Munich Security Conference

Authors: Anton Bendarjevsky, Viktor Eszterhai, László Gere, Péter Klemensits, Eszter Polyák

The world’s most significant security policy meeting, also dubbed as the Davos of themes on foreign affairs, the 53rd Munich Security Conference, was held from 17 to 19 February 2017.[i].

[i] A kifejezést Rogen Cohen használja a konferenciáról szóló beszámolójában. Forrás: Coen, R. (2017) The Russification of America. In: The New York Times, 17. 02. 2017.

More than 500 invited participants, including 47 foreign ministers and 30 defence ministers, joined the event for discussions on major international security challenges.

The most important topics of this year’s event included:

  • The Future of the European Union: United or Divided?
  • The Future of the West: Downfall, or Comeback?
  • The Future of NATO: “Obsolete” or “Very Important”?
  • Health Security: Small Bugs, Big Bombs
  • Climate Security: Good COP, Bad cops
  • Countering Radical Extremism and Terrorism
  • Pacific No More? Security in East Asia and the Korean Peninsula
  • The Fault Lines of Eurasia
  • Att(h)acking Democracy
  • US Foreign Policy: A Congressional Debate
  • Syria: Meddling Through

For more than fifty years, with the participation of more than 500 decision-makers and leading politicians, Munich has been hosting an annual event to discuss major issues of international foreign and security policies, the Munich Security Conference (MSC). It was Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger who, as last year, chaired the event this year, and the list of participants included Senator John McCain; Boris Johnson, Secretary of States for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, United Kingdom;  Petro Poroshenko, President, Ukraine; Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor, Germany; Michael Pence, Vice President of the USA; António Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations; Sergey Lavrov, Minister of foreign Affairs, Russia; Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister, Iraq; Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, China; Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia;  Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu Minister of Foreign Affairs, Turkey; and Bill Gates.

Without doubt, the presidency of Donald Trump and the related security policy insecurities and challenges dominated the agenda of this year’s Munich Security Conference, inflecting every discussion on Syria, Russia or China. Russia was the second most frequently discussed topic of the Conference held from 17 to 19 February. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met on Friday. Although the meeting did not produce any real results, the parties discussed the situation in Ukraine, and both admitted the need for dialogue.

Russia in the Fore

At the very beginning of the conference, the tone of the debates on Russia was set by the speech of US Vice President Michael Pence, who was rather assertive, in contrast with Trump’s Russian rapprochement, which seemed to surprise Moscow’s representative, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The US VP said the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable for the conflict and demand that they honor the Minsk Agreements. Pence argued the security challenges posed by Russia’s aggression cannot be ignored, even as the USA is searching for new common ground. Regarding Ukraine, Pence promised a firm commitment and consistency. In the conference, Michael Pence also signalled to the NATO allies of the USA:  the US VP reminded everyone of a minimum security commitment of two percent of their gross domestic product on defence.  As of this moment, only five of the 28 NATO members meet this basic standard of two per cent. Washington, in line with Donald Trump’s earlier remarks, was going to be a lot tougher about insisting everyone met their obligations, which also means significant increases in Europe’s military spending in the coming years, if the commitment of the two per cent of the GDP on defence is fulfilled.

Several other US Senators delivered speeches at the conference, stressing that the Senate would object and prevent Trump’s foreign policy towards Russia, no matter what it indicates. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, promised that Congress will press ahead with a bill to sanction Russia for interfering in the U.S. presidential election with hacking attacks. Graham said if the American head of state did not take necessary action, the Senate would. Senator Chris Murphy reiterated the point that Russia had paid very little price and would be held accountable.

Michael Pence’s critical speech—especially in the light of Trump’s earlier statements—might have surprised the Kremlin. Soon after the speech, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, the Federation Council also responded, and, according to the Financial Times, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister seemed disappointed during his speech delivered in Munich. The Federation Council thinks the US stance “gives Kyiv the opportunity to perpetually sabotage the Minsk Agreements”.

The Russian Foreign Minister, who spoke after the American Vice President, did not really hide his disappointment. He was in a difficult situation, since it had been unknown what position the US foreign policy would take alongside Trump’s statements suggesting rapprochement, thus after Pence’s speech he even needed to improvise. That is why he ironically said, Russia “will not lift its sanctions against the European Union until the Minsk agreements are implemented.”

Lavrov also mentioned the Cold War in his speech, arguing that NATO remained a Cold War institution.

“It is said that wars start in people’s heads, but according to this logic, it is also in people’s heads that they should end. This is not the case yet with the Cold War. Some statements by politicians in Europe and the United States seem to confirm this particularly clearly”, Lavrov said in Munich. Lavrov also stressed that the NATO expansion had created a level of tension in Europe unseen in the last thirty years. With regard to the United States, he said, “we want relations based on pragmatism, mutual respect, and understanding of our special responsibility for global stability.”

