Western leaders used a gathering of global elites in Munich to argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine posed a threat not just to Europe but to the entire world. There was little evidence that their message got through.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, a group of senior US and European officials sought to convince the rest of the world of the threat posed to them by President Vladimir Putin’s invasion – and to show them that the blame rests with the world’s higher Food and energy prices are close to Moscow.
US Vice President Kamala Harris said “no nation is safe” in a world where “one country can violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the “neo-colonial, imperialist” Russian invasion was not “just a European war”. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was everyone’s problem if “the law of the strongest prevailed in international relations”.
But their attempts to portray war in universal terms met with some well-known replies.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said the conflict was a “very sad situation” and stressed his government “regrets” the invasion.
But in a message that contradicted the stance of Western participants who called for determination to wage a long war in Ukraine, Vieira added: “It’s been a year now. We must try to build up the possibility of a solution. We can’t always just talk about war.”
Left to right: French President Emmanuel Macron, Polish President Andrzej Duda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz address the media during their bilateral meeting © Johannes Simon/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Organizers of the annual gathering in the Bavarian city were proud that this year’s event had a record number of participants from countries in the so-called Global South, although it continued to be dominated by officials from Europe and the US.
Frustration was palpable among some leaders of African and South American nations that the war in Ukraine, entering its second year on Friday, was sapping the West’s time, money and attention at the expense of other pressing issues.
Francia Márquez, the vice-president of Colombia, said her country wanted Europe’s help to fight the effects of climate change and protect the Amazon rainforest. “We don’t want to continue discussing who will be the winner or loser of a war,” she said. “We are all losers and in the end it is humanity that loses everything.”
Namibian Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was asked why her country – along with China, India and 32 other nations – abstained from a UN resolution in October in which 143 countries outlawed the Russian annexation of several Ukrainian regions.
She said Namibia was focused on “solving the problem, not blaming it”. She added: “The bottom line is that money spent on buying arms would be better used to support development in Ukraine, in Africa, in Asia and in the EU itself, where many people are facing hardships.”
Western officials said bilateral meetings with global South leaders on the sidelines of the conference showed a much greater preoccupation with issues such as inflation, debt, higher energy prices and food security than the war in Ukraine. There is also lingering resentment at the West’s disappointing record of sharing coronavirus vaccines and compensating them for the damage caused by climate change.
Christoph Heusgen, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, gives his closing statement on Sunday © Sven Hoppe/dpa
Meanwhile, in a speech on Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledged the West’s own problematic past and referred to European colonialism in Africa and Western support for dictatorships in Latin America. “People have memories and people have feelings,” he said. “We need to get more involved and show that we defend universal values.”
Comfort Ero, president of the conflict-prevention organization Crisis Group, hailed what she described as a “significant effort” by the West to respond to criticism that it is subjecting other countries to a “loyalty test” towards Ukraine and not listening to their concerns. “Talking is important. Listening is important,” she says. “The key will be how that translates into actual political commitment and practical results.”
Ero added that it was important not to lump countries together, noting that South Africa abstained in last year’s UN vote on Russia’s annexations, but Ghana and Nigeria abstained on a number of African ones belonged to nations that would have voted for it.
In addition to the tensions between Beijing and Washington, China’s position on the conflict was the focus of the gathering in Munich. Amrita Narlikar, president and professor at the German Institute for Global and Regional Studies in Hamburg, said European and American officials had better crack down on China’s “very clever” portrayal as part of the Global South. where it presents itself as a partner helping nations maintain their sovereignty and advance development.
Narlikar said a peace plan for the Ukraine conflict that Beijing has promised to release in the coming days – sparking skepticism among European and US officials – would likely not only target the West. “Equally important, the global South is expected to be the audience,” she said.
“If China were to present its vision of a Russia-Ukraine peace dialogue and emphasize the global economic costs of a protracted war, it would garner significant support from much of the global South.
“The West needs to pull itself together and build more inclusive and winning narratives,” she added.