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Anton Tsvetov

Expert in the Foreign Policy and Security division at the Center for Strategic Research

One would imagine that the 2016 Munich Security Conference is the event of the season for all those who care about stopping the suffering of millions of people all over the world. The reasons for that suffering or fear thereof are easy to list just by taking a quick look at any media front page – Syria, Ukraine, the refugee crisis, the South and East China Sea, new epidemics, cyberwarfare, just to name the usual suspects. Countries have been in constant talks about how to deal with these challenges, but with few results to show for it. What if there is something wrong with the way they talk?

The Munich Security Conference is a perfect place to talk and listen. But it seems impossible to talk when everyone’s listening.

One would imagine that the 2016 Munich Security Conference (MSC) is the event of the season for all those who care about stopping the suffering of millions of people all over the world. The reasons for that suffering or fear thereof are easy to list just by taking a quick look at any media front page – Syria, Ukraine, the refugee crisis, the South and East China Sea, new epidemics, cyberwarfare, just to name the usual suspects. Countries have been in constant talks about how to deal with these challenges, but with few results to show for it. What if there is something wrong with the way they talk?

For an aspiring international relations scholar the MSC is like Disneyland: all the people whose actions, words and writings you follow and document every day are suddenly all in the same room, open for conversation or the occasional retweet. For me it was possible with the Munich Young Leaders program brilliantly organized by the Koerber Foundation. The MYL group had the best seats and we were treated as equals, which made us catch every word the speakers said. So here’s what I heard.

You would expect that with this concentration of knowledge and understanding of how global security works, the participants would honor each other’s expertise by avoiding political clichés. But that wasn’t always the case. Some took the stage as if the people sitting in the audience were a bunch of campaign assistants writing down talking points for the candidate’s pamphlet. With people killed in cold blood every day in Syria and a new cold war looming over Europe, a cool head is a prerequisite for any meaningful conversation. And the only kind of passion suitable for the MSC would be a passion for pragmatism.

Timely and crucial discussions of global security should no doubt be televised, covered and tweeted rigorously. But let’s consider the downside of that. Looking at a swarm of cameras and smartphones pointed at them, speakers expect their words to be amplified, discussed, interpreted, framed and twisted by allies and adversaries alike – and that is usually what happens. Media coverage has become total. It is not what we actually do or even say that matters, but how it will be interpreted by others. We find ourselves in a world of perceptions, where we just can’t stop thinking about what others think about us. This paranoia gives birth to political paralysis and disproportionate attention to symbolism and hidden meaning, with leaders of the highest ranks getting seriously offended by TV shows and newspaper articles.

Although the panel discussions were full of run-of-the-mill Russia-bashing, the break rooms showed a much calmer rhetoric and the sideline bilateral meetings with Russian officials were rumored to have been quite constructive. This tells us that for things to change, we have to start doing things differently. Turn off the cameras, get comfy in an armchair and be frank and open about our interests and fears. This approach does lack transparency, but isn’t this what we elected our leaders for? We trusted them with our security and our prosperity and it actually beats the purpose of having someone to rule if you have to watch their every step.

So perhaps a certain degree of confidentiality is what we need right now. Some of the most vivid breakthroughs in global politics still happen behind closed doors. In a time of sub-optimal solutions, that may be just sub-optimal enough for it to work. Interests and actions are real, interpretations and labels are not. It would make sense not to let the illusionary affect the factual.

 

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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