Despite Donald Trump’s conciliatory statements, the United States took several actions against Russia in the last two months. On 29 December, in the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled from the country and two facilities of Russian diplomacy were closed (by reference to intelligence activities).

The last time an anti-Russia action was taken had been on 16 February: a bill that would give lawmakers 120 days to block any move to lift anti-Russian sanctions using a congressional oversight mechanism based was submitted to the US Senate, and would adopt President Obama’s decrees imposing anti-Russian sanctions (the most important provisions of the sanctions were stipulated by four presidential decrees). This would block lifting the sanctions, which was hinted by Donald Trump.

Most of the speech delivered by Angela Merkel, who was also present at the Munich Conference, was also centred around Russia. The German Chancellor thinks, for the interests of Germany, it would be very important to restore good relations with Russia, but the principle on which the European peaceful order has been based since the second world war, the territorial integrity of nation-states shall not be ignored. Russia violated exactly this extremely important principle with the annexation of Crimea.

„ we (…) have not been able to establish stable and permanently good relations with Russia in the past 25 years. But Russia is also a neighbouring country of the European Union. Russia is situated at our external border and is a neighbour of ours”, said Merkel at the Conference.

“Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-World Order?”

Before the Conference, the Munich Security Conference Foundation published its annual report on key issues in international security in Europe and the world.[ii]The report says the international security environment is arguably more volatile today than at any point since the second world war.

The authors consider 2017 crucial for Europe. Donald Trump does not care about Europe; he regards the European Union as a project intended to counter US influence. Should the Trump administration strike a meaningful deal with Moscow, this will not bring peace, but make war more likely, the report highlights.

The Future of Europe and the Transatlantic Partnership

Europeans paid particular attention to the controversial relationship between new American administration and the European Union. As German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger also stressed, one of the most important tasks for this conference is explaining the value and the resilience of European integration to the Trump administration. The European standpoint was represented most explicitly by Angela Merkel, who—as a response to American criticism—insisted on the relevance of international organisations, and argued for enhancing the efficiency of the UN, the NATO and the EU. The Chancellor thinks Europe alone cannot effectively address today’s challenges, such as Islamist terrorism, and it needs the alliance with and the support of the United States. She stressed that developing the defence capability of the EU is a matter of great urgency, but it can never be seen as an alternative to NATO, thus the significance of Transatlantic relationships is beyond question.

Merkel also reasserted that the increase of military budgets of NATO member countries is a target, and reassured American Vice President Michael Pence that by 2024 Germany would significantly increase its defence spending; for example, it had increased it by eight per cent in this year’s budget over last year. (At present, the German government is spending 1.2 per cent of the budget on defence.)

Regarding Islamist terrorism, Merkel explained that Muslim countries should be included in the coalition to fight against terrorism, but expects them to distance from terrorist actions, while she regards taking in refugees Europe’s responsibility.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, agreed with Merkel that only the Transatlantic alliance is able to address security challenges effectively, and a strong Europe is unconceivable without the USA’s support. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, talked about the close cooperation of the NATO and the EU, highlighting that 42 joint projects had been lunched in the past seven months, aiming at resolving complex security issues ranging from cyberspace to maritime security.

Most European politicians agreed that the goal is to create a feasible, constructive cooperation with the USA, that is maintaining good relationships. The suggestion made by German Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel had a cold reception; he suggested that, under the current circumstances, the EU should prepare for a disengagement with the USA, and therefore should take its fate in its hands, and take action to strengthen the organisation. In the opinion of the majority, however, it would harm Transatlantic relationships and may provoke the USA’s dislike.

Brexit fundamentally affects the joint European defence. Great Britain and Germany attempted to find a solution for this problem within the framework of a bilateral project. As Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon and Germany’s Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen agreed, the most important goal is to maintain a close defence cooperation with the United Kingdom later as well, since it is a common interest, and it would be rather unfortunate to charge the costs to other EU Member States.

In the discussions, Europe’s future was a central theme; however, like the World Trade Forum held at Davos, the participants had a heated debate, primarily about the integration and the division between the interests of nation-states. Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission talked about diverse societies and shared values, stressed the necessity of complying with EU resolutions, and warned that the independent paths of nation-states were not viable any more.

Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s Foreign Minister, however, would expect Brussels to respect national constitutions, and advocated preserving sovereignty. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s Finance Minister, and Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania tried to mediate between the parties during the discussion, and praised the merits of integration, regarding its continuation essential.

Norbert Lammert, President of the German Bundestag also said that no national state was in a position to overcome problems alone. He regards the growing strength of nationalism and populism in Europe a great threat, which should be countered with facts and tenacity.

