Reflections on European Security, Militarization, Old-School Transatlanticism, and More

March 2024

Progressive strategies still overlooked within foreign policy establishment.

By Henry Alt-Haaker and Sanam Naraghi Anderlini

Munich Security Conference MSC Baerbock
IMAGO / photothek

Here Henry Alt-Haaker (HAH) and fellow Sanam Naraghi Anderlini (SNA) share their impressions of the February 16-18 Munich Security Conference (MSC). They riff off of six terms – elephant in the room, gerontocracy, alarm, nostalgia, impatience, paralysis by shock – that describe their personal takeaway.

SNA:  When I think about the Munich Security Conference, I think about elephants – those who were in the room and those who were missing. The biggest elephant was the ghost of Donald Trump future – namely the prospect of a second Trump term as US president – and its implications for Europe and European security. The discussions about militarization and the beefing up of the security sector weren’t just about Ukraine and Russia. They were also about the possibility of the US withdrawing from Europe. The many other missing elephants were in the discussions about Israel-Palestine particularly in relation to the 700,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Thepoliticians kept speaking about the need for a ceasefire and return to the two-state solution. But no one talked about dealing with the heavily armed settlers that Israel has enabled. 

HAH: There was so much talk, so much nostalgia– my first word, about the good old transatlantic days when the world was supposedly in order. Sometimes when I hear this kind of transatlantic fantasia, I ask, what about the Cuban missile crisis, the satellite wars in the then-Third World, and the exploitation of Africa?  

The discussion neglects changes in global reality. There is a new set of actors on the stage, and we must work on new strategies that go beyond just thinking about how to bring them into our fold. When thinking about Russia and Ukraine, it’s easy. There is an aggressor that provoked the war and a victim. Whereas in the Israel-Palestine situation before and after October 7, there is no such clear dichotomy. And depending on when you start looking at the conflict, you come to different conclusions. All governments are grappling with how to position themselves in this complicated conflict. I think this is what the crowd at the MSC probably finds hard to do because there are some important perspectives missing.

MSC participants not addressing future challenges enough

SNA: That segues into another word: “gerontocracy.” I don't want to be rude, but the crowd was noticeably elderly. They are the powerful elite of a passing era whose mentality is stuck in the 20th century. During the discussions about history, I was sitting there thinking that they should be about the future that we envision and hope for, not just the future we fear.In terms of Israel-Palestine especially, the urgency is about stopping the violence now and determining the foundations we lay for the future. We should flip the discussions to “what is the future we want” and let that determine our actions in the present. The irony is that in 1945 a generation sat on the embers and the ashes of World War II and envisioned the future, and they gave us this peace and security architecture that we have today. They were future oriented. But subsequent generations took that architecture for granted and wore it down. They didn’t renovate to make it fit for current and future challenges. Nor have they taken seriously our generation’s ideas for more inclusive peace making. There's intransigence to opening the space to address the future, to bring women and young people, and diversity of voices into the room, and to frame the discussions about the future we want.

HAH: This fits perfectly into my next word “impatience." During the lunch with our fellows in Munich – most of them female and from the Global Majority [my preferred umbrella term for the often called “Global South”, who constitute approximately 85 percent of the global population- a sense of impatience at the glacial change of the conference’s membership became apparent. One fellow said: “The first time when I went to the MSC, I was the only woman there.” This shows that there has been progress 60 years on. But then again marginalized groups and young people today don’t have patience (and maybe also not time) for these small improvements. They don’t add up to the grand change that is needed.

I just came back from Southeast Asia where Germany is referred to as a “status quo” country rather than a risk-taking innovator and disruptor. The urgency to tackle global issues like climate change, AI, pandemics, war is there, but if we want to change something, we need to get those in power to listen to us and we still haven’t found a way to do so. The system of 1945 was built on rubble, but we are trying to renovate the house before it burns down.

SNA: I completely agree with you and impatience is personal to me. I entered this field of practice when I was 26 years old. I was 29 when I worked on getting the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution on women peace and security. That’s 25 years ago! We did our homework. We have empirical evidence about how to do better peacemaking and conflict prevention, why gender and local peacebuilders matter, and models of effective peace processes. I've been an advocate and I’ve been inside mediation processes to practice what I preached – and show what is possible.  At International Civil Action Network (ICAN) - an NGO that I founded to promote women rights, peace and security - we have vast networks of people around the world who risk their lives building peace in war zones. Yet when we come to the international levels, we hear the rhetoric and see the new labels – like feminist foreign policy – but it’s old wine in new bottles. There is no foundational change in practice. Our impatience is growing for the simple reason that every year new wars are started, and none stopped. We now have 369 million people in dire humanitarian situations, and climate change that will exacerbate this. My impatience comes from the fact that 25 years is a pretty long time to seek change and see so little actual change. 

