This year's Munich Security Conference showed the limits of diplomacy in a world at war

Some alliances are becoming particularly tortured, and divisions were on full display in the famous summit

Munich Security Conference sees bilateral meeting as hope for the future

Munich Security Conference sees bilateral meeting as hope for the future
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

History didn’t start on October 7. These were the words of one participant at the Munich Security Conference that pinpointed the bitterly contested language around the Gaza war. Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, noted this is not even the first war in Gaza alone. It is the fifth iteration of the conflict.

In Munich, timelines are not everything but a useful measure of the context a given speaker is bringing to their contribution.

It was possible at this 2024 conference to have a fully blown discussion about how the world is now at war. Accept that and a generational development is taking place. The realisation is just dawning.

For most Europeans, a generational development to rival the Second World War would be a shock. For a minority, mostly those who served in the military, there have been previous mobilisations — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. A whole of life struggle is something very few can have within living memory.

As the world’s premier security conference — it has been going 60 years — MSC certainly has the scope to tackle all the big threats.

In its highways and byways there are nuanced arguments that just don’t accumulate elsewhere.

Isaac Herzog, the Israeli President, conducted a breakthrough meeting with the Qatari Prime Minister in a marble-clad room at the conference and then spoke about it publicly on the main stage. He gave his assessment that the issue of the return of the hostages and war in Gaza was the most important question facing the weekend of talks.

Qatari Prime Minister says negotiators 'always pushing' for Gaza progress

Qatari Prime Minister says negotiators 'always pushing' for Gaza progress

While the immediate audience was no doubt persuaded, there are caveats. The balance of the MSC meetings was focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Kyiv’s prospects in blunting that aggression.

To stitch the wars together from this European perspective is not difficult. It is that the dangers unleashed by the invasion of Ukraine are spreading. There already is a war in Gaza – one that has conflagrated to the northern border with Lebanon. Moreover, it has spread to the Red Sea as Iran, in the words of Yemen’s President, has turned vital shipping lanes into an Iranian sea.

Can an all-consuming brushfire of a war be far off? The only correctives were the words of those beyond these immediate theatres, such as the Chinese warning of the perils of disengaging at a time of dysfunction.

The balance of the MSC meetings was focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

MSC is known for a kind of punning knowing that seals its insider status in the global security framework. One year it described its purpose as resolving “Westlessness”. In other words, the world was restless. And it clearly wanted less of the West. How to resolve that juncture? The unspoken idea was that the West could come back. But clearly a nonsensical title to its annual report could not quite land this outcome.

This year’s event in Munich clearly proved there has been no ground made up. Nothing has improved for the West’s position. There is a tendency among the perennial attendees for a skittish consensus. Even this was clearly wearing thin in some quarters.

Hillary Clinton was going against type and raising her own restless unhappiness with the continuing loss of grip. She asked where the West is, when one survey shows TikTok content has a double-digit dominance of pro-Russian slants on the Ukraine war. It is a fair question because there are such stark global differences over the Ukraine conflict. It is fair to ask if the democratisation of access to information is the real issue. Thus, if Russia is a master of active measures to influence how perceptions are created then should its advantage not be tackled on that basis?

The gap between what is said to be the problem and the actual plan of campaign to address the issue is as high as the Tyrollean peaks not far from Munich. Mrs Clinton was one of many Americans to tell the Europeans that if they felt their territory was threatened, the best answer was to take the necessary steps to fix it.

In many areas, the American argument had not adjusted to what was a palpable new reality. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, made no real attempt to address the pressure for a Gaza-Israel ceasefire in his remarks from the podium. The path to Palestinian state was characterised as an imperative that was difficult but possible. This was tentative positioning. It left a gaping hole for his Chinese counterpart to describe the failure to reach that point as the “longest-standing injustice” on the globe.

Given the turmoil the world faces, it is easy to forget it is the Democrats, not former president Donald Trump or his offsiders, who are in charge in America these days. Europe’s adjustment is just as painful alongside that of America. The reality of keeping an alliance of real and practical impact is becoming ever more tortured for those tasked with carrying it out.

Yes, Ukraine is the fork in the road of Europe’s future. Gaza and Ukraine require leadership choices that Washington appears incapable of making. Taking each in turn was not an option at Munich, and they cannot be rendered interchangeable crises in the weeks to come.

Published: February 18, 2024, 12:06 PM
Updated: February 19, 2024, 5:49 PM