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Round Table 2016: Blog

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Cale Salih [cs] and Parke Nicholson [pn], two participants of the Munich Young Leaders 2016, are going to share their personal impressions from the 52nd Munich Security Conference and the discussions of the Munich Young Leaders in our blog. They will be supported by Julia Döhrn and Martin Wilk, who are going to write for our German blog. You can subscribe to a list of all tweeting Munich Young Leaders 2016 here.

14 February 2016 - 8pm

[cs] The 52nd Munich Security Conference started with what was poised to be a historic note: the announcement of a Russian-American cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access agreement on Syria. But over the following days of Russian, American and European speeches and meetings on the sidelines, the prospects of successful implementation faded dramatically. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on the accord were far more cautious than they were celebratory; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the deal was more likely to fail within a week than not; and US Senator John McCain dealt a necessary dose of cynicism, flatly saying that the agreement “permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week.” Today, it became clear that even McCain’s cynicism was insufficient – Russia declared that it would continue to bomb Aleppo even if a ceasefire agreement is reached. That is because the devil is in the detail: the Munich agreement excludes ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the latter of which has some presence in Aleppo. Some progress has been made on the humanitarian element of the agreement. Yet in the absence of a measure that protects civilians – primarily from the regime’s bombs - it seems the war in Syria is bound to become an even uglier lesion on the West’s conscience in 2016.

On a personal note, this experience with the Munich Young Leaders has been profoundly rewarding, both professionally and personally. It was an honor to be part of such a distinguished and diverse group, and I am grateful to be returning home to Barcelona with new ideas, inspirations and friends – and already looking very much forward to our next reunion. Above all, I am deeply indebted to everyone at the Körber Foundation for making possible this outstanding and unforgettable opportunity.

14 February 2016 - 7 pm

[ pn] Questions about the global order surfaced throughout the Munich Security Conference. Wolfgang Ischinger launched the event with an appeal for "more Europe" and cited the long list of challenges beyond its borders. He ultimately concluded the three days of morose discussions with an appeal to countries to think beyond the "bleak picture" of global security, including failures of governance at all levels and the "broken trust" between warring countries and civilian populations and the governments that supposedly represent them.

The conference's themes spanned the globe with the notable exception of Latin America. Africa was included for the first time. China was the focus of a few discussions about East Asia, but much of the assembled leaders' time was focused on Russia and the myriad challenges in the Middle East - above all, the Syrian and refugee crisis.

Fellow Munich Young Leader and former South African opposition leader Lindiwe  Mazibuko made a stirring plea to those assembled to consider the future of a continent with over a dozen leaders over 70 who have held power for decades despite a young, disenfranchised population (the average age in Africa is 19).

MYL participant Dr. Wang Dong highlighted the growing Western anxiety about China's role in global governance. In one of the most thoughtful panels of the entire conference (sponsored by the Mercator Institute for China Studies), the Chinese representative contrasted her country's conception of a broader-based "international order" with the predominantly U.S.-led "world order" - particularly its focus on democratic values and "exclusive military blocs." However, the other panelists (Corker, Rudd, Ng) agreed that China's goals and its own definition of "values" remain opaque.

Whither Europe? Participants at the MSC could hardly remember a time when the fate of the entire European project seemed to hang in the balance. Would France and Germany take the lead in providing security in the Mediterranean region? Could Southeastern countries overcome the refugee crisis and maintain momentum towards European integration? Was a Brexit really likely? Would Russia's continued use of military force forestall any progress in Ukraine and Syria? 

Lastly, the Middle East seemed to be moving from one crisis to the next. A regional architecture to support peace seemed far from sight in light of the Sunni-Shia divide and the near total breakdown of social structure and political institutions. As my fellow MYL blogger Cale Salih pointed out, the regions' leaders seem more intent in blaming and seeking relative advantage over each other than acting responsibly to preserve what is left of regional order and the prosperity of their people.

13. Februar 2016 - 12 am

[cs] Syria dominated the agenda today again, and Russia was in the hot seat. Various speakers rebuked Russia for its bombing of civilians and moderate opposition groups in Syria, often provoking the audience’s applause. Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaitė minced no words when lambasting Russia’s military action in Ukraine and Syria. Poroshenko delivered an emotional speech, saying “Mr. Putin, this is not a civil war in Ukraine, this is your aggression… this is not a civil war in Syria, this is your planes bombing civilians.” Grybauskaitė drew equivalence between Russia’s bombing and ISIS’s actions in Syria. She flatly labeled Russia’s actions as terrorism. Moderator Nicholas Burns introduced the NATO session on the blunt note of: “Russian aggression is paramount.” John Kerry delivered an earnest speech, saying that most of Russia’s attacks in Syria have been against “legitimate opposition groups.” Kerry further warned that if Assad and his allies (i.e. Russia) believe that by defying the will of the international community they can win the war, they have not learned the lessons of the past five years. “The Syrians who have rejected Assad,” he said toward the implied direction of Moscow, “have endured four years of shelling, barrel bombs, gas, Scud missiles, chemical attacks, torture; and they may be pushed back here or there, but they are not going to surrender… the more successful people are in standing up Assad, at the same time, the more successful they will be in attracting more jihadis to the fight.” Kerry’s remarks also betrayed the US’s anxiety over whether or not Russia will abide by the agreement to deliver immediate humanitarian aid and cease hostilities within a week. “This is the moment. This is a hinge point,” he said. “Decisions made in the coming days and weeks and few months could end the war in Syria – or it could define a very difficult set of choices for the future.”

