For the eighth straight year, the Koerber Stiftung’s Munich Young Leaders (MYL) Program brought together twenty-five foreign and security policy professionals under the age of 40 for discussions with selected leaders at the 52nd Munich Security Conference. Initially meant to bridge the Cold War divide between East and West, the Stiftung itself has regularly brought together serious-minded professionals from around the world. By bringing together young leaders, the Stiftung’s program in Munich is a testing ground of a new approach to global order—one that a new generation of leaders will inherit.
Most of our discussions focused on the challenges to maintaining global order. Wolfgang Ischinger’s opening remarks at the conference were an appeal for “more Europe” and he cited the long list of challenges beyond its borders. He ultimately concluded the three days of morose discussions in Munich with an appeal to countries to think beyond the “bleak picture” of global security, including failures of governance at all levels and the “broken trust” between warring countries and civilian populations and the governments that supposedly represent them.
The conference’s themes spanned the globe with the notable exception of Latin America. Africa was included for the first time. China was the focus of a few discussions about East Asia, but much of the assembled leaders’ time was focused on Russia and the myriad challenges in the Middle East—above all, the Syrian and refugee crisis.
Fellow Munich Young Leader and former South African opposition leader Lindiwe Mazibuko made a stirring plea to those assembled to consider the future of a continent with over a dozen leaders over 70 who have held power for decades despite a young, disenfranchised population (the average age in Africa is 19).
MYL participant Dr. Wang Dong highlighted the growing Western anxiety about China’s role in global governance. In one of the most thoughtful panels of the entire conference (sponsored by the Mercator Institute for China Studies), the Chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs at the National People’s Congress contrasted her country’s conception of a broader-based “international order” with the predominantly U.S.-led “world order”—particularly its focus on democratic values and “exclusive military blocs.” However, the other panelists (U.S. Senator Bob Corker, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Singapore’s Minister of Defense Ng Eng Hen) agreed that China’s goals and its own definition of “values” remain opaque.
Whither Europe? Participants at the MSC could hardly remember a time when the fate of the entire European project seemed to hang in the balance. Would France and Germany take the lead in providing security in the Mediterranean region? Could Southeastern countries overcome the refugee crisis and maintain momentum toward European integration? Was a Brexit really likely? Would Russia’s continued use of military force forestall any progress in Ukraine and Syria?
Predictably, our discussions about the Middle East seemed to be about one crisis after another. A regional architecture to support peace seemed far from sight in light of the Sunni-Shia divide and the near total breakdown of social structure and political institutions. As my fellow MYL blogger Cale Salih pointed out, the regions’ leaders seem more intent in blaming and seeking relative advantage over each other than acting responsibly to preserve what is left of regional order and the prosperity of their people.
Two now familiar myths about the United States emerged in Munich. First, that the U.S. has become disinterested in Europe. Second, that it is actively disengaging itself from the world. Both are false, but it nonetheless seems that some American pundits’ self-defeating narrative about “decline” have been taken at face value by observers abroad.
In his summary of the first day of the Munich Security Conference, Carnegie’s Jan Techau was struck by the absence of any discussion about U.S. foreign policy despite the MSC typically being the “high mass” of transatlantic relations. This was especially surprising as the White House recently proposed to quadruple U.S. defense spending in Europe, a U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement in Syria had been announced the morning the conference opened, and Washington has dominated the military campaign against Daesh—the subject of several hours of discussion at the MSC main forum. Oddly enough, the most visible American presence was on a “night owl” session in health security—two U.S. generals, including former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Is the immense U.S. global footprint now being taken for granted? Unlikely. In private discussions in Munich, it was clear that Washington looms large whether it is an active player or not. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech was perhaps the most highly anticipated of the entire conference and his remarks were clearly intended to reassure European allies of the U.S. commitment to their security. While the French and German defense ministers expressed their willingness to take the initiative in addressing pressing international security challenges, this sounded flat given their countries’ limited role in shaping the U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement for Syria.
The Munich Young Leaders program explored today’s challenges with an eye toward the future. We brooded over the refuge crisis, the intractable conflict in Syria, and caught a glimpse of how much we could learn from each other’s national perspectives. How we define our common interests may help us explore the extent this can lead to collective action. Because if the current generation cannot act, the burden will only be left to another.
Parke Nicholson is the Senior Research Associate at AICGS. Read his blog posts from the Munich Security Conference here.