The Munich Security Conference – three world orders in the making

Image: Munich Security Conference

New directions from Munich

Bringing together more than 400 foreign and security policy elites from the transatlantic community and an irritatingly small number of representatives from the non-Western world, the Munich Security Conference somewhat resembled a couple’s therapy session and an attempt at self-reassurance. Does the West still exist? Do we still need the West? What is the West about? And, finally, a huge question, which world order is it worth fighting for?


Reading between the lines and moving from panel to panel, it became clear that, in the West itself, there are three very different world order models competing for primacy. They are all disruptive. This means that, regardless of who ultimately triumphs, we are witnessing the rise of a new international (dis)order – the old business as usual approach will not work.

First of all, we have the traditional transatlanticists, represented by US Vice-President Pence, Defence Secretary Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kelly. At the Munich conference they invoked a common past and attempted to create a sense of continuity, with NATO, joint defence, US-European relations and free world trade remaining important. Western values of democracy, human rights, freedom and cooperation between states were emphasised. The leaders of the US administration attempted to dispel the consternation that President Trump has been causing on a daily basis for months now and, virtually simultaneously to the Munich Security Conference, on Twitter. Some within the European security community were relieved by this. They really want to believe that Trump will be ultimately reined in by the Republican Party mainstream and the bureaucracy of the US State Department and Department of Defence, enabling everything to remain as it was. The Europeans would only need to try a bit harder and increase their defence spending, then the transatlantic world order and the established certainties of foreign and security policy would have a future. As we will see in a moment, these hopes of continuity will certainly prove to be ill-founded.

The second world order model was not represented by a single speaker at the Security Conference, yet it was the big elephant in the room. The last few months have seen Trump challenging all the cornerstones of the Western world order, which some of his top people are now attempting to put back in place. While Vice-President Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis invoked basic democratic values, the US President took to Twitter to declare the New York Times and CNN “the enemy of the American people”. The President’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon has explained in detail and on numerous occasions what he thinks of the established international order: he intends to “destroy” it. Bannon openly advocates for radical nationalism and for promoting the rights and dominance of the more powerful while opposing a rule-based world economy and favouring the collapse of the EU, very much along the lines of European right-wing populists. Trump’s statements on the future world order make for less coherent reading than Bannon’s radical and disruptive counter-take on the world system of the last 70 years. Nonetheless, the US President has repeatedly presented the building blocks of his basic geopolitical ideas and they accord with Bannon’s central ideology: protectionism when it benefits the US, the wall with Mexico, an entry ban for Muslims, malice towards the United Nations, disdain for NATO and the EU, “America first”. It is hard to imagine exactly how things will go when Pence and Mattis meet with the President to debrief him on the Munich Security Conference. Will the two men qualify their statements on the old Western order, on international cooperation and on the basic values of democracy in their discussions with the President? Might the President merely be engaging in populist rhetoric while in reality supporting the transatlantic world order model of his ministers? What would Stephen Bannon’s role be in that case? What is clear is that the wrangling and rifts between proponents of the two world order models already mentioned run right through the US Government and possibly even through the White House, but certainly through the Republican Party.

Interestingly, another world order model was outlined in Munich, one which will also result in fundamental, that is, disruptive changes. This new order is not depleted by higher defence spending or the preservation of NATO and free world trade. What was described was a future system which would enable globalisation to be shaped in a sustainable, climate friendly and socially inclusive manner by strengthening multilateralism and expanding cooperation relationships with non-Western actors such as emerging economies and African nations. It is a world order in which connected foreign, development, climate and security policies are seen as the common foundation for international cooperation, a model which is based not primarily on increased defence spending, but rather on collective security and sustainable development. Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg argued for more joint defence initiatives, but as well as for a strong development policy. Frederica Mogherini and new UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for the systematic implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the accords of the Paris Climate Conference, not as a luxury, but rather as an investment in a viable world order. First Vice-President of the European Commission Timmermans argued for comprehensive development of the multilateral system. German Defence Minister von der Leyen and Development Minister Müller together stressed the importance of cooperation with Africa for European and global stability and prosperity. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel strongly advocated international cooperation as a means of fighting tax evasion and rising inequality. Mogherini also underscored the important role of non-Western countries in world politics. But Europeans were not the only ones outlining an inclusive world order model. US Senator and Democrat Whitehouse called for rapid decarbonisation of the world economy as a condition for global security. And Bill Gates stressed that there could be no lasting peace in a globally connected world without global improvements in health care and nutrition for the poorest 40 per cent of the earth’s population. Obama would most likely have concurred. They all emphasised that we have quite a long way to go to achieve any of this. This third world order model assumes that conventional transatlantic security policy is no longer capable of ensuring a stable international order in an age of global interconnections. They may well be right.

As such, the Munich Security Conference provided clarification. There are three very different, ultimately disruptive world order models at loggerheads with one another in the West: Trump, Bannon and the right wing in Europe are calling for us to abandon the basic idea of international cooperation in favour of putting our own countries first. Galvanised and mobilised by the Trump wake-up call, a counter model of a world order is emerging in which cooperation shall be raised to a level facilitating it to ensure equity, sustainability and security in the globalisation process. The traditional transatlanticists are advocating for continuity and business as usual. They will most likely come unstuck with Trump or with the realities of a form of globalisation and global interconnectivity which can only succeed if non-Western actors become equal partners and the social and environmental consequences of an untamed global market can be contained by cooperation. The competition between these three world orders will also impact the G20 summit in Hamburg. In Hamburg it will become clearer than at the Munich Security Conference, how powerful each of the three groups actually is.

Image. Dirk Messner

Dirk Messner ist Direktor des Deutschen Instituts für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) und Vorsitzender des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats der Bundesregierung Global Umweltveränderungen (WBGU) / Dirk Messner is Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and Co-Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Government Global Environmental Change (WBGU)

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