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Beyond Missiles: A Perspective On Security

In our ONResearch Talks, Dr. Benedikt Franke, Chief Executive Officer at the Munich Security Conference, talks to our Editor-in-Chief, Suddha Chakravartti, on the evolving dynamics and multidimensionality of international security, and the prospects to “build back better” in the post pandemic world.

Security today is multi-dimensional, what are some of the biggest interconnected threats that emerged because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

In just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has become a multi-dimensional polypandemic – a health crisis that is accompanied by various other pandemics, among them the pandemics of poverty and hunger, of nationalism and authoritarianism, all of them being deeply interconnected. For instance, the pandemic induced a 100% increase in the number of people facing acute food insecurity and 88-115 million additional people lived in extreme poverty in 2020 due to Covid-19. While no part of the world has remained unaffected by the socio-economic shock produced by Covid-19, some nations and societies are struggling much more than others. In our Munich Security Report “Polypandemic”, we underline that in places that already suffered from low development, state fragility or violent conflict, the pandemic’s fallout is much more severe. The polypandemic that has emerged from COVID-19 threatens to undo years of progress in global development, potentially pushing millions more into poverty and causing food insecurity in many parts of the world. Additionally, violent non-state actors have already begun to exploit the pandemic to extend their own reach and, if the underinvestment of wealthier states in the safety and well-being of the world’s vulnerable places continues to be missing, then the pandemic itself could become a catalyst for violent conflict. However, the damage done by the pandemic will not only impact states on the national level but could also affect the international stage. In fact, COVID-19 has already revealed its potential to exacerbate the crisis of multilateral cooperation by aggravating great-power competition inside multilateral institutions and by intensifying nationalist and protectionist sentiments. With great power-competition having been accelerated by the pandemic, core international institutions struggled to react to the crisis in a multilateral manner. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic might also mark the beginning of a new era of security threats. Not only the current pandemic but also threats of the future are less “battle[s] to be won” than they are “challenge[s] to be weathered.” In this new era, characterized by health shocks and climate crises, by economic warfare and cyberattacks, a nation’s security is inseparably tied to its ability to resist and recover. Though, unfortunately, some countries, societies, and people are more vulnerable to the new threats of the future. Poor countries, fragile states, and societies afflicted by conflict are chief among them. But it is wrong to assume that elevated exposure to shocks and insufficient capacities to cope with them are problems for these states and societies alone. They are everyone’s problems. If there is one truth that the polypandemic has evinced, it is that the international community is only as strong as its weakest link. One country’s ability to resist and recover depends on others’ ability to do so as well.

Among these threats, what are some of the challenges that have emerged that were not anticipated? 

The metaphor of Gray Rhino explains current challenges very well. Compared to so-called Black Swan events, which come as a surprise, Gray Rhinos are highly probable events with a high impact yet neglected threat, which occur after several warnings. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of a Gray Rhino as it was a neglected, yet highly probable situation, which occurred despite a series of serious warnings.  The crisis comes with a number of geopolitical consequences that have not been anticipated to such an extent. Already before the pandemic there were tendencies of fragmentation and disintegration of the existing post-war liberal international order. The crisis now accelerates these pre-existing negative trends. Before Covid-19, liberal democracy was already on the defensive. Efforts to curb the spread of the virus have seen states in many parts of the world restricting democratic rights and civic liberties. In order to break infection chains, decision-makers postponed elections and took measures that dramatically inhibited peoples’ freedom of movement and assembly. Furthermore, concerns about the diminishing role of the West and the risk of losing its leading role are justified. However, there are also emerging unanticipated opportunities. Yes, Covid-19 endangers the lives of million people. But the crisis will not be a turning point – for the better or worse. Rather the pandemic will act as a catalyst for trends that were already underway like for instance attempts to reserve globalization and to return to nation-state thinking. Competition between great powers. Deterioration of transatlantic and European cohesion. Therefore, by relentlessly exposing the extent to which our well-being depends on the well-being of others, the pandemic could well serve as a wake-up call. For Germany, Europe, and the international community it offers a tremendous opportunity to support affected countries in their efforts to “build back better” and thereby decrease the global disparities that undermine international peace, stability, and resilience. Hence, the pandemic shows the need for multilateralism and reveals the limits of nationalism and isolationism, which is why the possibility of a stronger world emerging from the crisis does exist. Moreover, in terms of multilateralism, international leaders have plenty to learn about tackling Covid-19 from Africa. In the same manner, the pandemic has revealed that the relationship between more and less developed parts of the world does not have to be a one-way-street but rather one that allows cooperation and that gives the possibility to learn from each other. Crises always represent a chance and the current one might offers a tremendous opportunity for Europe and the international community to support affected countries in their efforts to “build back better” and thereby decrease the global disparities that undermine international peace, stability, and resilience.

How are the world’s leaders today thinking about some of these challenges and how is the world thinking about solutions to these?

