Munich Security Conference 2018: Give Russia and China a Rest

(Bloomberg View) -- In recent years, concern about a resurgent Russia has dominated the Western security establishment's conversations. Judging by this year's edition of the Munich Security Report, which traditionally sets the agenda for the high-profile conference held in the Bavarian city -- it's starting on Friday -- the focus is gradually beginning to shift to China. Big and important as these authoritarian countries are, though, I can't help thinking the West should pay a bit more attention to internal threats. 

In 2016, as evidenced by this word cloud compiled from the report, Russia was the number one theme, largely because of its bold move into Syria.

Munich Security Conference 2018: Give Russia and China a Rest

The following year, it was near the top of the agenda again, this time thanks to the U.S. political system's traumatic encounter with the Russian state propaganda machine.

Munich Security Conference 2018: Give Russia and China a Rest

This year, the security establishment seems tired of all Russia all the time. Of course, it still gets a lot of mentions, and there's even an analysis of how Russian and Western forces match up in case of a military confrontation in the Baltics -- something even the understandably sensitive Estonian foreign intelligence service considers unlikely. But the Russia chapter in the 2018 report is titled "Bearly Strong." Get the hint? The report's authors have discovered that Russia, with an economy the size of Spain's, an international competitiveness problem and a major soft power deficit, cannot remain the fulcrum of the security debate indefinitely. Compared with the previous two reports, China takes on a more prominent role.

Munich Security Conference 2018: Give Russia and China a Rest

In the context of the continuing decline of the "liberal Western order," the search for alternatives becomes intellectually intriguing. But not all the emerging poles of the new multipolar order are equal.

As the 2018 report points out, "While Iran and even Russia do not offer an attractive model to other countries, China has increasingly presented its mix of autocratic leadership and capitalism as an appealing alternative to the Western model and cleverly stepped in where the U.S. made room." China is more interested in fostering trade and fighting climate change than President Donald Trump's U.S.; it's gradually gaining leadership in some technologies, including big data and artificial intelligence. At the same time it's increasingly authoritarian and geopolitically assertive. The report doesn't go so far as to call China a direct threat to the West or even to the U.S., expressing the view that the two countries' interdependencies will help contain their conflicting interests, but it sets the stage for a discussion of China's new role as the other global superpower.

While all these big countries bask in the Western elite's attention, other issues appear smaller in comparison. And yet the 2018 report contains a chapter on environmental security, which points out that pollution kills 15 times as many people as all the wars and armed conflicts put together, and a chapter on Africa, where 20 million young people enter the workforce every year and there's not much for them to do.

I bet these issues will get less airtime at the conference, and certainly less media attention, than "sexier" issues of great power competition and the new global order. But they are, in a sense, more real and consequential than geopolitical constructions: In any Western nation, ordinary people care more -- and have more first-hand knowledge -- about the floods, hurricanes and refugee crises than about the highly theoretical possibility of a Russian attack or the Chinese build-up in the South China Sea. 

What I'd like to see -- it's too late this year, but maybe in 2019 -- is a word cloud that's big on "climate," "Africa," "migration." Items like "fentanyl," "guns," "radicalism" and "working homeless" wouldn't look out of place among the West's top security issues, either.

I'd like to need a magnifying glass to look for "Russia" and "China" in it: Any school kid knows they stand out on a map, but it's not quite clear why they loom so large in the Western mind. Their immediate relevance to the lives of Europeans and Americans is comparatively low, after all, unless one wants to use them as noncontroversial issues that can unite societies deeply divided on matters of more substance. But that technique -- creating the looming image of an external threat when there's little to propose in the way of solutions to domestic problems -- is very Russian (and, when necessary, very Chinese).

How about a Munich security conference with a taboo on "Russia" and "China"? I know, I know, not this year.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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