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The Grand Munich Security Narrative

As the Munich Security Conference releases its conference agenda on Monday, the big question is how Chairman Christoph Heusgen and his team will make sense of Israel’s war in Gaza.

By: Magnus Løvold

Next Friday, the world—or some version of it—will descend upon the prestigious Hotel Bayerischer Hof for the 2024 Munich Security Conference. For the western security policy establishment, the conference is the indisputable high point of the year; the place to be and to be seen (or, at least, not entirely overlooked).

A sort of Met Gala, only for people with worry lines, speaking points, and extensive CVs.   

The list of attendees is, “for security reasons” (obviously), a closely guarded secret until the agenda is released “shortly before” the conference. But if history is any guide, the gathering will draw presidents and prime ministers, secretaries-general and other generals, parliamentarians and civil society leaders from Europe, North America and, to some extent, the world beyond.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, is rumoured to make an appearance, according to the German outlet Tagesspiegel. Officials from Russia and Iran are, perhaps not surprisingly not invited

Since its inception in 1963 under the name Internationale Wehrkunde-Begegnung, the Munich Security Conference (or “MSC”, as insiders call it) has been characterised in multiple ways: The Davos of defence, a transatlantic family meeting, or — as the organisers now prefer — “the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy”.

But more than anything, MSC is a grand narrative factory — a place where western leaders, in their efforts to comprehend the bewildering set of events known as “world politics”, can come together to find a sense of purpose. Over three days at the foot of the Bavarian alps, policymakers weave their storylines together, hoping that out of it all, a coherent, compelling and — for the doubtful — consoling tapestry of meaning will emerge.

Ever wondered how your foreign minister can speak with such confidence about what’s going on in the world? If you look closely enough, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to trace her intercontinental zingers back to the proceedings of MSC.

While the conference is presented as a mere gathering, it has, much like its well-heeled big brother, the World Economic Forum, evolved over time into much more than a meeting place.

Within the circle of the world’s most influential individuals, MSC chooses which voices to platform, and which to silence. They decide which questions that merit debate, and which should never be asked. They select which issues to link, and which to keep apart.

Most importantly, they define, through their annual reports, the principal fault lines in world politics.

Under Christoph Heusgen’s chairmanship, MSC wields, in this way, the subtle power of the game-master. There is nothing inherently suspicious about this. World leaders need stories to make sense of the world, just like everybody else. But storytelling, of course, is not a neutral exercise. Stories are capable of producing feelings of security, and insecurity. To soothe, and to terrorise. To prevent wars, and to set them off. 

Because of this, it is crucial not only to examine who funds and stands to benefit from MSC’s narrative — as Politico did last year, and Kjølv Egeland and Benoît Pelopidas did, in a study of the financial links between the arms industry and the foreign policy think tank community, the year before (the list of MSC sponsors include the weapon producers Lockheed Martin, Airbus and MBDA).

It is also crucial to engage critically with the stories that MSC is offering.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 — a “Zeitenwende”, as German Chancellor Scholz put it, after MSC coined the term Heusgen’s team has spun a powerful, yet seductively simple narrative of the world:

A fellowship of the world’s “liberal democracies” — a group of “responsible”, “committed” and visionary defenders of international law and the “rules-based order” — are leading the charge in an epoch-making “contest for the future international order”, with Zelenskyy in the role of Frodo, the tormented ring-bearer.

The land of Mordor: Russia and China, chiefly; a brutal, dark and intimidating duo of “autocratic revisionists” ruthlessly pursuing their imperial fantasies in total disregard of human rights, humanitarian principles and even “the minimum standards of international law”.

The prize, to be claimed by whichever side emerges victorious from the titanic struggle? The trust and support of a large group of resentful, dissatisfied and vulnerable “fence-sitters”, lumped together under the catch-all term, “the global south”.

The problem with grand narratives, of course, is that they must correspond at some basic level with what is actually happening in the world—at least in so far as they purport to be something more than a fantasy novel.

While Zelenskyy’s fight against Putin provides for a good heroic poem, other recent events sit considerably more uneasily within the MSC narrative.

The big question, when Heusgen releases MSC’s conference agenda and annual report on Monday, is how Israel’s war in Gaza will be framed. Since Hamas breached the border into Israel on 7 October 2023 to kill 1,200 and abduct another 200 Israelis and foreign nationals, Israeli bombs have destroyed or damaged seventy per cent of homes in Gaza.

More than 27,000 Palestinians, including more than 10,000 children, have been killed, and nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population are internally displaced, prompting widespread accusations of war crimes, genocide other violations of international law.

The war, which threatens to escalate into a regional conflict in the Middle East, has dominated the news over the past four months. But who, in this conflict, are the principled defenders of international law and the “rules-based order”?

South Africa, with its successful request, made earlier this year, for International Court of Justice to introduce a range of “provisional measures” to halt Israel’s alleged violations of the Genocide Convention, appears as a more visionary defender of international law than a resentful “rule-taker”.   

By contrast, the western liberal democracies in Europe and North America, by opposing South Africa’s attempt to bring the institutions of the Post-World War II order to bear on the war, resemble a group of conflicted “fence-sitters”. Russia and China—MSC’s dark lords—have both cast their votes in favour of a ceasefire to protect civilians and uphold legal humanitarian obligations and—no doubt deceptively—offered themselves up as peace brokers.

It will be interesting to see how the MSC will weave the facts about the war in Gaza into their 2024 narrative. The strong reactions to Heusgen’s labelling of Hamas’ attack on 7 October as an “action” that “didn’t happen in a vacuum” demonstrate how difficult it is to find words to make sense of the situation.

Grand narratives are malleable, principles may be fudged, and there are always exceptions to a rules-based order. But facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things. Regardless of one’s stance on the war in Gaza, it is clear that the war has significantly complicated the task of sustaining MSC’s narrative.

And there is always a limit to how far a story can be stretched before it loses its credibility and, by implication, its power to generate meaning and a sense of purpose.


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