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2018 Munich Security Conference: ‘To the Brim and Back?’

The world has moved away from the relative order of American hegemony and has become more unstable, more multi-polar and eroded along conflicting particularistic interests. Europe has become more divided, less certain of its power and bitterer towards itself. Such was the conclusion of 2017’s Munich Security Conference on the happenings of 2016. The world leader’s forum has been happening annually for 53 years already. It gathers prime ministers and diplomats, foreign ministers and generals to discuss global security, conflict and defence. From Netanyahu to Frederica Mogherini, everyone is there. This year’s conference concluded on 18 February. ‘To the Brim and Back?’ was this year’s motto. Somehow, the anxiety the world experienced in 2016 accelerated into many crises all over the world and now world leaders must ask themselves, whether they want to travel down the road of further escalation or turn towards relaxation. I have read the Conference’s report and got thoroughly depressed in the process, so I will save you the job. As a European student and inhabitant of this planet, peace’s future looks a bit … well, ambivalent. So, here is a brief presentation on Europe’s outlook on security.

To many commentators and journalists, 2017 was supposed to be the year of unifying the EU members’ defence policy after getting over the shock of the Brits abandoning ship and the anxiety of right-wing parties gaining ground. And yes, there were some minor agreements: The member states agreed to a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on security and defence in December; an unbinding, loose declaration of general intentions. Most countries’ leaders verbally voiced support for a common security policy. In fact, this seems to be the only thing that virtually all EU states can agree on, although Austria and Eastern Europe emphasise border control as part of that. However, nothing substantial has come into being and disappointed most observers. Neither the ‘Army of Europeans’ that Germany’s last defence minister dreams of, nor any unified forces of any extent were drafted or even conceptualised. Arguably, this has two reasons: Firstly, the Macron-Merkel axis does not prove as effective as prophesied, and the historical European integration motor just cannot seem to gather steam, since Germany has been paralysed in tedious coalition talks for months. since the September 2017 elections. Secondly, authoritarian impulses in Poland, proudly illiberal confessions of Hungary, the generally Brussels-defiant Visegrad-countries, and a general scepticism of EU leaders toward deeper integration have come close to stopping the Ever-Closer Union’s strut forward.

The 2018 Munich Security Conference attendees seemed to be pessimistic about Europe’s future military and diplomatic strength in international relations. All proponents of the European project will be hurting to realise this. This includes me, a twenty-year-old German student, who would not like to see Europe’s diplomatic weight fade into the fires of the world’s armed conflicts. While arguably few young people are fans of militarisation and arms races, I doubt anyone wants to see the EU become an immobile international actor. It runs the risk to lose its initiative, engages a habit of merely reacting to crisis after crises; be it terror, Russian expansionism, China’s military rise or Turkey’s solo-adventure into Syria. In my view, Europe, and I deliberately include the UK, must regain assertiveness and, in blunt terms, regain power – both diplomatic and defensive. If this continent is perpetually occupied with politics at home and fails to control and direct the challenging storms of global politics, sooner or later it will indeed “not survive as a vegetarian in a world of carnivores” – in that point, I must agree with Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel’s words.

Apparently, Theresa May, Britain’s charming premier, agrees, too. She gave in Munich one of her notoriously riveting speeches. While rhetorically stale as usual, I could hear the half-desperate, half-reassuring tone of her statement. She propagated an “ever-closely” security cooperation after Brexit, all the while quietly admitting to yet another demand of the EU’s negotiation team; that in military cooperation, the UK would respect the European Court of Justice. Oops.

Instead, I would like to see a properly tackled European defence program, the likes of which were attempted in 1950, as the European Defense Community came a hair’s inch close to be ratified as a quasi-European Army. The motivation back then was the outbreak of the Korean War. The world is at least as dangerous right now as it was then, especially since American, Iranian and Chinese nuclear proliferation have risen again. Because Europe cannot morally or militarily afford to be dragged into any NATO-wide conflict, independent, united European defence is direly needed now. As a European and German citizen, I would support it. Would you?

The Munich Security Conference 2018 was exciting, albeit in a frightening way. This blog only talked about Europe, but Israel’s Netanyahu, Russia’s Sergej Lavrov, NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. all left us with food for thought and reason to worry. The 2018 Report especially singled out Chinese-Trumpian interests as the most uncertain variables in the world’s peace equation. Stay updated to The Diplomat for a follow-up on that topic. Here’s to conflict resolution, dialogue and international relaxation! Everybody should just take a chill pill.

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