This year’s edition of the annual Munich Security Conference, called the “Davos of defence” by the UK Financial Times in a recent article, was held from 17 to 19 February at the luxurious Bayerischer Hof in Munich in Germany.
It was created in 1963 at the height of the Cold War by a former officer in the German army with its main interest being military affairs. Over the ensuing decades, the conference became a must to discuss world security, diplomatic, and political affairs.
Initially, it was mainly a transatlantic forum, but it has since grown into an international one where the enemies of yesterday and the adversaries of today have got together for brainstorming sessions and to listen to world leaders explaining their respective positions on international affairs. It has been a venue for the balanced presentation of opposing approaches to international questions and crises.
This year’s Conference marked a break with the professionalism that has long been its main characteristic. One year into the war in Ukraine, the administration of the conference decided not to invite Russia and Iran, the former because of its “war of aggression” against Ukraine and the latter because of its brutal suppression of the popular demonstrations that engulfed the country from September to November 2022.
Chair of the conference Christoph Heusgen, seeking to defend an unjustifiable decision, said that “no one expect us to offer [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, who is basically Putin’s mouthpiece, a forum for his propaganda.” He doubled down on this point by saying that the war that Russia unleashed in February 2022 represented what he has called a “rupture with civilisation.”
This year, the conference thus hosted mostly US and European leaders. The US was represented by Vice-President Kamala Harris and a large delegation including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the largest congressional delegation to attend since the conference was established.
However, the guest who drew the most attention was not the expected figure of the president of Ukraine, but instead was Wang Yi, director of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and former Chinese foreign minister.
To the credit of the Chinese government, Wang Yi was probably the only leader present at this year’s conference who spoke openly of peace in Ukraine, unlike the other leaders, most of them from Western countries, who did not offer any glimpse of hope that they would seek a way forward towards peace.
Instead, they talked about shipping more weapons to Ukraine. They did their best to paint the Russia of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a major threat to European security and international security on the grounds that Russia had upended what the Western leaders like to call “the rules-based international order.”
One possible exception was French President Emmanuel Macron, who had not previously ruled out sending fighter planes to Ukraine and said in Munich that peace would eventually come. But he did not provide any details or ideas in this regard.
By contrast, Wang Yi told the conference that China would announce a peace proposal in the next few days and reiterated the Chinese opposition to the threat of the use of nuclear weapons while repeating the opposition of China to threats to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.
Both US Vice-President Harris and Secretary of State Blinken warned Beijing against providing military assistance to Russia. Blinken told Wang Yi that there would be “serious consequences” for US-Chinese relations if China assisted Russia militarily.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was among the first European leaders to address the conference, and to the surprise of many he sounded as if war was the only avenue possible in response to the crisis. Listening to him asking the other European countries to provide German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks for Ukraine would have made many people curious about the possible reasons for the German about-face.
Some weeks ago, Scholz came under enormous official and media pressure from across the Atlantic community of nations to provide Ukraine with one of the most-advanced battle tanks in the European arsenal. His country later decided to send 14 tanks after the US also consented to ship some US-made tanks to Ukraine.
Three things stand out from the 2023 Munich Security Conference. The first and most important in terms of international peace and security was the meeting that brought together Blinken and Wang Yi on 18 February.
The second was the formal accusation made by US Vice-President Harris that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine. The third was that the West and NATO are bracing themselves for a long and protracted war in Ukraine in the absence of any discernible hint that peace could be possible between Russia and Ukraine.
Maybe a tweet by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was an exception when she tweeted that the war “must end as soon as possible. But not in a dictated peace.” This was one glimmer of hope, albeit a small one, from the Munich Security Conference this year.
But no one asked the question of what the world will look like if the war in Ukraine is still raging when the next Munich Conference convenes in 2024. Maybe Macron, who said in his remarks at this year’s conference that Russia “must be defeated” but “not crushed,” has an answer to this question?
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly