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Munich at 50: The Search for Leadership

04/02/2014 10:34 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 10:59 BST

The who's who of the world's foreign policy and security community met this weekend at the 50th Munich Security Conference. As befits a half-century anniversary, there was a fair amount of reminiscence, in particular over the life and legacy of the conference's founder, Baron Ewald von Kleist. A member of the anti-Hitler conspiracy led by Count von Stauffenberg, Kleist miraculously avoided execution when the attempt on Hitler's life failed. He died last year at the age of 90.

The first Wehrkunde, as the conference was then called, opened with a presentation on nuclear weapons by a 40 year old Harvard Professor named Henry Kissinger who was joined by a slightly older local politician from Hamburg named Helmut Schmidt. Fifty years later, Kissinger and Schmidt were again on the program and the world is still trying to come to terms with the implications of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the final session of the Munich Security Conference was devoted to a discussion of the on-going efforts to halt the Iranian Nuclear Program. But the continuity in topics was perhaps more apparent than real. When it comes to international security, the world has experienced monumental changes in the course of the past five decades.

Although the Iranian nuclear program does pose a serious threat to regional stability and rightly frightens its neighbours, the threat to world peace is far less existential than that posed by the massive nuclear arsenals of the rival superpowers in 1963. And even if the threat is real, in a certain sense, Iran is a simple problem. After all, we know with whom we are dealing and what behaviours we want to change.

The same can be said of the current crisis in the Ukraine. Although participants debated the contours of an effective strategy for helping the democratic forces in their efforts to ensure that Ukrainians remain masters of their own fate, both on stage and in the corridors of the conference hotel, the crisis in Ukraine poses no novel conceptual challenges. After all, the history of Moscow's efforts to dictate the foreign and domestic policies of its neighbours is long and well-known.

What makes the current world truly different from that of a half century ago is the rise of security challenges that no longer fit into established conceptual frameworks. As the crises over Iran and the Ukraine make clear, we still have conflicts between and among states. But in the 1960s, most states continued to enjoy a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, transnational terrorism was all but unknown, and the words "internet" and "cyberspace" did not exist. In contrast to the crises over Iran and Ukraine, we do not yet have the conceptual framework that would allow us to develop an effective strategy for dealing with these new security challenges.

Take the on-going catastrophe in Syria. If the problem was only a question of choosing sides between the dictator and a legitimate Syrian opposition we would have solved this crisis two years ago. But to side with those fighting Assad would mean to ally ourselves not only with the legitimate opposition but also the very forces of transnational Islamist fundamentalism that have attacked the West and destabilised a region stretching from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent.

Or take the crisis in transatlantic relations unleashed by revelations of US and UK cyber espionage. How should we conceptualise the internet? Is it a data-highway in need of traffic cops, a weapon, or a space for geopolitical conflict?

At its best, the Munich Security Conference not only raises questions such as these, but allows a diverse range of experts to debate potential answers. For that, it has indeed become indispensable.

But imagine if we were to succeed in developing the concepts and frameworks appropriate to the security challenges of today. Could we all go home feeling safer? I suspect the answer is no, for security requires not only a strategy but also the leaders to implement it.

On Saturday, Henry Kissinger delivered a speech in honour of Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. He praised both men as leaders and defined leadership as personal character combined with the courage to stand alone in pursuit of one's values and interests.

Character and courage. As a young officer fighting for a dictator he despised in a war he didn't believe in, Ewald von Kleist displayed both. And when he initiated the Munich Security Conference, Europe and America were lucky to be governed by leaders so defined. Where are they today?