Business as usual in Munich: White men rule the world

Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez

In February 2020, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace produced a report on “Who and What Was and Wasn’t at the Munich Security Conference” – an annual event attended by political, military, and business leaders and marketed on Twitter as “the world’s leading forum for debate on international security”.

According to the Carnegie dispatch, the “Who” at the 2020 conference included “a lot of old white men among the hundreds of invited attendees, but a lot of other people too”. Among the “What” that allegedly wasn’t there, meanwhile, was the very theme of the conference itself: “Westlessness”, defined on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations as the “growing uncertainty about the fate of the transatlantic alliance” between Europe and the United States. In the Carnegie view, Westlessness was fundamentally a nonissue in Munich given the undeniable “persistence of a community of nations that sees itself as such, and that attaches present values to a particular shared history”.

Fast forward to the 58th Munich Security Conference this year, held February 18-20 at the city’s Bayerischer Hof hotel, and it seems that there is still a persistently “Westful” community of shared values – at least in terms of commitment to, like, white patriarchy.

Though the event’s organisers took care to stress that 45 percent of the speakers were female, a photograph of a CEO lunch at the conference suggests that “a lot of old white men” are still running the show. The photo features some 30 monochrome males seated around a long white table with bottled water and wine (and no face masks, I might add – so much for “security”).

Dr Jennifer Cassidy, a diplomatic scholar at the University of Oxford, tweeted the image with the accompanying remark: “This is reality. This is where power lies. Where some of the most consequential decisions are made.” In a subsequent tweet, Cassidy reckoned that the “most diverse thing to happen in that room” was that one businessman was sporting an orange tie.

German politician Sawsan Chebli meanwhile tweeted that the picture was like something “from another world”. But it is actually a world we know quite well.

In 2017, the Washington Post noted that, in the US, “men, and mostly white men, dominate the business world” – in addition to politics and academia. A full 96 percent of chief executive positions at companies on the S&P 500 stock market index, for example, were held by men – overwhelmingly white ones.

And in the European Union, the European Institute for Gender Equality concluded in 2019 that an increased female presence in corporate boardrooms had “not translated into more women in executive hierarchies”: the previous year, women had accounted for 17 percent of senior executives and 7 percent of CEOs.

Now, on the day prior to the kick-off of the 2022 Munich Security Conference, Germany announced that it would finally vote in favour of an EU proposal dating from 2012 – and until now stymied – on “improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges and related measures”.

The Politico website quoted Robert Biedrón, the newly elected chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, as welcoming the news: “Fortunately, for the first time in many years, we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Biedrón, it bears underscoring, is a man – which certainly does not disqualify him from caring about women’s rights but which could raise questions about, I dunno, “light”.

But to what extent does the imposition of gender quotas and “related measures” actually impact the reality of the average person living in the present context of “Westfulness”? When it comes down to it, the cosmetic pursuit of gender and racial diversity does not alter the fact that capitalism in its transatlantic iteration thrives on racist patriarchy – a state of affairs that naturally does little to promote general human “security”, neither in Munich nor beyond.

Consider an article in the Harvard Business Review by Victor Ray, assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of Iowa, who describes US companies and educational establishments as “long-standing social structures built and managed to prioritize whiteness”. Discrimination is institutionalised, and “white normativity [is] built into seemingly nonracial organizational expectations”. Between 2012 and 2019, Ray writes, “black representation at the top of organizational hierarchies” decreased from six to three CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.

What such capitalist hierarchies ultimately ensure, of course, is continued tyranny by an elite minority – whose members do not have to be 100-percent-across-the-board white men in order to propagate a system run by, well, white men. For instance, structurally speaking, US Vice President Kamala Harris is as good a white man as any in terms of devotion to US corporate conquest and other forms of imperial patriarchy. This despite the recent assessment from the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin: “European officials I spoke to in Munich were impressed by Harris herself, a unique figure among the mostly old, White, male contingent at the event.”

US President and white man Joe Biden, for his part, appears as the top endorser on the official Munich Security Conference website: “Like no other global forum, Munich connects European leaders and thinkers with their peers from across the world.” A 2018 Politico article specifies that Biden has been a “regular since 1980” at the conference – which, “held in a cramped, old-world hotel well past its prime”, is touted as the place where the “world’s power brokers really meet” and a “rite of winter” for the earth’s “true ‘globalist elites’”.

The exclusive guest list has also included former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in 2003 utilised the forum to huffily present his case for annihilating Iraq. As the New York Times Magazine put it: “To fail to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, [Rumsfeld] argued, would be to fail to learn the lesson of Munich” – a reference to the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler.

But back to this year’s CEO lunch in Munich and a patriarchy that should be well past its prime. There are those who would argue that all that is needed in that lunchtime photo is some superficial diversity – some women and other skin colours thrown in among the bottled water and wine. What would really be useful, however, is the overthrow of a transatlantic regime of racist and sexist domination that fuels economic and military brutality.

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