HAH: I just wonder how fast we can move without losing those who sit in power, whose buy-in we need. We must somehow get them to go along with us.

Military and security topics still dominate the discourse

SNA: So, this brings me to the word “alarm.” First, I was alarmed by the unquestioning way in which militarization, increased defense spending, and securitization has become the dominant discourse. As a European, at some level I can understand it. We need to have our own security because we may have a threat on our border and our biggest ally could well disappear. But the end game of this kind of expenditure and mentality is alarming because it means cutting back on social services, maybe introducing military conscription for our young men and women. What does that mean in terms of societal security, climate issues, and human security?

Second, I was also alarmed that in the final session on 60 years into the future, the speakers reflected on pivotal moments of the past including the League of Nations and the formation of the UN in 1945. But they skipped over the end of the Cold War. That was the moment where not only the Western notion of neoliberal economics, political liberalization, and democracy supposedly won, but it was when spaces opened for all sorts of civic and citizen activism on climate, peace, poverty, health, women's rights, LGBTQ, and more.

After 9/11 things went sideways as we ended up in the era of the war on terror. But still we've been active and present. So, I was alarmed that the entire civil society sector body of work, of citizen engagement across Western countries, all the way down to local communities in Liberia and in Yemen, were completely invisible and absent in Munich. It felt as if we were a brief chapter between two securitized eras and now that book is closed. I am alarmed at the gulf between security and peace representatives, as well as the absence of discourse on human security.

HAH: Maybe it is because to deal with these “softer” issues such as human security is always more palatable when one has the resources to spare – wrongly so, I believe. One other explanation might be that the fragmentation of the world is getting larger, as is the fundamental difference of perspective on challenges between the Global Majority and the transatlantic community. But also, the gap between elites – in all countries rich and poor – and the mainstream societies on issues like climate change, inequalities, and global order.

SNA: I see it from the standpoint of the people I work with, the women who, by force of circumstance and by something extraordinary in their hearts and their personalities, take on the responsibility to protect their communities when a war breaks out, say in Yemen or Cameroon. They are not the elite. They are seemingly ordinary people who under extraordinary circumstances rise to the challenge of addressing insecurity and violence their communities experience. The women I work with are like superheroes in plain clothing. Some were schoolteachers or social workers. They are propelled by the instinct to care for their communities and find themselves negotiating with armed group for the release of detainees as the Association of Mothers of the Abductees in Yemen does. I don’t believe it's about the cost. It’s about priorities. In 2013, one missile fired into Syria cost $68 million. Imagine if we hadn’t deployed a couple of those missiles and instead allocated that money for health, education, and peacebuilding.

And then think in terms of nuclear weapons: they are only useful if they remain completely useless. The UK is spending 10 billion pounds on 40 new nuclear warheads. But imagine instead that it was just 30 or 35 new warheads, and they allocated the money saved to development and peacebuilding, domestically and internationally. What extraordinary good that could do. 

The fragmentation issue is also a concern. I think Western leaders are in denial about the fact that the Global Majority is now part of their domestic population. We are no longer “just over there.” Gaza is the classic example of how events abroad impact our institutions. In the US and elsewhere, the position that our political leaders have taken is destroying the foundations of our democracies and fundamental principles of freedom of speech.

Paralyzed by differing perspectives on Russia

HAH: Another example of the fragmentation and very different perspectives is the way we look at Russia. This leads me to “Paralysis by shock.” The transatlantic community and theGlobal Majority look at Russia in completely different ways. The murder of Alexei Navalny and the courageous speech of his amazingly strong widow Yulia Navalnaya at the conference shocked us. A participant said that the difference between Putinism, on the one hand, and Stalinism, Maoism, and Naziism, on the other, is that Putin doesn't have a utopian vision of the future. Putin’s ideology is a continuous fight against the West; he doesn't know where that's going to lead. And this frustrating lack of understanding, the finality of his plan, and our fear of being unable to protect ourselves because of a possible return of Donald Trump shocks everybody in Europe and leads to the danger of paralysis by shock.

