The wars in Libya and Yemen, brewing tensions elsewhere in the Middle East and India’s lockdown of Kashmir are among the most pressing geopolitical concerns as world leaders and diplomats prepare to rub shoulders at the Munich Security Conference, often regarded as the Davos of security and foreign policy issues.
Thirty-five heads of state are among more than 500 politicians, officials and spies scheduled to attend the three-day summit, which begins on Friday and ends Sunday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and India are all expected.
This year’s theme of “westlessness”, organisers say, points to continued unease about the identity and purpose of the West.
It reflects a growing schism in transatlantic relations and the post-war order, as Donald Trump’s presidency pushes the United States further from Europe.
Common security in Europe is also a growing issue; the continent itself is fractured following Brexit and amid the growth of nationalist and illiberal movements.
Verging on the existential, conference organisers have urged attendees to consider if the world, and the West itself is “becoming less Western”, and how global security will be shaped if Western powers fade in relevance and influence.
“For the past decades, the answer to the question what it was that kept the West together was straightforward: a commitment to liberal democracy and human rights, to a market-based economy, and to international cooperation in international institutions,” read this year’s Munich Security Report, which was published before the conference.
“Today, the meaning of the West is increasingly contested again.”
Platform for searing speeches
The Munich Security Conference was established in 1963 by Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, a former German army officer who participated in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, with the aim of gathering leaders and diplomatic experts to discuss the state of NATO and relations between powers on either side of the Atlantic.
Over the decades, the annual meeting has grown to include global security concerns, with Munich’s grand Bayerisch Hof hotel becoming a stage for searing political speeches.
In 2007 in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin excoriated the US for “overstepping its borders in all spheres”.
Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel clashed with US Vice President Mike Pence over the Iran nuclear deal, rejecting US pressure for Europe to pull out of the agreement and arguing that it provided the best path to maintaining influence over the Islamic Republic.
Merkel will not attend this year, with Foreign Minister Heiko Mass instead representing Germany, which may seek to build on its role as a facilitator in Libya’s shaky peace process.