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European security. Crisis? What crisis?

The tone of this year’s Munich Security Conferencethe Davos of global securitywas captured by the Munich Security Report’s theme: ‘Boundless chaos, reckless spoilers, helpless guardians.’ The front page headline on The Security Times, a conference special edition from the stable of Die Zeit, featured a box of matches and urged an appropriate response: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’

It is easy to explain and understand the widespread sense of crisis. Events and actions in Crimea, Donbass and Syria generate a mixture of trepidation and anger in many circles from a range of different perspectives. There is more agreement that these situations are tragic and hold risks that are even worse than we have already seen, than there is accord on what are the reasons, who is to blame and what to do.

These events occur against a background of long term risk shaped by growing inequalities, competition for natural resources and the consequences of climate change (on which I wrote for The Security Timessee page 40). Responses both to immediate events and the underlying risks are complicated by this century’s radical change in the pattern and distribution of world power. Here is a 2-minute run-through of the issues as I see them:


The first video in SIPRI's short-film series '2016—A Year of Reflection'.


A creaking system for risk management

Taken together, the short and the long term combine to create the feeling that the international risk and conflict management system, if not actually broken, is at least dented and creaking. US-Russian talks on nuclear arms control are not happening. An effort to get Syria negotiations going at Geneva makes no initial progress, and the practical worth of an agreement in Munich on the eve of the Security Conference to facilitate a Syria ceasefire was being queried on all sides within hours of the signing. Throughout the conference, the over-riding tendency in the speeches and comments by leading voices from both Russia and the Westamong others Russian Prime Minister Medvedev with his statement that deteriorating relations are starting a new Cold WarLavrovVallsKerrySteinmeiervon der LeyenLeDrianHammondMcCainMogheriniStoltenbergPoroshenkoDudareinforced the general atmosphere of mutual mistrust bordering on open hostility.

My impression of discussions in Munich amongst people who have long experience in, or close to or closely observing the centres of decision-making on trans-Atlantic security issues in Europe and the US was that today there is considerable unease, uncertainty and anxiety, sometimes combined with anger at one party or another. The targets for anger and disdain are multiple: aggressive Russia, passive Obama, headstrong Bush, feckless ‘old Europeans’, irresponsible ‘new Europeans’, over-eager Middle Eastern allies, you name it.

Whoever is pointing the finger at whomever, the general mood is far removed from the West’s confidence in the early years after the Cold War. That feels today like a bygone age.

Where to?

In these circumstances, there are broadly speaking two ways of moving ahead. One is to think about mistakes that have been made (Iraq, Libya, Syria), about possible crises to come in which each equally bad or worse mistakes might be made (Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria), and thus to contemplate and accept the limits of power. Following this line of thought, one conclusion might be that it is not possible to fix everything, and sometimes not even possible to fix anything; accordingly, outside assistance in complex crises and conflicts should often if not always be limited to humanitarian work. It is an approach of reduced expectations and reduced ambitions. It concentrates on The Security Times’s admonitionno stupid stuff.

It was clear that, off the record, a number of leading thinkers and opinion-leaders are starting to cleave to this line. They talked with a refreshing sense of collective self-awareness and self-criticism and some degree of humility.

The alternative path is to brush uncertainty aside and be strong. Senator John McCain made a short, effective speech, attacking western passivity in the face of Russia using ‘diplomacy in the service of military aggression.’

‘And it is working because we are letting it,’ he said. ‘The only deterrence that we seem to be establishing is over ourselves… (W)e cannot change course soon enough.’

To Raqqa?

This was one of the moments of the conference. McCain got the loudest applause. Even some whooping. And the twitter-sphere showed straightaway that there is also ‘a number of leading thinkers and opinion-makers’ who are attracted by this much more forceful approach.

Where the approach might lead was best illustrated by John McCain in the panel discussion after his speech, when he argued that issues in Syria would not be resolved until ISISor Daesh as it was on-message to say at the conferencewas denied territory. It was, McCain said, time to plan to retake Raqqa in north-central Syria; it could be done, he said, with a coalition of Sunni Arab forces and ‘American participation of some few thousand’.

If the risks of the harder line are obviousthere are good reasons, after all, why ‘boots on the ground’ has been a no-go thought about western intervention in Syria for five years, reasons called Iraq among othersthere are also risks to reduced expectations and humility. McCain is right at least in this, that not doing something can have as big an effect as doing something. Inactivity is a kind of action and indecision is itself a decision not to decide.

There is not an easy response to crisis. Ever.

Perspective: what constitutes a crisis?

But what if it is not really a crisis? Relations between Russia and the West are poor, it is true, except when they need to work together over Iranian nuclear weapons, or in implementing the START nuclear agreement, or perhaps over security in northeast Asia and especially the Korean peninsula.

What if a longer term historical perspective would say that the combination of Western self-confidence and supine Russian policy in the decade after the Cold War was bound to be transient? Then what is happening now in Syria and, on a lesser scale, in Ukraine would be seen for what it isa disaster for the peoplebut not as evidence of a collapse in the world order. An active policy would then be called for, but without the necessity of dramatic new departures.

'Crisis? What crisis?' newspaper headline
Newspaper headline.

The risk there is that business as usual, while often a comforting option, is also a recipe for complacency. In January 1979 as Britain headed into what became known as ‘the winter of discontent’, Prime Minister James Callaghan, returning from an economic summit in Guadeloupe of all places, fielded a question about the crisis. ‘I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos,’ he replied. The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, picked this up with a devastating headline: ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ And as has often been said since, those three words that Callaghan never said damned him and his government and ushered in the age of Margaret Thatcher.

Retrospective knowledge is a great thing. The Munich Security Conference was a fascinating but troublingand troubledevent.


Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.