When I talk to people of the Global Majority, they see the war between Russia and Ukraine as a regional conflict, which matters to us because of geographic proximity but not to them. I strongly disagree. It has to do with national sovereignty, and if we allow one country to invade another, that's precedent for other countries. Countries like Singapore understand this, by the way, and make the connection to their region. It is the only country in ASEAN that supports sanctions against Russia.

SNA: Yes, andI think the West denies the other side of this conversation. For the West this history starts with Russia invading Ukraine and breaking all the rules. But from the perspective of the Middle East or Africa, the rule breaking started with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Interestingly, in the US, American politicians deny breaking the rules because they don’t consider the UNSC as relevant. They say the US Congress voted for the war, so it was legal.

After Iraq, NATO’s no fly zone in Libya in 2012 was questioned because Russia says it was not meant to be a regime change mandate. But had Muammar Qaddafi (the de facto leader of Libya 1969-2012) survived NATO’s attacks, NATO would have been the loser. In 2015, the UNSC’s vote to allow Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, was another pivotal moment. The entire UNSC voted to allow Saudi Arabia, one member state of the UN, to bomb Yemen, which was another UN member state. The UNSC has one main job: to prevent UN member states from attacking each other. They have failed.

Deal with violations or norms and rethink institutions

HAH: The charge of hypocrisy against the West is valid. The West has broken its own rules many times. But what are the consequences? Sometimes I fear people outside the West try to indicate that this should lead to a complete abolition of the international rules-based order. If you throw out the baby with the bath water history has taught us only the strong win. Multilateral cooperation and international institutions – well designed – strengthen the small states and not the big. Meanwhile the violation of standards and ideals must be addressed. To do this, we have free media, freedom of science, elections, and the rule of law; this can serve to check politicians and policymakers. We must draw conclusions from those failures and get better in the future.

SNA: I feel we're missing the willingness to evolve the systems. Part of that evolution means acknowledging your own mistakes. You have to be able to say “sorry, we messed up.” We messed up on Abu Ghraib. We messed up on Yemen. We need to evolve our institutions. I worry that a revolution or destruction of our existing institutions will mean also throwing away the agendas that we have on human security, human rights, and so forth that come from ‘we the peoples of the UN’.  These things are good things, right?

The forces of authoritarianism and conservatism are using this as an opportunity to erase all that we have achieved. But we have to hold on to our values and freedom that are rooted in societies. The argument that these are top-down approaches is a complete fallacy. Many aspects of multilateralism do work, but other aspects need fixing. We cannot let the pessimism and nostalgia dominate how we think about the future. That pessimism is a privilege of the privileged.

Cooperation and the fundamental importance of peace-building

HAH: I agree completely with your conclusion, however, I also think we need to do this together with those who hold power. Shouting at them won’t work. And so, we must convince them of the benefit to their agenda by listening to those voices that they currently don’t listen to.

SNA: Yes, and this loops us back to the MSC. A space like the MSC isa perfect opportunity to enable a dialogue for the elite to see that people like us, in peacebuilding in civil society working globally or locally engage constructively, respectfully, and creatively with the same issues and future. We may disagree on approaches but we're not necessarily adversarial. We understand the role and need for a security sector. We discuss what we need and want from our armies and police. Ironically, we see how often the security sector is instrumentalized by political forces. After all it is often young soldiers being sent out to risk their lives for ambiguous political agendas. When we sit in dialogue with them, we actually find much in common with them. But we don’t often have that chance. The MSC could be a great place for these other forms of dialogue.

HAH: I remember a conversation I had many years ago with a US American general. He said that if you're looking for a person who wants to avoid war, look for someone in uniform. He is the one who has to tell parents of soldiers under his command that their children have been killed. Nobody wants to do that.

SNA: I think what we see is that local peace builders often do engage, but peace building as a sector is still less known. It's the peace builders and as you say the soldiers who are at the frontlines. They understand what the risks are far more than the politicians or diplomats. Yet the latter dominate.


Henry Alt-Haaker rund grau 30p

Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and heads the Strategic Partnerships and Robert Bosch Academy department.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini rund

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, MBE, is the Founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

About the Munich Security Conference

The Munich Security Conference is an annual international security forum. It celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. The conference is a platform for diplomatic initiatives aimed at addressing the world’s most pressing security risks. The primary objective of the MSC is to foster trust and promote peaceful conflict resolution in an ever-evolving international landscape. The conference takes place at Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich and features numerous panels, side-events, and bilateral talks. This year, more than 450 high-profile decision-makers and leaders attended the MSC, including heads of state, ministers, leaders of international organizations and NGOs, as well as key representatives from business, media, research, and civil society.

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