Lose-lose dynamics

Munich Security Conference 2024: organisers warn of escalating global power struggles and “lose-lose” dynamics in which everyone might lose.

MUNICH (own report) – Ahead of the Munich Security Conference, which begins today, the organisers are warning of the emergence of disastrous “lose-lose” dynamics in international relations. According to the Munich Security Report 2024, the foreign policy analysis that frames conference debates, power struggles around the world have become so intense that there is a real danger of everyone losing out. The event, which will attract more than 50 heads of state and government, around 60 foreign ministers and over 25 defence ministers over this weekend, is being held for the 60th time this year. The security conferences of the past ten years offer a useful guide to trends in global politics and great-power struggles. While the 2014 Security Conference showcased as an ambitious move by Germany to kick-start a global political offensive, the very next conference began to centre on competition between the major powers. Indeed, by 2019 debates had briefly taken up European concerns that the EU would be squashed in the tussle between global powers, and in 2020 discussion moved on to the prospect of a world no longer be dominated by the West.

A more assertive stance

The 2014 Munich Security Conference was approached by the German government as a forum for kick-starting Berlin’s wide-ranging global political offensive. The political signals were clear: in advance, Germany’s then Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen called for Germany to take on more “international responsibility”.[1] And Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Foreign Minister, had pronounced that Germany was “too big to just comment on world politics”. It was only “rightly” expected “that we get involved”. Military operations should no longer be deemed unthinkable. Speaking at the 2015 Security Conference, Federal President Joachim Gauck called for Germany to “take more resolute steps to preserve and help shape the order based on the EU, NATO and the UN”. This “international responsibility” necessitated the deployment of German soldiers.[2] Gauck went on to say, “Germany and its European partners must themselves assume greater responsibility for their security.” To take the wind out of the sails of those who might object that Germany’s historical legacy of crimes in two world wars surely called for military restraint, Gauck referred his audience to today’s Federal Republic of Germany, saying, “This is a good Germany, the best we’ve ever known.”

In the belt of countries around Europe

The background to the carefully orchestrated events and speeches before and during this security conference is a new strategic direction, first formulated back in 2013. The ideas were set out in strategy documents by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).[3] It was agreed in the context of the US “pivot to Asia”, announced by President Barack Obama in November 2011, that the United States should be able to focus fully on its struggle with an increasingly powerful China. As part of a new transatlantic strategy Germany and the EU were essentially given the task of controlling developments in Europe’s periphery. They were to play a key regulatory role in a belt of countries around Europe – from North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia. This was reflected in Germany’s active foreign and military policy at the time. Bundeswehr units were sent to Mali in 2013, while Berlin assisted attempts to overthrow of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, a little later joined the military mission against IS, and was in any case in Afghanistan with Bundeswehr troops. Vigorously going on the offensive, Germany was now keen to position itself as a more powerful actor in countries surrounding the EU.

2014, a year of “epochal shift”

From 2015 onwards, great-power conflicts began increasingly to shape the agenda of the Security Conference. In 2015, for example, the then conference chair Wolfgang Ischinger declared that the escalating power struggle in and around Ukraine was demonstrating that the “rules-based world order” was being “put to the test”.[4] This order was, of course, the one that had ensured the global dominance of the West since 1990. Ischinger, looking at events in Ukraine declared that “2014 was an epochal year”: the world had witnessed a “collapsing order” and entered an “era of disorder”. The Munich Security Report 2016 took up this theme, stating that “the traditional guardians of a liberal international order” – i.e. Western states – were “confronted with a growing number of spoilers”, who would “further destabilize fragmenting orders”.[5] At that time, “spoilers” again primarily meant Russia. The Munich Security Report 2016 went on to say that “we might witness the emergence of a new kind of Iron Curtain” across Eastern Europe. However, China was also increasingly coming under scrutiny. The tensions between the US and the People’s Republic were increasingly difficult to assuage, and Beijing was accused of building “a parallel order” to rival the West.


The focus at the Munich Security Conferences in 2019 and 2020 was on the prospect that Germany and Europe, or even the West as a whole, could find themselves on the defensive or even lose their global power. In 2019, Germany’s then Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “a strong, capable Europe” was needed more urgently than ever in view of the bitter rivalries between the United States under President Donald Trump and the EU. If the EU does not succeed in positioning itself strongly in global politics, then “we run the risk,” said Maas, “of being squashed in a world of great power competition.”[6] In 2020 Ischinger, again as conference chairman, framed the event with the motto “Westlessness”. While the West had enjoyed “almost uncontested freedom of military movement” in the decades immediately after the Cold War, this was no longer the case. A world without Western dominance now seemed possible. The Munich Security Report 2020 quoted French President Emmanuel Macron as saying, “We were used to an international order based on Western hegemony since the 18th century. Things change.”[7]

Losing less?

Four years on, the global power struggles have escalated still further. While the struggle between the West and China in an increasingly hard-fought economic war, the one between the West and Russia in the Ukraine is a hot war. The Munich Security Report 2024 also finds that non-Western countries have now taken note that the US is “curtailing its legitimate aspirations and are forcefully pushing for an even bigger share of the pie” for themselves.[8] Indeed, even “the traditional custodians”, i.e. the states of the West, “are no longer satisfied, as they see their own shares shrinking”. There was, the report concludes, bitter disputes leading to a massive risk of slipping into “lose-lose” dynamics. These, it argues, are struggles in which both sides are losing and yet it becomes only a matter of losing less than the adversary.


[1] See also: Die Erwartungen der Welt.

[2] See also: Der Weltordnungsrahmen.

[3] See also: Die Neuvermessung der deutschen Weltpolitik.

[4] See also: Das Zeitalter des Ordnungszerfalls.

[5] See also: Die großen Mächte und ihre Kriege (I).

[6] See also: Europe’s „Geopolitical Identity”.

[7] Westlessness. Munich Security Report 2020. securityconference.org. See also: The Incipient Decline of the West.

[8] Lose-Lose? Munich Security Report 2024. February 2024.