The Russian speakers of the day - Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - returned the cold shoulder. Medvedev said plainly: “Speaking bluntly, we are rapidly rolling into a period of a new cold war… I am sometimes confused: is this 2016 or 1962?” Even more stingingly, he said “Daesh should be grateful to my colleagues, the leaders of the Western countries who have suspended this [security] cooperation [between Russia and the West].”

It is perhaps worth asking if such publicized Western ganging up on Russia does more harm than good by feeding Russian fears of Western aggression and plots against them.



12 February 2016 - 8pm

[pn] Two now familiar myths emerged about the United States on the first day of the MSC Young Leaders program. First, that the US has become disinterested in Europe. Second, that it is actively disengaging itself from the world. Both are false, but it nonetheless seems that some American pundits' self-defeating narrative about "decline" have been taken at face value by observers abroad.

In his summary of the day's events, Carnegie's Jan Techau was struck by the absence of any discussion about U.S. foreign policy despite the MSC typically being the "high mass" of transatlantic relations. Yet the White House recently proposed to quadruple U.S. defense spending, a U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement in Syria had been announced the morning the conference opened, and Washington has dominated the military campaign against Daesh - the subject of several hours of discussion at the MSC main forum. Oddly enough, the most visible American presence was on a "night owl" session in health security - two U.S. generals including former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Is the immense U.S. global footprint now being taken for granted? Unlikely. In private discussions, its clear that Washington looms large whether it is an active player or not. Perhaps this points to the difficulty and often reluctance of U.S. officials to clearly explain American policies, its aims and commitments. More optimistically, it may mean that allies like France and Germany are more willing to take the initiative in addressing pressing international security challenges - without constant reference to the transatlantic alliance.

12 February 2016 - 7 pm 

[cs] Today the MSC kicked off with Wolfgang Iscshinger’s welcome remarks, which included a reference to the “encouraging” example set just hours before by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The pair announced early this morning an agreement to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria and to cease hostilities within a week. But there remains widespread skepticism about the proposal. Some fear that the agreement - if it is indeed implemented - would in effect grant Russia one more week to try to deliver the Assad regime its most important victory yet in the war: Aleppo.

Many of the conference's subsequent speakers maintained the focus on the threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, although Jordan’s King Abdullah reminded the audience that combatting extremism requires a global effort that goes beyond the Middle East to also encompass Africa and Asia. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi highlighted Iraq’s successes in fighting ISIS, saying “we have liberated more than half of what was occupied by Daesh,” but warned that the collapse in oil prices risks causing other kinds of collapses, especially in a country like Iraq where 90% of the budget depends on oil. The speaker who offered the most concrete - albeit difficult to implement - policy recommendations aimed at targeting the root causes of ISIS was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. Jubeir said that in order to defeat ISIS, the international community must deal with "two elephants in the room": first, that the brutal rule of the Assad regime, which must be brought to an end; and second, that the reforms that Abadi proposed in mid-2015 aimed at creating a more inclusive Iraqi state must be implemented. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later chided Saudi Arabia for what he called a policy of “exclusion” including efforts to shut out Iran from the Syria peace talks.

But as always at high-level conferences like these, the more interesting, frank and consequential conversations are those that are happening off stage. A number of rare and notable meetings took place on the sidelines of the conference today, including between Jordanian King Abdullah and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon, as well as between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.


11 February 2016 - 12am

[cs] I am really delighted to be at the Munich Security Conference as part of such a dynamic and energetic group of Munich Young Leaders. One of the overarching themes of this year’s conference is the breakdown of the international political order, from the increasing boundlessness of conflict perhaps most aptly exemplified by the relentless war in Syria, to the unprecedented calling into question of the European Union’s premise in reaction to the worst refugee crisis since WWII, to the burgeoning security threat posed by climate change. This year’s Munich Security Report alerts us that “The world, especially as seen from the West, may indeed be in its worst shape since the end of the Cold War.” I am eager to observe how MSC participants will address the growing risk of the disintegration of the international order. Will their discussion focus on how to most efficiently restore the familiar status quo ante, or emphasize the need to find a new and different one?

Munich is already turning out to be a critical platform for that debate vis a vis one of the most complex and pressing geopolitical dilemmas of the time: how should the West react to Russia’s military intervention in Syria? US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met today to discuss a potential ceasefire in Syria and the Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo. Just before arriving in Munich, Kerry stressed the urgency of these talks, saying he intends to test Russian “seriousness”. “And if they’re not serious, then there has to be consideration of a Plan B,” he said. But while the US wants an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access to besieged areas, Russia is reportedly proposing a ceasefire by March 1. It remains to be seen how far Kerry can get with diplomacy, but early reports suggest modest progress in the negotiations. A subject to follow closely at this year’s MSC!



11 Februar 2016 - 12 am

[pn] An Optimist's Global Order

Tonight marked the opening of the eighth year of the Koerber Stiftung's Munich Young Leaders program. Initially meant to bridge the Cold War divide between East and West, the Stiftung now brings together serious-minded professionals from a more diverse set of countries from around the world. It is in a sense a testing ground of a new approach to global order, one that a new generation of leaders will inherit.

We have long moved past the old days of balance of power politics that took assemblies of (unelected) statesmen to cleanly settle international discord. Power was often preserved, but it lacked legitimacy as many countries and constituencies were left out. Today, leaders assemble perhaps even more frequently, but they cannot act. The international system's rules are understood, but no country seems prepared to enforce them.

This week our group will explore today's challenges with an eye toward the future. We have already brooded over the refuge crisis, the intractable conflict in Syria, and caught a glimpse of how much we could learn from each other's national perspectives. How we define our common interests may help us explore the extent this can lead to collective action. Because if the current generation cannot act, the burden will only be left to another.

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