2020 Munich Security Conference: Back to Utopia?

The faded media hype surrounding the Munich Conference provides an opportunity to calmly and soberly look at the annual report which was prepared on the eve the event. Its content raises a number of important issues, both for the West and for the East. And although the wall of ideological and political alienation is getting higher, they need at least to be voiced. 

One of the key questions is: who are we? The Munich Security Conference is rightfully considered the central intellectual and political event of the Western world. Moreover, the problem of the identity of the West itself, as well as its future, is becoming an increasingly acute issue. The published report is an indicator of this trend. Compared to previous years, the text became more alarming; dividing lines are markedly more clear. Perhaps, not a single Munich report so openly delineated the boundary between “us” and “them”. As a result, the report is becoming, more and more a political product rather than an intellectual one. As usual, there is an abundance of numbers, graphs and footnotes. But they act as little more than an aftertaste, the justification of an already-formed and seldom questioned point of view. 

The key points are simple. The West is going through difficult times. Serious contradictions have been outlined within the “community of democracies.” They are not critical yet, but the West is losing the ability to act on a number of issues in a consolidated and systematic way. Autocrats and revisionists, such as Russia, China, Iran and others, are rushing to take advantage of their problems. They divide the West, incite contradictions, advance their own interests and do not want to share the Western values. All of this is compounded by global problems, where climate change is the most acute one. Disagreements prevent their resolution. But the West is still strong. It is grounded in the right ideas, advanced institutions and technologies. The autocracies, despite their success, are fragmented and internally weak. So the West has a historic chance and opportunity to maintain and reform the liberal world order. 

The advantage of such a picture is that it is universal, simple and extremely understandable to wide circles – from politicians and generals to ordinary citizens. In its own way, it is archetypal, and fits well into a wider circle of narratives. The audience chewing popcorn in a movie sees a similar picture in an uncomplicated artistic image. Gallant rebels are fighting with the empire for freedom in a distant, distant galaxy. Masculine James Bond destroys the next gaggle of Eastern or Asian-looking villains, as well as Russian villains and mafiosi, while at the same time crushing furniture and wrecking expensive cars. All of them destroy the complex conspiracy against freedom and bring good. Strictly speaking, the creation and language of the average man differs little from the consciousness of a politician and an expert. The latter simply express the same pattern using abstruse, more sophisticated language, which does not always reflect the nature and source of their conclusions. The same mechanism works in other communities, including ours. There are other heroes, narratives and dividing lines. It is difficult to determine which people are advanced and which are backward. The collective mind works approximately the same in the West, in the East, in the North and in the South. It is not too different from primitive thinking. We tend to place ourselves at the centre of existence and stigmatize the “other”, forming symbolic boundaries through a plausible myth. We create utopias and dystopias, further tearing ourselves away from reality. The moment of crisis comes when we forget the original essence of utopia, when it begins to live its own life.

The Munich report gives its own version of the answer to the question “who are we?” The West is a community of liberal democracies that respect human rights, advocates for international cooperation and lives by the rules of the market economy. This formula is known to everybody. One used to take it for granted. Although I, for example, cannot fully understand where to pinpoint the countries in which liberalism has not been very popular. In Europe there are many. For example, are social democratic systems liberal democracies? This remains a big question. But there is another side. 

Democracy and human rights, for all the importance of both phenomena, are the consequence, not the reason why the West is what it is. Historians will argue for a long time about which set of reasons can be applied. Obviously, there are many of them. From the germination of capitalism in North-Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, to religious ethics, the role of cities and even feudal fragmentation. However, we can confidently single out one essential feature, which is often identified with the West. It is about applying a rational approach to the economy and political systems, their submission to the requirements of efficiency, going hand in hand with disciplinary control and involving ever-wider masses of people. In political philosophy, these phenomena are denoted as the concept of modernity. The basic feature of the West is “modernity” with its mass rationality as a goal, means and value all rolled into one. Liberalism, with its faith in the human mind and progress, is a typical ideology of modernity. But socialism is also typical for modernity, because it is based on the same rationality and fixation on the progressive possibilities of the human mind. Their shadow was conservatism, with its pessimism towards human nature, confidence in the limitations of his mind in relation to the complexity of nature and society, and a sense of threat, in response to the “rationality machine” that was gaining momentum. It is noteworthy that few people will venture to refer to modern Western democracy as conservative. Meanwhile, conservatism is an integral part of the prevailing variety of democratic systems. Their reduction to liberalism is a cliché, far removed from the reality of modern political systems and the ideas behind them.

“Modernity” has generated both benefits and costs. The colossal energy of rationality and mass economics, politics and culture have led to an unprecedented emancipation, sweeping away the old order. For four centuries, this process was accompanied by a lot of bloodshed. In Europe, the situation was stabilised only in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s true that the payment for emancipation and the newly-won “negative liberty” was a disciplinary society with its narrowing of individual autonomy. Paradoxically, disciplinary power is rooted both in autocratic societies (making them totalitarian) and in relatively democratic systems. Effective power is needed by both. 

