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Can the world come back from the brink?

In his opening remarks at the recent 54th Munich Security Conference, the conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger asked, almost begged the line-up of senior politicians, diplomats and generals to present solutions, not to embark on blame games or fearmongering. As an experienced and shrewd diplomat, he was probably not surprised that his request fell on deaf ears. After three days of speeches and debates, the question mark in the conference’s title “To the Brink — and Back?” remains as valid, if not even more so, as it was when the delegates first arrived.
The conference encapsulated the profound paradoxes in our current security conditions. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that the international community is tackling poverty, disease, gender empowerment and other aspects of global development better than ever, with measures that on the face of it should reduce the likelihood of conflict. Yet, as Ischinger pointed out: “The warning signs are flashing in bright red… The world has moved much too close to the brink of major interstate conflict.”
This is a turn of events that only a few years ago most would not have envisaged, and the identity of the countries and the theater of war where they might face each other remain foggy and unclear. However, as we witness hostilities in Syria, where major powers are in dangerously close proximity; growing tensions in the Sahel region and in Yemen; the war of words between Iran and Israel, even during the conference; and, of course, the escalating tension between the United States and both North Korea and Iran; the threat of major interstate wars comes fearfully into focus.
There is a general agreement that the biggest threats to international security come from civil wars, terrorism, climate change, organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyberspace, and small arms (which kill up to 100,000 people every year in conflict zones). These security threats are often inter-related and exacerbate one another. A further consensus is that addressing such global security challenges requires leadership — but unfortunately this is in short supply, as is any in-depth understanding of the complexity of worldwide security issues, and how their political, economic and social aspects are inter-linked.
It was noticed and noted that this year’s Munich conference was short on world leaders’ participation and/or demonstration of such qualities. While the absence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was mainly due to her difficulties in forming a coalition, the absence of the US and French presidents, for example, demonstrates the weakening of transatlantic security cooperation, and consequently NATO’s ability to provide adequate answers to any future threats.

The Israel-Iran exchange has given everyone a taste of the reality that many international rivalries are one step away from the abyss of war.

Yossi Mekelberg

A major reason for this is that, for nearly a quarter of a century, Europe has stalled on defense spending. This was one of the dividends of the end of the Cold War, enabling resources to be diverted to public services instead. The 2008 financial crisis led to further cuts in expenditure on defense; nevertheless, this trend has stopped and even reversed since 2014 due to gradual improvements in economic conditions. An increase in GDP was only one side of the equation. The other was an increased perception of threats originating in the Middle East and Sahel region, and from the East, especially following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine. Security threats are closer to home and more immediate than they have been for a long time. Terrorist attacks claiming many lives and spreading fear across the continent have added a new security threat dimension.
There has been a noticeable and significant shift in attitudes to different security issues. It has become apparent that countering terrorism is not only about chasing militants around the world and using force and the weight of the law against them. It requires countering their narratives and changing the conditions that give extremists fertile ground for nurturing hatred and swelling their ranks: This is what matters in the long run. Not unrelated is the need to strengthen cybersecurity worldwide, not only with regard to direct cyberattacks, but also to the way information can be manipulated and distorted, and affect what we believe to the detriment of the democratic process. Eric Schmidt, the former Executive Chairman of Google, has asserted that: “The trust that has been built up in democracy is much easier to destroy than rebuild.”
But if anyone wanted proof that old-fashioned interstate hostility is alive and kicking, they need look no further than the war of words between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — in different sessions of the conference, needless to say. Netanyahu, waving a chunk of Iranian drone brought down in Israeli airspace, claimed that Iran was the “greatest threat to our world” and asked Zarif: “Do you recognize it? Don’t test us. You should, it’s yours.”
Zarif later dismissed Netanyahu’s performance as “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”. But he responded all the same, and accused the Israeli leader of attempting to instigate anti-Iranian “hysteria.” Israel’s growing tensions with Iran and its Hezbollah proxy along the borders with Syria and Lebanon, not to mention Netanyahu’s difficulties at home, might well lead to its first direct confrontation with Iran, especially with this kind of toxic rhetoric in the air.
The exchange may have added some theatricals to an otherwise subdued conference, but it gave everyone a taste of the reality that, beyond the polite conversations on a range of security threats, lie many international rivalries that are on the brink — one step away from the abyss of war.
  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg