Food for Thought: "Who will pick up the pieces?"
"At the Munich Security Conference 2019, we have to think about how we can preserve the core pieces of the international order," writes MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger.
This weekend I will once again welcome high-ranking decision-makers in Munich to discuss the state of peace and security in the world – or rather the growing lack thereof. And this conference could become one of the most crucial ones of this decade. This is not least because more than 100 heads of state and government and ministers will participate, which would set a new record. But more importantly, in 2019 we will witness the impact of a number of escalating security developments.
The whole liberal world order appears to be falling apart – nothing is as it once was. When Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and started the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, many considered him to be the major cause of global destabilisation. Nobody could have known that just a few years later the US President, of all people, would seriously challenge the current international order. Donald Trump questions free trade just like he questions the Western set of values or NATO. This has massive consequences – not just for us Europeans.
However, in many ways Trump is more of a symptom of change than its cause. The global security situation is more dangerous today than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are experiencing an epochal shift; an era is ending, and the rough outlines of a new political age are only beginning to emerge. No matter where you look, there are countless conflicts and crises – crises that greatly affect us Europeans.
One of the most terrible examples is the conflict in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed there over the last couple of years, just 125 kilometers away from Cyprus, an EU member state. And we continue to receive news about the use of chemical weapons and further atrocities. Syria is one of the many ongoing internationalised conflicts, meaning wars that began with violence between local actors but incrementally drew in more and more external powers. In recent years, these types of wars have increased dramatically in number. They are often not only excessively bloody but also extremely difficult to resolve. Yemen is another example of such a terrible war, in which regional powers are heavily invested: Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other.
Apart from these current crises, there are "permanent" hotspots, such as the near-continuous military conflict between Turkey and the PKK, the unresolved conflicts in regions such as Nagorno-Karabakh or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, inter-ethnic tensions in the Western Balkans including the still-disputed status of Kosovo, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, there are countries, which after traumatising and only strenuously resolved civil wars are trying to reestablish stable forms of government. Yet these old conflicts still simmer below the surface and could erupt again at any point, for instance in Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Chad, Congo, or Sri Lanka.
Terrorist attacks are another global problem. Over the last years, most of these attacks occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, and Syria. Fortunately, Germany has not been a major target so far. Nevertheless, even here we recently experienced terrorist attacks ranging from the insidious murders committed by the right-wing extremist National Socialist Underground to severe Islamist attacks. The perceived fear may be greater than the actual danger, but German concerns regarding the chaotic global situation are indeed valid. Fukushima, Ebola, and climate change are just a few examples beyond traditional security issues that pose serious threats to human lives.
Not only do war and violence play a more prominent role again: a new great power confrontation looms at the horizon. In contrast to the early 1990s, liberal democracy and the principle of open markets are no longer uncontested. China has developed a form of authoritarian state capitalism, which successfully lifted large parts of its population out of poverty and into moderate prosperity. Particularly due to its economic success, the Chinese leadership is brimming with confidence and even promotes its system to be emulated by other states. And all this is possible despite the fact that democracies are far more capable to fight corruption, social marginalisation, or obstacles to fair economic competition. The track record of autocratic regimes is much worse in this regard, not even mentioning human rights considerations.
Russia, too, has long since abandoned the path towards becoming a liberal and democratic constitutional state. Genuine political opposition, a free press, or a vibrant civil society are not even permitted there. And yet the idea of strong leadership appears to be growing more attractive, not only in Russia, but elsewhere in the world as well. Even in the European Union there are advocates of a so-called 'illiberal' democracy. They want to restrict freedom of speech and the press, condemn an allegedly unchecked EU bureaucracy in Brussels or resort to plain xenophobia. Fueling a general sense of fear, they seek refuge in outdated calls for nationalism.
In this international environment, the risk of an inter-state war between great and middle powers has clearly increased. With this in mind, I decided to host the Munich Security Conference 2018 under the theme "To the brink – and back?" What we had been observing in many places around the world was a dramatic increase in brinkmanship, that is, highly risky actions on the abyss – the abyss of war.
Unfortunately, this situation has not improved over the last year – quite the contrary. From climate protection and free international trade to respect for human rights and the inviolability of national borders: the core pieces of the international order are breaking apart, without it being clear whether anyone can pick them up – or even wants to. Who will pick up the pieces – that will be the defining question at the Munich Security Conference 2019. I hope that we will come closer to an answer – and thus prevent a situation in which not much may be left to pick up.
This opinion piece was originally published in German under the title "Und wer sammelt die Scherben auf?" in the German daily Berliner Morgenpost.