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Experiencing the European Atmosphere in Munich

Feb 21, 2024
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

60th Munich Security Conference.jpg

The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) opened in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 16. It was my first time attending the conference, and I had the privilege of observing it firsthand. It is an internationally renowned annual forum on global strategic and security policies, with themes often related to security challenges faced by Europe or the transatlantic community. It consistently attracts numerous political, academic and strategic figures. This year, the three-day conference brought together about 700 representatives from some 120 countries and regions, including approximately 50 heads of state and government.

The theme arrangement of this year’s MSC exhibited an inherent logic — a European perspective that progressed from the macro to the micro, from the periphery to Europe itself. The first day focused on global security challenges, including numerous non-traditional security issues such as food security, climate financing, artificial intelligence, misinformation and water security. The second day’s theme was divided into two parts: international order and regional conflicts and crises, with a shift in focus from the global to the regional level. It covered topics such as the Indo-Pacific, Ukraine, the Red Sea, Sudan and others. The third day primarily concentrated on Europe itself, under the theme “Europe in the World,” and addressed subjects such as the EU and its partners, the future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, building a more capable EU and the EU’s next geopolitical agenda.

One could sense Europe’s anxiety about the future in various contexts, as evidenced by the pre-conference Munich Security Report. The report accurately depicted the current European mindset: Amid increasingly tense geopolitical situations and growing economic uncertainty, Europe believes that many countries are no longer prioritizing the absolute benefits of global cooperation. Instead, they are increasingly concerned that their relative gains are lower than those of other countries. This concern could lead to a lose-lose scenario, disrupting cooperation and potentially undermining the international order, which still has merit.

In such a situation, transatlantic partners and like-minded countries face extremely challenging circumstances and must make balanced decisions. On one hand, they must prepare for a more competitive geopolitical environment in which the logic of relative gains is inevitable. On the other hand, they must restore what is known as positive-sum cooperation; otherwise, achieving more inclusive global growth and addressing urgent global issues will be difficult.

Europe’s outlook on the international situation is increasingly pessimistic and anxious. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has shaken the EU’s long-standing beliefs, making Europe, which thought it had moved into a postmodern era, suddenly realize it still needs to grapple with age-old issues of war and peace. At the same time, the EU faces unresolved economic, social, and immigration issues; the weaponization of interdependence brought about by U.S. strategic competition toward China; and uncertainty over the outcome of U.S. elections. These further exacerbate Europe’s sense of being at a Zeitenwende (“turning point”) and raise concerns about its international situation, its own predicament and its path forward. If the world is returning to an era of great power competition, how will the EU, which prides itself on normative power, position itself in the world? If global cooperation and multilateralism are undermined by great power competition, what solutions should the EU offer? These questions seem to have remained largely unanswered at the MSC.

Facing the tumultuous international situation, Europe and the U.S. continue to seek solidarity, but Europe harbors concerns over transatlantic relations. In most conferences and panel discussions involving politicians or scholars from Europe and the U.S., one can observe mutual accommodation and support, reflecting a subtle empathy between the two sides in terms of culture, values and language. Especially in forums concerning the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the European and American positions are almost indistinguishable. Even in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with divisions within Europe and between Europe and the United States, the overarching consensus is palpable.

However, upon closer observation of the European and U.S. stances on these two conflicts, both sides must consider the factors of the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Europe is concerned that if Donald Trump were to be re-elected, transatlantic relations could face another round of shocks in various areas, including economy, security and values. For instance, Trump’s recent remarks regarding NATO have caused significant anxiety in Europe in the security realm. Therefore, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized in her speech at the MSC that the Biden-Harris administration would firmly support Ukraine’s position, hoping to reassure a worried Europe and inject confidence into the region.

Europe also finds itself in a contradictory dilemma regarding how to engage with China. Compared with last year’s MSC, there has been a decrease in negative remarks and pessimism toward China; however, both European and American participants remain entrenched in a binary “us and them” opposition, unable to escape the logic of confrontation. In a discussion on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, staunch support for Ukraine remains a matter of political correctness for both the U.S. and Europe. At the same time, some speakers have continued to characterize the actions of various countries through an ideological lens in the context of the conflict. Speakers from the U.S., Europe and Ukraine emphasize the courage required to confront Russia, but there is not enough discussion on how to achieve a cease-fire and end the conflict promptly.

Europe and the United States are also not entirely aligned on issues regarding China. To view Europe and the U.S. as a single entity on all issues would be overly simplistic. In a session discussing “Aligning Transatlantic Tech Governance,” a Chinese scholar raised a question about whether China would be involved in global governance cooperation on artificial intelligence, and if so, in what capacity. This question sparked debate among the panelists. A U.S. panelist strongly opposed engaging with China in the field of AI, particularly against transferring any AI technology to China. However, this viewpoint was challenged by European guests, who believed that China’s role was indispensable in promoting global governance on AI and that engagement with China was necessary.

The MSC agenda was packed, and participants at the event to some extent experienced the atmosphere of Europe. Chinese scholars, including me, actively participated in various parallel sessions and discussions, hoping to help European and other participants gain a better understanding of China. We aim to avoid falling into the narrative and trap of great power competition. Otherwise, the world will only move toward the lose-lose outcomes described in this year’s Munich Security Report.

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