China: New Leading Major Power of the World

The statement by Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, was a smartly formulated message, portraying China, pursuing its national interests, as a responsible major power committed to resolve the problems of the international community, consciously contrasting it with the United States of America, which was perceived as more of a challenge also at the Munich Security Conference. Wang repeated President Xi Jinping’s message communicated at the World Economic Forum in 2017: China thinks the time has come to take the role of the world’s leader.

In his statement, Wang listed the challenges that the world is facing: terrorism, weak world economy, growing geopolitical tensions, the migration crisis, the setback in the globalisation process, etc. He highlighted that a growing number of people blamed globalisation for these problems, recommending isolation and protectionism as a remedy. Others think the major cause for the problems is the lack of world order, and propose the creation of a new international order.  Another frequently voiced standpoint is that the tension between the great cultures of the world has extremely grown and it will end up with a clash of

civilizations. And finally, there are some people who think that the conflict of interests between emerging and status quo major states will inevitably result in war.

If the international community chose a wrong pathway for the problems above, the world would be bound to be marching towards war, Wang argued. Therefore, an adequate leader is required, and this leader is China.

What is this standpoint based on? First, Wang mentioned China’s long row of diverse historical experiences on development, enabling it to adequately address the challenges. Second, China has the resources that the leadership role requires. Third, the country is determined to actively participate in shaping international politics. So, the question arises: what is China’s approach to the above-mentioned problems?

First, repeating Xi’s speech delivered in Davos, Wang argued that globalisation was an irreversible trend. Countries, therefore, should have an open attitude and not a protectionist one. Not only did Wang flick at the US leadership, but he also kept China’s interests in mind. For the Chinese economy, which is still strongly dependent on export, growing mercantilism and isolation may mean a serious blow. Wang called attention to the fact that the international community should not be afraid of globalisation, because together they could shape it.

Second, Wang took a stand for maintaining the world order that was built after the second world war. He also aimed at reassuring the international public opinion, hinting that the world order led by China would not be completely unknown to the other countries. It is China’s national interest to stick to the existing international order: this order has benefits for the country that have been ensuring its dynamic economic growth for decades. Nonetheless, Wang claimed, he did not believe in the end of history and in development having one single model only; thus, he did not state that China, while maintaining the international order, would not want to shape it along its interests (for more on the topic, see Fu Ying’s speech delivered at the Munich Security Conference in 2016).

Wang called upon the international community to combat problems, for which all the tools are at our disposal. What are these tools?

1) Multilateralism, with its top product, the UN. Wang thinks the root cause of the problem is that UN principles are not implemented. The UN should not be discarded but strengthened and made more efficient.  Although he dismisses, by reference to China’s experiences throughout history, the opportunity of a hegemonic international system, multilateralism would actually mean the weakening of the leadership role of the USA and, simultaneously, the increase of China’s significance.

2) Transforming the cooperation between major powers. Although states are legally equal, larger states have more resources and capabilities, and consequently more responsibility and obligations, to play a greater role.  China is such a major power, Wang argued. He does not deduct it from China’s international role, but is also sending a message to the USA: China is willing to cooperate with the Trump administration. Again, a kind of dual strategy can be seen here: on the one hand, he argues for China’s new, chosen role, but also defends China’s own national interests with the message conveyed to the USA. When talking about the cooperation of major powers, Wang highlighted the good relationships with Russia and the EU, which obviously strengthens the previous factor, multilateralism, decreasing the role of the USA.

3) Global governance. According to Wang, the imbalances in world economy (e.g. poverty, unemployment, widening income gaps) can be addressed only with cooperation on a global level. Wang argues that “joint development” may be the new basis for development.  International cooperation in the field of innovation would undoubtedly give a significant push to China’s own national development programme, increasingly built on R&D and innovation. In addition, Wang also calls attention to the fact that the role of emerging countries should be enhanced in global governance. Here, China does not just warn of a real dysfunction, because the support of emerging countries would further improve the positions of China, which often refers to itself as the leader of emerging countries.

4) Regional cooperation. Wang claims regional cooperation is still needed, despite its initial throwbacks. In his opinion, “One Belt, One Road” is the most significant one (for more on this topic, see HUG issue No. 3), which is a common good provided to the world by China. Naturally, “One Belt, One Road” is also capable of weakening the international positions of the USA, critical voices claim.

In summary, at the Munich Security Conference China reasserted its goal to become the leading major power of the international community. This, however, does not mean abandoning its pragmatic foreign policy. The main direction of China’s foreign policy for the coming years seems to have crystallised.

