• | 10:42 am

At Munich, Europe gazes inward but falters on regional security goals

The Munich Security Conference discussed Europe’s anxiety over China, Russia, and Donald Trump, but failed to come up with any answer.

At Munich, Europe gazes inward but falters on regional security goals
[Source photo: securityconference.org]

The Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2024 held in Germany on 17-18 February did not attract much media attention in India, and, perhaps, in the rest of the Global South also.

This lack of attention isn’t unexpected, given the MSC’s historical Euro-centric focus since its establishment in 1963, despite the rhetoric of globalization promoted by the West and advocacy for a rules-based global order.

Even as the war in Gaza continues with the grim toll crossing 30,000—if we include, as we should, the number of Israelis killed in the 7 October attack by Hamas—the MSC did not invite any representative of the Palestinian people or any eminent thinker who could put across their point of view, The Palestinians want to liberate themselves from Israeli occupation by establishing a State of Palestine. They have the support of Global South. Recently, some states in the North too have lent support.

Among those who have changed track in recent times is UK foreign secretary David Cameron, who said that it was time to recognize the State of Palestine. However, 10 Downing Street hastened to clarify that there was no change in the official UK policy.

A Russian perspective was also missing at the event. Despite the Eurocentric nature of the MSC, it would have made sense from a holistic standpoint to include speakers from Russia. How can there be a thorough discussion on security in and for Europe if Russia’s viewpoint is omitted from the discussion?

Germany is admired for its “thoroughness”, but the conflict in Ukraine has engendered in Germany, and elsewhere in the West, a certain mindset to demonize Russia, and hence a belief that Russia need not be present when security in Europe is discussed.

The MSC brings together presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, military leaders, intelligence officials, and corporate captains, who hold private meetings. But what comes out is the public discussions.

One of the highlights was a Q&A session with the foreign policy chiefs of India, the US, and Germany: S. Jaishankar, Anthony Blinken, and Annalena Baerbock, respectively.

Jaishankar asserted that India was not anti-West, but non-Western. He asked why anyone should be bothered if India availed of the options available, say, in purchasing oil.

Admitting that Europe had been remiss in the past in supporting democracy, such as during Nelson Mandela’s struggle against Apartheid, Baerbock asserted that democracies are capable of introspection, and therefore are able and willing to effect course correction.

Without mentioning Russia by name, she said that “some people do not want a piece of the pie but want to rob the whole bakery.”

To justify Germany’s decision to not call for a ceasefire earlier, she gave a rather convoluted reasoning, and even now her fresh call for a ceasefire sounded insincere. She seemed to care more for the 130 or so hostages held by Hamas in comparison to the thousands—29,000 and counting—of Palestinians killed by Israel with arms supplied by Germany and other allies.

Blinken focused on relations with China and repeated his standard formulation that his country would cooperate, contest, and confront China as required.

Asked why Washington did not want to consider stopping the weapons to Israel, he avoided a clear answer.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi in a public appearance with   warned the West that it would be making a ‘historical mistake’ if it sought to ‘decouple’ from China. In the previous edition of the MSC, there was much talk of decoupling with China. This year, however, the rhetoric of decoupling has come down.

Soon after the MSC concluded, China’s minister for public security Wang Xiaohong visited Hungary and offered to cooperate in security matters.

We may conclude that decoupling is not being pursued seriously by the West, given the pre-eminence of China as a geopolitical and geoeconomic power.

Like last year, the MSC this year was also dominated by the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded for more arms from the West and called for the release of the ‘stalled’ US military aid as his troops were being forced to withdraw.

“If your artillery (range) is 20 km, but Russia’s is 40 km, there is your answer,” Zelenskiy said.

As Europe has found out that it cannot match Russia in arms production, there was an emphasis on increasing Europe’s capacity.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission who is seeking another 5-year term, has been officially renominated by Germany’s center-right party CDU.

Speaking at the conference, she outlined a strategy aimed at spending more money for defense with more “efficient” spending, with joint procurement and agreements to give more ‘predictability’ to the industry.

The elephant in the room was Donald Trump, whose potential return to the White House in the November 2024 election is not unlikely.

Back at home, Trump suggested in a public statement that if a European NATO member wasn’t spending adequately on defense, he would encourage Russia to attack it. Europeans fear that Trump, if re-elected, might virtually walk out of NATO.

While there have been talks about increasing Europe’s defense capabilities, a plan for concrete action is missing.

In 2007, participating in the MSC, Putin had warned the West against NATO expansion to Ukraine and other countries neighboring Russia, a warning Washington ignored. Instead, the US in the last few years encouraged Zelenskyy to pursue NATO membership even though it was unlikely to happen. The US kept increasing military cooperation with Ukraine, ultimately provoking Russia into invading it in February 2022.

The key question is whether the MSC contributed to figuring out a realistic strategy for the security of Europe.

Regrettably, it has not, nor has it tried.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

More Top Stories: