The Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2020 welcomed numerous high-ranking international decision-makers, including more than 30 heads of government and heads of state, as well as nearly 100 cabinet ministers. Among the participants were French President Emmanuel Macron, German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, and Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
At the heart of this year’s conference was the state of the West and a wide-spread perception of “Westlessness.” The term, coined by the Munich Security Report 2020, refers to a divided and in some parts increasingly illiberal West that seems to be retreating from the global stage. While the term pervaded debates in Munich, differences quickly emerged: most importantly, the state of the West and the extent of its crisis were assessed somewhat differently on both sides of the Atlantic. While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Western liberal values were “winning” and relegated transatlantic disagreements to the level of tactics, his European counterparts seemed much more concerned. They voiced disquiet about the state of Western unity and, like French President Emmanuel Macron, attested a growing inability of the West to shape the international order in line with its values. By contrast, the size of the Chinese threat to the Western community was perceived as much more pronounced by US representatives than their European peers.
Many participants also voiced a desire to define the West not as a geographic entity but as a normative project of values. According to them, the Western idea is alive when and where actors commit to individual freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law. Understood in these terms, the West extends well beyond North America and Europe. And countries beyond the traditional West become important guardians of the “Western” idea. This point was also stressed by the Foreign Ministers of the Republic of Korea and India, Kang Kyung-wha and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. With more people living in non-Western than in Western democracies, Europe and the United states need to heavily invest in alliances that stretch beyond the traditional West.
The debates in Munich were permeated by strong concern about rising nationalist forces in many parts of the world. Mounting nationalism, many speakers argued, was at the core of the growing inability of the international community to tackle the most urgent international threats. The dire consequence, MSC Chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger argued in his welcome remarks, is “an unacceptable state of global insecurity.” Since challenges like transnational organized crime or global epidemics like the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) can only be addressed in cooperation, a retreat to narrowly defined national interests puts all of our future at risk. Against this background, the debates in Munich saw global leaders like Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, urge their peers to step up the defense of the rules-based international order, re-empower multilateral institutions that are able to effectuate compromise, and bolster global policies that put human dignity first.
Strengthening Europe’s role in the world was seen as core to all of these efforts. On the main stage, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier powerfully made the case for the European project. And in the main hall, representatives of European member states and the European Union vividly discussed how Europe could more effectively protect its citizens and values at home and better project stability and liberal-democratic principles abroad. In this regard, Berlin’s role is key. Six years after their public commitment in Munich for Germany to assume more responsibility for international security, German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed the obligation to turn the “Munich consensus of words” into a “Munich consensus of action”.
Climate change was yet another key topic at the conference. The “defining issue of our time,” as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it, surfaced in almost every discussion. With the harmful effects increasingly visible and palpable everywhere in the world, the discussion about climate change has firmly entered the security community. The threat perception was also reflected in participants’ language – most visibly in the words of Jennifer Morgan, Director of Greenpeace International, who branded fossil fuels as “weapons of mass destruction.” Yet, to many participants efforts to tackle climate change remained the prime example of a multilateralism that is not delivering on the kind of changes people demand.