Annual multilateral gathering reflects the anxiety of Western countries in a turbulent world
By Ma Miaomiao  ·  2024-02-26  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 29, 2024
Munich Security Conference (MSC) Chairman Christoph Heusgen speaks during the closing of the 60th MSC in Munich, Germany, on February 18 (XINHUA)

'Why are governments around the world increasingly concerned about relative gains and losses? How can world leaders promote an open and rules-based international order that better delivers on its promised mutual benefits—and thus grows the proverbial pie for more states?"—These are questions outlined in the Munich Security Report 2024, released before the 60th edition of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which took place in Munich, Germany, from February 16 to 18.

Answers to these questions still seem to be beyond reach. Pessimism and anxiety now are the elephants in the room, and are difficult to dispel, both inside and outside of the MSC venue, Cui Hongjian, a professor at the Academy of Regional and Global Governance of Beijing Foreign Studies University and Deputy Director of Chinese Association for European Studies, told the Chinese newspaper Global Times, after participating in the conference.

The world is deeply concerned about geopolitical events, including conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, the Red Sea crisis, political turmoil in the Sahel Region of Africa and the security of the Indo-Pacific region, he said, adding that, for the West, security anxiety continues to mount.


The MSC, inaugurated in 1963 as a venue for dialogue among allied countries in the West, has grown into an international platform for high-level discourse on global security issues and a venue for diplomatic initiatives to address security concerns.

"Although the circle of participants has grown over the years, this 'Davos of Defense' still adopts a Western-centric mentality," read a report from Xinhua News Agency.

Despite the intensive discussions on a wide range of topics during this year's conference, due to their biased positions and divergent interests, it's hard for the Western countries as a whole to reach a consensus, Cui echoed.

"The global community is more fragmented and divided than at any time in the past 75 years," United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said while addressing the conference on February 16, adding that "global governance in its present form is entrenching divisions and fueling discontent."

The MSC report also pointed out the conspicuous deficiencies in the existing international order, under which developing countries in the Global South are dissatisfied as they are not receiving their due benefits and complain that "rules-based" order actually means Western rules while developed countries that used to champion the current order also build grudges as they are finding their benefits are diminishing.

The Global South refers to countries that are considered to have a relatively low level of economic and industrial development and are typically located to the south of the world's more industrialized countries.

Zero-sum mentality centered on "relative gains" has plunged the world into a dilemma of "lose-lose," the report highlighted.

"Prioritizing relative payoffs may well spur lose-lose dynamics of inter-governmental interactions while jeopardizing cooperation and undermining an international order that, despite its obvious flaws, can still help grow the proverbial pie for the benefit of all," it continued.

According to Guterres, a global order that works for everyone must address the gaps and provide solutions. "We must work based on justice, with renewed urgency and solidarity," he said. "A safer world—and a bigger pie—for all."

Munich Security Conference (MSC) Chairman Christoph Heusgen speaks during the opening of the 60th MSC in Munich, Germany, on February 16 (XINHUA)

China's voice 

Regarding this pessimism and anxiety in the West, China's views drew wide attention at the conference.

China is willing to be a stabilizer to promote cooperation among major countries, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, also a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said at the Conversation With China session on February 17, adding that major countries bear the key responsibility for global strategic stability.

The more turbulent the international situation is, the more major countries should enhance coordination; The more conspicuous the risks and challenges are, the more major countries should promote cooperation, Wang said.

"At a time when economic globalization is facing a backlash and trade protectionism is prevalent, China remains committed to advancing globalization and contributing to global economic recovery and development through multilateral cooperation such as cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative," Cui explained, adding that "the West should also truly return to cooperation." The Belt and Road Initiative was proposed by China in 2013 to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes.

Sun Chenghao, a researcher at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, said Chinese proposals, such as the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, the Global Civilizations Initiative that promotes shared value of humanity and the Belt and Road Initiative, cater to all parties' needs and contribute to a more just and equitable international order.

Wang also stressed at the Conversation With China session that China has worked to "explore a Chinese way of addressing hotspot issues, one that advocates non-interference in internal affairs of other nations and opposes imposing one's will on others; upholds impartiality and justice and opposes pursuing selfish interests; seeks political settlement and opposes using force; aims to address both symptoms and root causes and opposes myopia and one-sidedness."

Lose-lose outcomes must be avoided by all parties, and more and more countries are now aware of this, Wang said at a joint press conference with his Spanish counterpart José Manuel Albares in the southern Spanish city Cordoba on February 18, during his visit to the European country.

The remarks followed questions from the media about the "lose-lose dynamics" highlighted in the MSC report. Wang called for a collective pursuit of win-win situations, urging countries to unite rather than divide, adhere to accommodating each other's core interests, discard ideological biases, and reject bloc confrontations.

"If Western countries fail to update their political positions and especially their view of international order according to the current circumstances, they are likely to continue being stuck in a 'lose-lose' dilemma," Cui warned.

What to do 

Many global security challenges are manmade, which means "they can be changed by men and women," MSC Chairman Christoph Heusgen said in his opening address at the annual gathering, drawing attention to the "silver lining" amid the "doom and gloom" of the global situation.

The MSC report suggests that growing the pie could assuage the discontent with the existing global order. However, countries in the Global South believe that the problem they are facing is not how to make the pie bigger, but how to share it more equitably, Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said.

"The point at issue is the world's distribution mechanism, which needs to be improved to give a fair share to developing countries," Sun told Xinhua.

The West believes that reforming the distribution mechanism to allow developing countries to share more benefits means that developed countries in the West will get less.

The West does not think about how to make the pie bigger but just focuses on the amount of distribution, which is the root cause of the "lose-lose" dilemma, he explained.

The Global South has become a buzzword in this year's MSC report, as well as an increasingly important part of the security discussions in Munich in recent years, however, according to Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, something is "fundamentally wrong" with the current system, which does not provide an occasion for the Global South to talk.

"It can't be the voice of one or two in speeches or conferences such as this, and what the global system misses is an effective mechanism for decision-making," she said during the MSC, calling for enhanced international collaboration in areas such as climate change governance, while urging wealthier nations to act more assertively. 

(Print Edition: Where Is 'Security?') 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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