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Global Order on the line: War, law, and humanity at Munich

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Vice President Harris delivers what has been billed as a ‘major foreign policy speech’ in which she strongly reiterates the Biden administration’s intent to continue US global leadership, which she frames as central to US strategic interests, while seizing the opportunity to counter Trump’s rhetoric, the writer says. – Picture: cc by 3.0 de deed / Munich Security Conference / February 16, 2024

By Adam Lupel and Jenna Russo

It was a moment that no one present will soon forget. Just hours after the news broke of her husband’s death in a Russian prison, Yulia Navalnaya took the stage at the 60th Annual Munich Security Conference (MSC), in a previously unscheduled appearance, immediately following US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Few could imagine the strength it must have taken to speak to the assembled crowd about her husband’s death at the hands of the government he opposed. She spoke with clarity. Putin and his associates will face justice — not must, but will, she warned.

This moment, followed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s compelling in-person address the next morning, underlined the fact that, for the European-based security crowd gathered in Munich, there was no more important question than the threat of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the fate of Ukraine.

Centred on the theme of Lose-Lose?, this year’s conference focused on the vicious circle of zero-sum thinking, relative gains, and the unequal sharing of the proverbial pie. While many of the topics discussed this year were typical for the MSC, including the value of strengthened co-operation and the need to bolster international law and order, the mood was gloomier than a year ago. A consensus seemed to emerge among participants that international peace and security is likely to worsen before it gets better.

A small delegation from the International Peace Institute (IPI) attended the conference again this year, in part to co-host a side event. Here are some of our takeaways.

Looking Forward

The topic of reform is once again prevalent around the United Nations (UN), as evident in the upcoming Summit of the Future and growing calls to ensure that institutions are more reflective of today’s world order. While the summit is less on the mind of diplomats outside of New York, the forward-looking need for change was repeated throughout Munich — a conference that is heavily Trans-Atlantic, but slowly leaning more global.

Overall, this year’s MSC made some strides to better reflect global perspectives among its participants and in its sessions. Over a quarter of this year’s participants hailed from countries in the Global South, despite the conference’s timing again overlapping with the African Union Annual Summit. The opening session to the conference featured the Prime Minister of Barbados, and the Presidents of Colombia and Ghana, along with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, setting a more global tone from the start. Side sessions on Sudan, Haiti, and the Sahel also helped to widen the geographic scope of discussion.

These are important steps, and the MSC and its annual report have made strides by acknowledging that it is “unsurprising that many in the Global South try to defy the growing pressure to pick a side in the great-power competition, which would frustrate their ability to seek mutual benefits with a variety of states”. This is welcome progress from last year, in which such nations were described as “fence-sitters” who needed to be cajoled to join the side of liberal democracy.

Yet, the 2024 MSC report still refers to mere “perceptions” of inequity among the Global South, and even claims that countries in this group are among the greatest beneficiaries of the rise of relative-sum politics, as they can capitalize on geopolitical rivalries to get the best deals for trade and investment. Such perspectives fail to acknowledge the exploitation that continues to drive much of the investment, particularly on the African continent.

In discussing the future of the international system, UN Secretary-General Guterres articulated the need to create “a global order that works for everyone”. This was echoed by Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, who noted that it is not sufficient to simply grow the pie if the pieces are not distributed more equitably. Today’s institutions display a shocking state of power imbalance and a paradigm in which one part of the world suffers while the other prospers. As leaders discussed how to restore trust in multilateral institutions, President Afuko-Addo noted that any quest to restore trust will not be achieved until this imbalance is corrected.

Anxiety about America

Amid conversations about the future of global institutions, the role of the United States (US) remained a subject of great uncertainty. Anxieties about a potential second Trump presidency were accentuated by his recent comments that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members not living up to their financial obligations. All of this added up to great unease among Nato members and other partners regarding the future of US politics, and whether the US may play the role of partner or spoiler in future cooperation efforts.

Seizing the opportunity to counter Trump’s rhetoric, Vice President Harris delivered what was billed as a “major foreign policy speech” in which she strongly reiterated the Biden administration’s intent to continue US global leadership, which she framed as central to US strategic interests. She further reiterated the administration’s iron-clad commitment to Nato, while also referencing a new era of partnership with African leaders and nations that is “not about aid, but about partnership, not about what we do for the Continent, but what we do with the Continent and its leaders”.