Pacific No More? Security in East Asia and the Korean Peninsula

The Munich Security Conference focused on the East Asian region while addressing security challenges. According to the Munich Security Report 2017, the risk of a major security crisis is higher than it has been in many years. The regional tension between China and the USA might be one of the major global security challenges, since even Australia would now support a China-led TPP, and Philippine President Duterte announced his country’s separation from the alliance network of the United States. The division and the nuclear challenges of the Korean Peninsula might as well result in a USA-China conflict, thus North Korea’s weaponisation increases the security risk of the region.

The panel discussion entitled “Pacific no more? Security in East Asia and the Korean Peninsula” of the Munich Security Conference was related to the Report’s chapter on Asia. Several Asian politicians contributed to the debate, including Yun Byung-Se, Minister of Foreign Affairs, South Korea, Ng Eng Hen, Minister of Defence, Singapore, and Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the National People’s Congress, China. Remarkably, the event was a rare public exchange of views of differences between the U.S. and South Korea on the one side, and China on the other.

Yung Byung-Se talked about several challenges erupting simultaneously, which shake the region, such as territorial disputes, maritime ad cyber security, and mentioned the return of geopolitics and geo-economics, the most significant challenge of which is the nuclear programme of North Korea. He referred to the fact that when North Korea was admitted to the UN in 1991, it pledged to be a peace-loving state, and saw the time had come to act on international level, in the form of more severe sanctions. He does not regard negotiations effective enough, and although South Korea is open to dialogue in principle, they expect complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the nuclear programme, also counting on the UN’s support. An unsuccessful intervention would entail a nuclear threat expanding beyond the borders of the region, but, if successfully reunited, the peninsula could be the forerunner of international peace.

Ng Eng Hen believes the US-China relationship would be the key consideration for the stability of the region, and with a new US administration at the helm, it is particularly important at this juncture for both the US and China to articulate their overarching foreign policy objectives towards Asia. The Singaporean Minister quoted the words of John F. Kennedy, who promised to protect liberty at any price, which provided the “legitimacy” for the expansion of U.S. influence in Asia. The question for the current U.S. leadership is: On what basis will the continued US presence and influence be legitimised under an “America first” policy? If the USA continues to pursue an anti-China foreign policy, it will be a frustrating decade for the region; however, there will be an opportunity for the USA to provide a security umbrella for China in exchange for other privileges or gains. China as a rising power has to articulate its vision, which will serve China’s interests but not exclusively. The Minister sees that certain initiatives, such as AIIB and OBOR, serve common interests, and existing platforms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, should be lined up to fulfil a mediator role for a better mutual understanding.

Regarding military development, Fu Ying said that China wishes to keep its defence budget at 1.5 per cent of its GDP, which is less than the NATO’s target of 2 per cent. Still, China is often faced by the fact the foreign journalists regard Chinese weaponisation a source of danger. As a Chinese citizen, she is proud that her country has finally gained strength, and China’s security is an integral part of global security. She divided the security of the modern Asia-Pacific region into two parts:  the twenty years after the Cold War, and the period since then up to this day. The first twenty years saw conflicts all over the world while the Asian region was relatively peaceful, and working on regional integration and economic growth. The South China Sea disputes were already present but China was able to settle these through negotiations with ASEAN and their neighbours. In the second phase, which has lasted for almost a decade, tensions are more prominent, evoked by China’s growing stronger and the uncertainty it has caused. On the other hand, the competition with the USA also led to this, since the Chinese party felt as if it were in crossfire due to the policy of rebalancing, especially from the viewpoint of territorial disputes. Fu Ying thinks the problem derives from the fact that the USA appeared as a party participating in the dispute in 2012. China was concerned about this stand, resulting in defending Chinese interests and sovereignty.

In the future, the main issue of the security of Asia-Pacific will be choosing inclusive or exclusive security: will the USA also consider the security of non-allies? Fu Ying said that also President Xi Jinping had stressed the importance of the common security of the Asian pathway, emphasized by the ASEAN.

Regarding North Korea, Fu Ying did not agree with the Minister of South Korea. Dismissing negotiations would only drive the country in the wrong direction further. Alaska’s Republican Senator, Dan Sullivan, however, backed the Korean standpoint, and, in the name of American people, encouraged China to use its influence on North Korea in a more constructive way.  Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) called for urgent dialogue based on mutual respect, with the Treaty serving as the platform as a first step, since if the CTBTO were not in place today, North Korean activities would still be unclear. Fu Ying thinks North Koreans are trying to arm themselves because of their weakness, therefore turning away is not a solution.


[i] A kifejezést Rogen Cohen használja a konferenciáról szóló beszámolójában. Forrás: Coen, R. (2017) The Russification of America. In: The New York Times, 17. 02. 2017.

[ii] „Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” – a jelentés az alábbi linken érhető el: (2017.02.26.)

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