For almost half a century, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) has been a benchmark for the transatlantic community. The annual gathering has measured the temperature of worries about defense capabilities and threats, as well as about the health of NATO and the future of its mission. Yet during the past decade, the agenda of both speakers and listeners has moved well beyond the traditional parameters of NATO and the transatlantic theater to other areas and concerns.

Just as last year’s meeting in Munich was influenced by events in Egypt, this year’s MSC was shadowed by the continuing unrest in Syria and the threat of a nuclear Iran.  As the gathering in the Bayerische Hof watched the horror in Homs, the failed vote on Syria in the UN Security Council brought into focus the question–with no good answers–of what anyone could do to stop the bloodshed there or contain the danger of nuclear proliferation in the most dangerous region in the world.

Gathered in Munich were representatives of the most powerful armies and alliances in the world. They lectured and debated about solidarity and security, freedom and stability. Not all of the countries represented in Munich practice what was preached. Yet a forum for taking stock of how far or how near we are from a consensus on these values has been and remains an important window on progress (or lack of it).

There are many problems that have been with us for decades, such as nuclear weapons proliferation. Others are now combining to reshape the world’s agenda–be it climate change, the fragile global financial infrastructure, or the need for an effective form of global governance to respond to protecting what is referred to as the global commons.

Getting a handle on such mega trends is a challenge, and boiling them down to one issue is difficult.  Yet this year there was a particular moment at the conference when the debate was captured by one courageous woman, Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate and Chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains. In appealing to the world to help the oppressed Syrians and all those seeking bread, freedom, and dignity, she was also appealing for the courage to stand up–as she has–against brutal dictators. It was an emotional moment and one that dared to ask the entire gathering what they were really willing to stand for.

On the one hand, Karman, who is originally from Yemen, represented the voices of those suffering. And on the other, she represented the ability to speak truth to power even in the face of imminent danger. Still further, she was a symbol of the multidimensional nature of Islam and the variety of its forms emerging in a world where 25 percent of the world’s population is Muslim.

While most of the United States is currently transfixed by bitter presidential campaign theater, most of Europe remains immersed in its economic problems. The immediacy of the murders in the streets of Syria–and elsewhere–is visible each day. Yet there is a struggle to reach a consensus for action among those whose values are supposed to be reflected in alliances and associations of countries. That struggle reflects the continuing gap between rhetoric and reality.

The decision by Russia and China to use their vetoes in the Security Council this past weekend was presented as justified by their commitment to the sanctity of sovereignty and the belief that the violence in Syria was the fault of both government and opposition. References to the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were offered as evidence of the perils of intervening in the affairs of other states. The fact that Russia and China hide behind this mask is only evidence that they are afraid of their own fragile domestic situations and their standing hostility to external criticism.

During the MSC, the Turkish foreign minister suggested that the Security Council is still caught in the mind trap of the Cold War. This thought is reflected in the structure of a veto system that looks like the first few decades of the twentieth century, rather than the rapidly changing picture of today’s world, in which the realities of power are far more diversified among different global regions.

This same critique could be applied to the exchange of mantras between American and European leaders who testified to the continuing centrality of the transatlantic alliance, while the tectonic plates of global geopolitics move the positions of power and influence from west to east. The steadfast efforts of institutional survival underscored the need to maintain the relevance of NATO fifty-five years after its creation in a very different world from today. The uneven measures of commitment among NATO members, be it budgetary or political, remain evidence of an uncertain future of many institutions designed for a different environment.

Yet it is exactly the clarion call of Ms. Karman that confronts those interested in sustaining institutions, rather than asking how they can adjust and be relevant to today’s challenges.

Those challenges also include the rising tensions with Iran over its nuclear program. There were no representatives from Iran in Munich, but there was speculation about the status of Iranian uranium enrichment, the threats emanating from Israel about possible military strikes to stop it, and the totally unpredictable outcome of same. Here again, the unanswered questions in the room remained: How does one prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapon capability, or contain it if Iran succeeds? Again, what is the likelihood and the capability of a consensus with which to answer those questions? While the U.S. and the EU are ramping up sanctions, the consensus needs to include those countries in the region who would share in both the success of scaling down the prospects of war or suffer the horrendous consequences of one on their own doorsteps.

In the last century, the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union coined any number of concepts to define the conundrums we faced. One of them was MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, which defined the stand-off between the two nuclear giants. Another was Theater Nuclear Weapons, meaning those tactical nukes that would be used as a deterrent on the battlefields of Europe. The debate over such weapons prompted then German chancellor Helmut Schmidt to remind everyone that front-line Germany–along with other neighboring countries–was the theater of those nuclear weapons, and everyone in Europe would suffer catastrophic consequences if even one of those weapons was ever used.

Today, the primary theater of the threat of war is no longer in Europe. It is now elsewhere, and particularly in the volatile Gulf region where millions of people could face catastrophe if any form of war emerges.  Preventing that from happening surely must be in the primary interests of those who live there.

The Munich Security Conference–originally called the Wehrkunde conference–is one of the institutions that emerged as a product of a transatlantic community of interests and values in one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. Half a century later, it is part of a larger and very much changed environment with a constellation of global power more expansive and complicated than ever before. While the global institutions created after World War II were dominated by a small club of powers, their agendas are now being set by many more actors on the stage. That is a reflection of a world marked by new equations of global power and economic dynamism, as well as by a rising chorus of humanity demanding their share of the global goods.

That again includes the voice of Tawakkol Karman, representing that half of humanity–women–who have not been as empowered as have their male counterparts in the struggle for equality, regardless of where they live.

The global center of gravity is shifting again as it has done in past centuries. The tectonic plates of power and the expectations of billions are moving. Forging ways of understanding those changes is what is supposed to happen in meetings like these in Munich. However, it remains very much a work in progress.

  • K Bledowski

    The disappearance of immediate threats to the security of Europe has emerged as the game-changer for transatlantic security arrangements. At the margin, public perceptions about external security frame the tone of popular discourse and ultimately affect the direction of defense policy. And the truth is that the average European doesn’t feel threatened from outside – not by Iran, not by China or North Korea. The author argues that the average European should care: “[the] volatile Gulf region … could face catastrophe if any form of war emerges. Preventing that from happening surely must be in the primary interests of those who live there.” Yet opinion polls among Europeans consistently confirm that joint armies, defense strategies, and military resources rank last in any list of priorities in a future “political union”. While this is telling about the challenges of building one, these surveys confirm Europe’s ambivalence toward shaping the fate of its near abroad.

    In the end, there is little that the U.S. can do directly to change the attitudes of the Europeans. It is their continent and their security. At the same time, the willingness of Americans to underwrite Europe’s security has been drifting for almost a decade now. There may come a time, soon, when the Europeans find themselves with sole responsibility for defending themselves. I don’t know if this would be good for us and for Europe. Perhaps it should form a focal point for future deliberations in Munich.