However, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi declined: "We are opposed to the multilateralisation of the INF Treaty for the Asia-Pacific region." Such a treaty is unnecessary for the region, objected Yang.

Uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic relationship was on the minds of many participants. Leaders from both sides of the Atlantic reaffirmed their commitment to the transatlantic alliance. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, spoke for many when he underlined his belief that "Europe and North America are stronger together – economically, politically and militarily." The U.S. congressional delegation to the MSC was the largest ever. More than 50 senators and representatives – about 10 percent of the U.S. Congress – came to Munich in what was widely viewed as a clear sign of commitment to partnership with Europe. At the same time, transatlantic differences of opinion were clearly visible and addressed openly on stage, among others, by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence when he declared, "When you hear President Trump ask our NATO allies to live up to the commitments they’ve made to our common defence, that’s what we call being leader of the free world."

Reaching beyond traditional defence topics, human security and climate security were discussed more prominently than ever before at the MSC. During a panel discussion on the main stage, Bunny McDiarmid, Co-Executive Director of Greenpeace, stressed that world leaders had so far failed to address climate change with the appropriate urgency. The Secretary General of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, called for a comprehensive approach to security: "Unless we bring the issues of children, the issues of women, the issue of the economy, and the issue of safety and security together, we will continue to come up with the wrong solutions that will never have the impact that they need to have."

Despite growing mistrust and uncertainty in international affairs, the conference also offered examples of successful diplomacy and dialogue. South East Europe in particular stood out. The 2019 Ewald von Kleist Award, handed out annually by the Munich Security Conference for outstanding contributions to international peace and conflict management, was awarded to the Prime Ministers of Greece and of North Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev. Furthermore, in what MSC Chairman Ischinger praised as a sign of willingness to engage in dialogue, the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, took the stage together to openly discuss their differences.

In addition to its more traditional formats, the MSC also featured a new Town Hall set-up this year. This format was particularly conducive to interactive discussions ranging from a debate of foreign policy specialists under 30 to expert updates on Afghanistan and Ebola. The debates of the main programme were accompanied by numerous side events such as a table-top exercise on crisis prevention in Africa and a roundtable on climate change and security hosted by United Nations Environment. Furthermore, the conference convened confidential MSC roundtables on a variety of MSC focal topics such as Energy Security, Cyber Security, Health Security, and Transnational Threats.

The MSC 2019 also offered programmes for the next generation such as the Munich Young Leaders (MYL) programme, a joint endeavour of the MSC and the Körber Foundation that brings together young leaders in the fields of foreign and security policy. This year the MYL programme celebrated its 10th anniversary. The MYL 10th anniversary meeting will be held in New York ahead of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations in September.

The MSC 2019 also marked the inauguration of the John McCain Dissertation Award. The prize, established by the MSC and its academic partners, seeks to uphold the legacy of the late Senator John McCain and rewards research that can spur a continued conversation on foreign and security policy aspects of the transatlantic relationship.

Video recordings of all main panels are available in the MSC's media library. The Munich Security Report is available here.

The Munich Security Conference 2020 will take place from February 14 to 16.

20 February 2019, by MSC