Our Munich Security Report 2020 sheds light on the phenomenon that we call “Westlessness”, which is to be understood as a widespread feeling of uneasiness and restlessness in the face of increasing uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West. A multitude of security challenges seem to have become inseparable from what some describe as the decay of the Western project. What is more, Western societies and governments appear to have lost a common understanding of what it even means to be part of the West. Although perhaps the most important strategic challenge for the transatlantic partners, it appears uncertain whether the West can come up with a joint strategy for a new era of great-power competition. The current situation is characterized by this phenomenon and, as Ian Bremmer said at our Transatlantic Conversation, “[y]ou could not have a better example of ‘Westlessness’ than the response we are not seeing globally, from the US and Europe, to the largest crisis we have had since World War II.” Likewise, in light of the massive human suffering that the polypandemic may well engender in the Global South, the reaction from Germany, the EU, and the international community is highly irresponsible. Additionally, given the myriad of “exportable problems” that could result if Covid-19 is permitted to further disrupt fragile and developing states, it is a massive strategic mistake. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen pointed out, “[t]he virus has reminded us that we have to protect each other if we want to protect ourselves”, which underlines the fact that multilateral action is ever more important. Germany, Europe, and other key players thus need to link short-term aid to meet immediate needs with investments in countries’ long-term crisis resilience. First of all, high-income countries would need to end measures that disproportionately harm developing countries. Hence, detrimental protectionist measures must be renounced as they are preventing poor states from protecting themselves. Second, Europe and other members of the international community need to make greater efforts to ameliorate the adverse effects of the pandemic on those who are severely exposed. Global humanitarian initiatives currently still face big funding gaps which is why EU member states need to extend the financial generosity that characterized their own domestic pandemic responses to ongoing humanitarian relief efforts. Finally, the post-pandemic future has to be planned – investments in stronger healthcare systems, in resilient economies and solid relationships become indispensable as this won’t be the last pandemic. Collaborative institutions and instruments that are crucial for effective global solidarity need to be strengthened. 

Let’s look more specifically into the different themes of security that the MSC focuses on. How are these challenges mirrored in the MSC’s agenda?

We at the MSC committed ourselves to making these topics part of our focus areas. Especially in times of crises, the MSC’s formats where stakeholders come together to discuss pressing topics and to decide on multilateral solutions are extremely important. We focus on the five pillars Defense, Global Order, Human Security, Sustainability and Technology. Taken together, they demonstrate the complexity and all-encompassing nature of security, which goes far beyond issues like arms and militaries. Especially sub-topics such as Great Power Competition, Multilateralism, Food Security and Health Security, which are included in the mentioned five pillars, are particularly important when it comes to the question about how to defeat the pandemic and the related challenges. But also, topics like Climate Security, Energy & Resource Security or Innovation play a major role in international security. 

Despite the many challenges of the pandemic, the challenges facing the environment haven’t stopped. At the same time, major players like the United States have re-joined international efforts to safeguard the environment. How is the world currently thinking about environmental security?

Climate change is affecting every single country on every continent and is disrupting national economies and affecting lives. Improvements due to travel bans and economic slowdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a drop of greenhouse gas emissions of about 6 percent in 2020, are only temporary. Investments therefore must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy and societies must become more resilient though a transition that is fair for all and leaves no one behind. Environment and natural resources can play an extremely important role in peace and security, including environmental causes and drivers of conflict, environmental impacts of conflict, environmental recovery, and post-conflict peacebuilding. Likewise, the most immediate effect of climate change will be on internal conflict. For instance, careful modelling suggests that changing climate patterns could drive an up to 50% increase in conflict in sub-Saharan Africa alone which will result in mass migrations and, in turn, come with geopolitical issues. Also, while climate hazards can spark conflict directly, climate change and its impact are a threat multiplier: The destruction of livelihoods in the agricultural sector by increasing desertification and floods is one of the many factors. This is why we at the MSC have made Climate Security one of our important focus areas in order to bring together stakeholders to discuss this essential subject. The scope of security and insecurity is by no means limited to violent conflict or its absence but includes the roots of sustainable livelihoods, health, and well-being. First of all, as health shocks and climate crises are inseparably tied to the ability of a country or continent to resist and to recover, significant investments in the safety and resilience of most exposed populations are indispensable for better global crisis preparedness. In the same manner, resource governance has to be improved to be able to reduce environmental security risks. Second, only with climate-related multilateralism and global action, we can deliver measurable impact in the coming years when it comes to the fight of climate change. Here, multilateral effort should aim at partnerships that support ambition and concrete implementation of policy action, including goals, timetables and funding commitments. It is of immense importance that the US under Biden has rejoined international multilateral efforts to fight climate change. The management of the transition phase is going to be especially important. Fossil fuels are set to remain the dominant source of electricity across Africa over the next decade, which exacerbates the risk of many African countries being left behind in the global transition away from fossil fuels. Furthermore, the big difference in renewable energy investment in developing and developed countries is further amplifying the risk of an uneven energy transition. Hence, once again I want to underline that we need just global transition policies, as for example pursued with the EU’s Just Transition Fund and the support for developing countries must increase, especially when it comes to technology transfer and financial support. Ursula von der Leyen sums it up very well: “It is a generational transition towards climate neutrality by mid-century. But this transition must be just and inclusive – or it will not happen at all.” Generally speaking, and this is essential for stakeholders to understand, climate has shifted from being a taker of the prevailing geopolitical winds, driven by other issues like security and trade, to be a shaper of geopolitics as a whole.

Interviewed by Suddha Chakravartti, Editor-in-Chief at ONResearch.

Dr. Benedikt Franke

Dr. Benedikt Franke

CEO at Munich Security Conference