The Bavarian royal court lacks space for a growing Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has long been held at the hotel in the southern German city. Experienced participants note that the MSC used to fit in a single room. Today, delegations from around the world, followed by hordes of security guards and the press, elbow their way through crowded aisles and fight for vacancies in lobbies and lounges.
The Bayerischer Hof in Munich is struggling to contain a growing MSC as it seeks to include more viewpoints from around the worldImage: William Noah Glucroft/DW
For Christoph Heusgen, former advisor to ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel and chair of this year’s conference, the growing number of participants is a sign of inclusion in the annual, western-oriented meeting of foreign policy elites. He announced this year’s focus on the voices and needs of the “Global South,” an inclusive term for what most of humanity calls simple home.
“North-South, South-North cooperation is key,” he said, initiating a panel discussion on the topic.
But from the main stage to the sidelines, critics have pointed to fundamental flaws in the “world order” that complicate cooperation and perpetuate power imbalances between the world’s rule-makers and rule-takers. Western leaders themselves say they want to address them as they face a growing list of crises that require multilateral settlement.
This requires a “critical look at the institutions” that the West itself has created, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told the audience shortly after Heusgen left the stage.
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“Many of the political institutions that govern the world today were created to solve post-war problems,” Akufo-Addo said. “The Problems of Rebuilding and Revitalizing Europe After the Devastation of World War II.”
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo (seated, front left) tells an MSC panel including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates that the tools of global finance must change if the “world order” today serves the needs of more countries should be : William Noah Glucroft/DW
African, Asian and Latin American countries, many of which had previously been European colonies, were largely left out in the post-war period. The United Nations itself, with many smaller states flocking around it in hopes of keeping the more powerful in check, is a reflection of the world in 1945.
After eight decades, cracks in the status quo are hard to ignore. A world order built on Euro-Atlantic needs has helped feed the sense that “Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz in his MSC -Speech and quoted the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
“He’s right,” added Scholz.
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Russia’s war against Ukraine and the mixed global response to it have brought this inequality to the fore. As talks at the MSC demonstrated, this has rarely weighed more heavily on Western powers than it is now as they seek broader support to isolate Russia and confront Moscow’s ally China.
Give and take
To get it, countries around the world — some of which have become powers in their own right — are looking for support in return. Throughout the MSC, participants expressed frustration at Western deafness to climate change, debt relief, healthcare, and food and energy security, while being urged to care more about Ukraine’s fate or American dominance in the Pacific.
The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest transnational crisis to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many countries that are broadly part of the Global South. They howl hypocrisy as the wealthy North has largely failed to practice the liberal values of free trade and open markets that it has preached for decades. Inequalities in responding to the pandemic, such as Other issues, such as vaccine supplies, are one reason some governments are reconsidering their relationships.
“Partners are less interested in building these relationships than the West would have thought,” Daniela Schwarzer, executive director of the Open Society Foundations for Europe and Eurasia, told DW. “And if they’re interested in business, they’re much more aware of their own strengths.”
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Meanwhile, China offers a competing worldview that Schwarzer says, while rife with its own contradictions and false promises, has become an alternative.
“There is a large group of intermediate countries that of course do not fall into the western camp,” said Schwarzer.
More complicated than “Cold War”
These dynamics may sound to some like a new Cold War, with China taking the place of the Soviet Union and a cluster of non-aligned countries sitting between Western, democratic, and Eastern, authoritarian blocs. This is broadly the view of US President Joe Biden, broadly endorsed by the MSC in a report released ahead of the conference.
“It’s natural to try to judge things based on your knowledge and experience,” Tobias Lindner, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, told DW. “I think what’s happening now is something new.”
While US policy appears to be converging around a bipartisan hawkish stance on China, the German view is “more nuanced,” Lindner said. Despite fundamental differences, “we have to take into account that some of the world’s challenges, such as the climate crisis, can only be solved with China.”
“It means that we also have to define spaces where there is an option for partnerships, taking into account this systemic rivalry,” he added.
It remains an open question whether the European Union can develop its own position on China, as the US is urging its allies to reduce its dependence and taking the close ties with Russia as a warning. China was Germany’s biggest trading partner for goods in 2021, according to the Foreign Office, which describes China as a “key partner in Europe”.
“China is changing the rules of the game”
break with the past
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, German officials have traveled to cement ties that span the democratic-autocratic divide. The doubling of the global reach has just as much to do with the realpolitik of securing the energy supply and economic growth as it does with high-minded statements about the universality of “many values of the international, rule-based order,” said Lindner.
“The worst thing you can do is continue to care about bilateral relations with some countries, if that’s the case [only] suits your purpose,” he added.
Whether and how to build something new was a central question in Munich. Western leaders have expressed hope that their counterparts in countries at the receiving end of the world’s “rules” are not guided by a sense of historical injustice, justified as it may be.
One way to demonstrate a break with the past, according to Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, executive director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, is for these countries to take an active role in shaping the future.
“We shouldn’t put it through the prism, when we take a stand, we take a stand on the West,” she told DW from Johannesburg in front of the MSC. “We take a stand for certain principles.”
As a country like South Africa takes its place in the world, the rules it abides by should be a more important consideration than its feelings towards the US.
“What Russia has done is wrong,” she said, reason enough to condemn the war.
Edited by: J. Wingard