Munich Security Conference | Where world leaders brainstorm on peace

The latest edition of MSC a week ago assumed significance as it was here that Ukrainian President appealed for help ahead of Russian invasion

Updated - February 27, 2022 07:42 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2022 12:58 am IST

Illustration: R Rajesh

Illustration: R Rajesh

In January 1944, an audacious plan was hatched to eliminate Adolf Hitler. The plan included a military man packing two modified bombs in his pockets to kill the Fuhrer by detonating them. It was a suicide operation to be executed by a 24-year old infantry captain Axel von dem Bussche. Bussche was supposed to grab Hitler during a planned visit. But an Allied bombing raid disturbed that plan and Bussche failed in the mission.

A second attempt was made soon after in February. This time, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, the young son of General Ewald von Kleist, one of the anti-Hitler officials of Nazi Germany, was fated to don the suicide vest. The date for the suicide mission was fixed as February 11, 1944. But again, the bombings disrupted the plans and Hitler survived.

The failure of the suicide mission was the first shot at global fame for Heinrich von Kleist. Ewald Heinrich von Kleist would emerge unscathed from the Second World War but Germany itself was divided into two parts — West Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — that belonged to two different blocks that defined four decades of Cold War that followed the Second World War. Interestingly, at the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist would find an opportunity to contribute to build a culture of dialogue and diplomacy.

The most dangerous flash point of the Cold War arrived in the autumn of 1962. As part of nuclear muscle flexing, the United States had placed Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, which bordered Soviet Union at that time. Jupiter, a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of 2,400 km was mainly aimed at key Russian cities, including capital Moscow, and challenged the might of the government of Nikita Khrushchev. This coincided with the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the U.S. government attempted to overthrow the Fidel Castro-led communist government of Cuba and earned condemnation of the Soviet bloc.

Angered by the direct intimidation through missiles and humiliation of Castro, the Soviets placed SS-4 missiles in Cuba. The U.S. government of John F. Kennedy discovered the MRBMs in Cuban defence facilities through high altitude photography. Within days the world was brought close to nuclear annihilation because of the standoff. After this dramatic event, the need was felt to foster a culture of close consultation and dialogue within the Western countries.

Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, in this backdrop began an annual conference to discuss international politics which would go on to become the Munich Security Conference, the most elaborate international discussion on global security outside of the United Nations.

A better venue could not have been thought of for such an annual event. Munich was the home of Christian monks but it had a reputation of being a city of entertainment, books and the world famous beer culture which supports a tradition of conversation and friendly debate. During the inter-war period, Munich also gathered a reputation as a city of diplomats and it was here that Hitler hosted the Italian Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed for German annexation of Sudetanland of Czechoslovakia that was later blamed for stoking Hitler’s territorial avarice.

A meeting point

The Security Conference began as an annual meeting between West Germany and western European partner nations and the U.S. and Canada. This was designed as a close consultation among the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The meeting in the1960s was a close knit platform with ideological uniformity. It was also an attempt to tap into the old European tradition of consultation and conferences that dated back centuries especially to the early 19th century. The primary objective of the MSC was to make sense of the international affairs in an age when weapons of mass destruction had become part of the game. Munich gained a grim reputation during the 1973 Olympics when the Israeli team was taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group. The incident diverted the world’s attention from the great spectacle of Olympics and triggered a debate about the rapidly evolving threats of security that the world was confronted with. Over its sixty years of existence, the MSC would address the threats like terrorism, religious fanaticism, cyber warfare, electronic intelligence and emerge as the ultimate platform for policy makers to exchange ideas in a friendly atmosphere.

From an exclusive meeting of security experts and specialists, MSC emerged as a top destination of world leaders in the post-Cold War era. Over the last three decades, leading names like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Angela Markel of Germany, a series of British, American, Japanese, Chinese and Indian leaders have attended the conferences. Though considered a venue of great sophistication and sombre debates favoured by think tanks, MSC also is known for its moments of drama and hyperbole. In 2018, Mr. Netanyahu walked up the podium of MSC and while addressing the Iranian threat to Israel, he referred to a recent drone intrusion into the Israeli airspace. He then proceeded to take out a wing of that drone that the Israeli forces had shot down. Addressing the Iranian delegation, he asked, “Mr Zarif, do you recognise this? You should. It’s yours,” said Mr. Netanyahu.

MSC is often remembered as the venue where President Putin made his famous 2007 speech when he elaborated on the post-Cold War Russian security concerns and publicly opposed the expanding footprint of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and placing of nuclear-tipped missiles in eastern Europe. The speech is considered a classical description of Russian concerns about the new generation of threats that worries Moscow. The MSC most recently was also in news for providing a platform to the world leaders before the invasion of Ukraine was ordered by President Putin. It was timely and a landmark event as it’s after seventy years that a war is taking place in Europe — a danger that MSC was created to avert.

The latest edition of the MSC also saw the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky make the rallying call for help before the Russian troops stormed into the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on February 25. “How did we get to this point in the 21st century where war is being waged and people are dying in Europe?” asked Mr. Zelensky in a passionate speech where he placed the Russia-Ukraine conflict that intensified with the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Kremlin, which culminated into a dangerous face-off between the two sides by February 2022.

The latest edition of the MSC also highlighted the complexities of the new powers like India and China. While the pressure grew on India to oppose Russia’s belligerent designs on Ukraine, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar chose to refer to the “complex” history of the crisis and avoided siding with the West.

The security conference set up by an anti-Hitler German has come a long way over the last six decades. Von Kleist was succeeded by Horst Teltschik, who guided the conference as it transited from transatlantic conference to a worldwide dialogue, where new groupings like Indo-Pacific and Quad are being discussed.

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