The most important result of the modernisation of the West was a colossal and faster growth of military power. Foreign policy itself and constant wars were the most important motivation for rationalisation. They walked hand in hand. The West itself has long been politically divided, becoming the epicentre of conflicts. Even individual countries in the shortest possible time (by historical standards) have become a mortal threat to the survival of the rest. The only way to contain them is to rationalise its own system and military organisation. The modernity turned the Hobbesian “war of all against all” into a race to enhance the efficiency and rationality of military machines, political systems and instruments of disciplinary control. 

It seems that in Russia, the authorities understood this faster than anyone. It would be a mistake to position Russia solely as a victim of the West and the target of its “imperialistic” goals. The predatory instincts of the Russian state were comparable to the appetites of their neighbours. The lag in the “pursuit for power” threatened with serious consequences. Openness to Western innovations, the introduction of their own, and the continuous improvement of military organisation became an attribute of Russian politics for centuries. Fear, the struggle for survival, and foreign policy ambitions were mixed into this race. Each time, Russia managed to make a quantum leap sufficient to survive and achieve significant political goals. But it was insufficient to systematically overcome the backwardness of Russia’s economy and institutions. Modernisation was often one-sided, reduced to the organisation of the army and bureaucracy. In any event, its impact on social change is hardly underestimated. The Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka once called it “fake modernity”, that is, the creation of the attributes of a modern society without necessary roots for this. However, it allowed Russia to achieve one important goal. Russia managed to escape the fate of India and China. The largest economies in the recent past were mercilessly crushed and humiliated by modern, powerful Western countries. Russia itself has long been in the mainstream of Western diplomacy, skilfully manoeuvring between coalitions and maintaining a balance of power. Modernisation has become a means of survival in the anarchist world of predatory states. 

The problem with the Munich Conference report is that it completely ignores the motivation of non-Western countries in acting in one way or another. In essence, it reduces the problem to a political set-up. Russia, China, Iran and others are bad because they are autocracies and do not share Western values. Therefore, they strive to attack the enlightened West. Perhaps they really do not share the values, although their set remains as stamped as the concept of liberal democracy. But their main motive, nevertheless, is completely unrelated. It comes down to security issues.


All countries identified in the report as problematic for the West have one thing in common: a sense of danger from outside, including from the West. This feeling can sometimes be too excessive. Political leaders and individual lobbyists often use it to legitimise certain decisions. However, it is important that Russia, China, Iran, and many other countries maintain a sense of vulnerability. The presentation of the case only in the form of a conflict between democracies and aggressive autocracies moves us away from the essence of the matter. But the essence is the threat of the use of force or other unfriendly action. The report says a lot that the West faces such threats. But it has missed that “assertive autocrats” are facing exactly the same threats. And for them, the West is one of the sources of threat. In the modern world, no one can guarantee that the power of the West, which the report outlined with a sense of relief, can be used “for other purposes.” The same fact that many Western countries are democracies (an achievement worthy of respect) hardly precludes the possibility that some of them could be predators in the international arena. 

The real problem of modern international relations is to reduce security risks. It requires an understanding of the motives and reasons for how the respective players behave. Without a doubt, democracy, human rights and open society are important issues. But the solution to this problem is the business of each individual country. International relations are not limited to the topic of the political regime. International security requires a dialogue in terms of interests and mutual compromises. A schematic perception of the world which reflects an “us and them” mentality is an inevitable feature of human nature. However, it lacks empathy, dulls the diplomatic instinct and leads to errors in decision-making. The presence of solid principles should be respected. But their conversion into dogma leads to disappointment and estrangement.

The part of the report directly devoted to Russia caused some surprise. Its headline is very eloquent – “Putemkin’s State”. The reference to the Potemkin village, apparently, is meant to underscore that Russian foreign policy, despite some successes, is historically mistaken. There is no basis for its long-term success. Sooner or later, time will take its toll, dropping Russia to the place that it deserves. The report does not disclose the issue thoroughly and simply comes down to listing alarming trends: Russia’s rapprochement with China, activity in the Middle East, discrediting Western democracy, destabilising Ukraine, etc. However, the report does not offer clear ideas for developing relations with Moscow, except the famous quote by French President Emmanuel Macron that isolating Russia from Europe is a big strategic mistake. The reader should hardly be surprised about the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. Indeed, it is listed as a threat in the report. An attempt to make two large countries as pariahs is not the best solution.


The situation in the modern world leads us to seriously consider the growing threats. The key one is the risk of strategic miscalculations in decision-making, which can lead to a major armed conflict. Reducing this risk is a key task for political leaders, diplomats and experts. This will require flexibility, political wisdom, empathy and the ability to assess the situation through the eyes of others. Ideology is unlikely to be a great helper here.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.