There may at least be two main reasons why the just-concluded 2023 Munich Security Conference drew extensive Western media attention. One year into the Ukraine crisis, the lengthening conflict may escalate, bringing Europe to a crucial security crossroads — fight the war to its end, or resolve it via negotiation. At the same time, the China-U.S. relationship has seen growing tension as the United States hypes the accident of an out-of-control unmanned Chinese civilian balloon that entered its airspace and clamors about a “China threat.”
The background factors of this year’s Munich conference were particularly unusual, with Europe having to simultaneously deal with the pressure of two major security conundrums. One is the significant practical security risk brought by the ongoing hot war on its doorstep; the other is the U.S. further pressuring its European allies and sinking them into a new cold war against China.
An article in Foreign Affairs by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this year is worthy of attention and contemplation. Titled “The Global Zeitenwende: How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era,” it argues that the Ukraine crisis is a turning point for the global security order and the biggest current challenge for European security.
Scholz wrote that Europe should not succumb to the fatalistic view of scholars who say that as the China-U.S. game grows increasingly fierce and as contradictions between Europe and Russia deepen, confrontations between blocs — China-Russia vs. U.S.-Europe — will intensify and the world will unknowingly and naturally sink into a new cold war.
Europe, having long been at the forefront of the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union and in the shadow of nuclear war, has suffered tremendously from the East-West confrontation. It doesn’t want to return to the old path but rather desires a multipolar world. It hopes to become one of those poles and wants to play a bigger strategic role on the international stage. In short, it doesn’t want to see a world in which it must take sides. At a security crossroads, Europe’s choice now should be to do everything it can to help Ukraine win the war, continuously strengthen its own military forces, reach energy autonomy through the green energy revolution and finally achieve strategic autonomy.
The wishes Europe has conveyed for promoting a multipolar world and for opposing a new cold war happen to coincide with those expressed by top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in his keynote speech at Munich. Yet, because Europe relies on the U.S. and NATO for security (a situation that developed over decades), and because it has had to depend more on the natural gas market of the Western Hemisphere after the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline sabotage in September, achieving strategic autonomy is easier said than done. A Europe that is constantly tightening its strategic bond with the U.S. will unconsciously be taken hostage by the strategic goals of U.S. national security and easily return to the cold war path, which will prove costly for Europe.
The U.S. is also paying a higher price for security because of its own Cold War thinking under which any minor security issue may be amplified infinitely by systematic strategic confrontation, upgraded to the level of strategic threat and the realm of ideological confrontation and then used in a logical framework in which any step back risks triggering a domino effect. In the end, minor contradictions may turn into major ones, small issues may become big and confrontation may escalate in a vicious circle.
The cost is the American people’s sense of security, the normal state of exchanges and dialogue between countries and global governance issues that should have been resolved via cooperation. Even the security interests and well-being of allies and partners may be undermined as they are taken hostage.
As Scholz said, the world is evolving in the direction of multi-polarization, and the rise of China is an important part of that. Seeking bipolar confrontation in a multipolar world will only end up in a lose-lose. Seeking unipolar hegemony will only result in an overdraft of power and accelerate decline. The Ukraine crisis has already shown that when countries highlight their own security while ignoring common security out of selfish motives, the outcome may be a vicious circle in which each party seeks security as the situation becomes increasingly less secure.
The rashly concluded Munich conference demonstrates that resolving practical security issues calls for dialogue and consultation between the parties involved. The creation of exclusive small cliques doesn’t help achieve security goals. Inadequate mutual trust and collaboration between major countries has become an important cause of the enlarging governance deficit in tackling such global concerns as climate change, nonproliferation and public health.
This year’s Munich conference failed to show any breakthrough progress in the face of the common international aspiration to end the war, nor the common desire for peaceful development. At a crossroads in security, the international community sees a pressing need to find a new solution to the old issue of major country confrontation. The answer calls for major countries to break through the constraints of traditional Western security theories; refresh their own security outlook; transcend zero-sum Cold War hegemonic thinking; and try to approach security from a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable perspective. This answer may not be singular, yet the global security initiative position that China recently published may provide us with some new thinking and inspiration.