During the conference, multiple world leaders expressed their unwavering support for Ukraine, including Vice President Harris, who stated that the US “will support Ukraine for as long as it takes”. However, domestic challenges pose hurdles, with US House Republicans threatening to strike down a bill that would provide more than $60 billion in funding for Ukraine. Other countries face similar challenges, as some domestic constituencies are wavering in their support of a war effort that has now stretched over two years and shows no signs of ending soon. The reality is beginning to sink in, and Ukraine may find itself reaching the limits of its donor support soon.

While the war in Ukraine presented a clear rallying point for MSC participants, with Russia as a long-time common foe, messaging on Gaza was more mixed. While there was a strong consensus on the need to protect civilians and uphold international humanitarian law, foreign policies towards Israel present more contradictory stances. For example, in discussing why Germany did not call for an immediate ceasefire, the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said it was important to see matters from both sides and to step out of “black or white” paradigms. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken similarly stated the need to consider the complexity of the situation, even noting that, “while as human beings, we are intensely driven to try and stop human suffering, including the suffering of men, women, and children in Gaza. The question is how to do it most effectively…”

As the civilian death toll in Gaza continued to mount with each passing hour, such nuanced positions further fuelled accusations of Western double-standards when compared with the clarity of the condemnations against Putin. Meanwhile, back-to-back sessions on day two of the conference titled, Towards Stability and Peace in the Middle East: De-escalation Challenge (Parts I-II), provided little hope that policies, pressure, or plans were in place to provide either peace or stability any time soon.

Global Order on the Line

Perhaps because of this confusion and division around Gaza, Ukraine remained the rallying point in Munich. For the Trans-Atlantic participants of MSC, the war in Ukraine has come to represent something larger than the future of the country or even the region itself. It is illustrative of the broader battle for the future of the international rules-based order — a framing that Zelenskyy has embraced to mobilize continued support for the war. Yet, the outlook for total victory appeared more distant than a year ago, with Zelenskyy’s speech coming against the backdrop of Russian forces taking Avdiivka, a city that had long been an important military stronghold for Ukraine.

Notwithstanding these challenges, there was a strong sense that a Russian victory in any form would equal a significant unstitching of the laws and norms that hold our current system together — particularly around the use of force in ways that contradict international law and the UN Charter. Putin’s war is a war on the rule-based order, a war against “any rule at all”, as Zelenskyy put it — any rule but the rule of force.

Such contexts, and the continued flouting of international laws, have raised concerns as to the survival of the system and the basic norms that underpin it. At the same time, the institutions designed to maintain such normative frameworks — including the UN — are bending under the weight of political tensions and crises of legitimacy. This was emphasised in the UN Secretary-General’s opening remarks when he described the global community as “more fragmented and divided than at any time during the past 75 years”.

It was within this context that IPI co-hosted a working lunch at MSC in partnership with The Elders Foundation, a group founded by Nelson Mandela to provide global wisdom and leadership for peace. The topic of the event was “Global Order on the Line”, in which participants reflected on crises related to international law, the global order, democracy, the fate of our climate, and the long-term maintenance of international peace and security — not just in Ukraine and Gaza, but around the world, in Sudan, Haiti, Myanmar, and beyond.

It is all on the line in 2024: international law, global order, democracy, the fate of our climate, and the long-term maintenance of international peace and security. The old systems we have had to deal with these issues are failing, and the new ones have yet to be born. How can we bridge the gap? In the words of The Elders, we need long-view leadership to address the existential crises faced by all humanity and urgent statesmanship to douse the flames that threaten to burn out of control right now. One might hope that a gathering such as the Munich Security Conference would be the place for such leadership and statesmanship to emerge. It did not.

Speaking at a session on international humanitarian law, Mirjana Spoljaric, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, asked, how do we rebuild multilateralism and global order in a time of such division? We must start with our humanity, she said. In all conflicts, from Ukraine to Gaza, Sudan, Myanmar, and beyond, all civilians deserve protection. It is an important reminder. When so much is on the line, and divisions continue to widen, we have our humanity in common, and we must consistently build from there.

Adam Lupel is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Jenna Russo is Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Centre for Peace Operations at IPI. IPI’s participation in the Munich Security Conference is thanks to the support of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New York Office.

This article was first published on Global Observatory