Thinking Globally about the War in Ukraine: Three Takeaways from Munich

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the 59th Munich Security Conference via videoconference on Feb. 17, 2023. (Alexi Witwicki/Kommersant/Sipa USA via AP Images)

A billboard with the bold message “Ukraine is You” hung near the entrance to the 2023 Munich Security Conference, showing a graphic depiction of a fallen civilian and their bereaved partner. The image was stamped with the presidential seal of Ukraine—a clear message from Vladimir Zelensky to global leaders attending the premier annual gathering of international peace and security actors. In his speech delivered to the conference by VTC, Zelensky portrayed Ukraine as a “David on the Dnipro,” fighting the Russian Goliath, but in need of a modern-day “sling” to win decisively. Speaking in English on the eve of the war’s first anniversary, he asked for more sophisticated weaponry to be delivered as quickly as possible.

From the opening concert to the closing panels, the long shadow of the war in Ukraine covered all aspects of the conference. Speaker after speaker stood at the main podium, attempting to mobilize support for the war effort against Putin’s Russia, and in echoes of the bipolar Cold War order, the fight was often framed as a historic battle between democracy and autocracy.

However, away from the main stage, a more complex picture came into view. Here are three takeaways that our team from the International Peace Institute found to be most notable during their time at the conference.

The Transatlantic Partnership is Central

In a 2019 interview with the Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Europe could no longer rely on the United States (US) to guarantee its security, and that NATO was becoming brain-dead as a result. If there were doubts about the US commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, Europe must invest—the argument went—in becoming an independent geostrategic power, and not be simply an economic union of states with separate foreign and defense policies. In this context, Europe sought to play a mediating role between the US and Russia, in particular on energy policy.

The war in Ukraine has changed that completely. NATO is reinvigorated with a new purpose to oppose Russian aggression, and the role of the US as the guarantor of European security and the lead supplier of military aid to Ukraine has been critical. There was very little discussion of Europe as an independent strategic actor in Munich. Indeed, the panel dedicated to discussing “European Strategic Sovereignty” commenced somewhat quietly on Sunday morning, during the lower-profile final hours of the conference. With the exception of clear European displeasure over the protectionist elements of the US Inflation Reduction Act, the strength of Euro-American solidarity was on full display, contributing to the sense that the world was being divided into two camps once again.

However, if tensions in the North Atlantic partnership were not evidently present, another source of geopolitical tension rose to the top of many discussions.

The North-South Divide Gains New Attention

One could detect a tone of surprise and irritation from many of the North Atlantic leaders that some members of the Global South were not more immediately aligned against Russia. In particular, India and South Africa have been noticeable in their unwillingness to condemn Russia. South Africa continues to conduct security cooperation with Russia, and India has stepped up its purchases of Russian oil. Debates about the reasons for this disconnect were prevalent in Munich.

In part, it begins with history. Europeans see the war in the context of their bloody past and the experience of how a regional conflict can sow global disorder. On the other hand, many in the Global South see the West’s demand for allegiance through a post-colonial lens or the specific histories of Soviet support for liberation movements during the Cold War. More recently, recalling the wars in Iraq and Libya, there is a sense of double standards, making righteous calls for the defense of territorial integrity and the rule of law less convincing.

Further, this sense of disconnect has only deepened with a perceived lack of solidarity during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the inequality of vaccine distribution, and the opposition of many countries to Covid vaccine patent waivers that would have facilitated domestic production in the developing world. The call for global solidarity from the North rings hollow for many in the Global South, given this experience. And this dynamic of disconnect between Global North and Global South is evident far beyond debates about Ukraine. We see similar dynamics in climate negotiations, discussions for a potential pandemics treaty, and calls for reform of the International Financial Institutions and the United Nations (UN) Security Council, among other contexts.

It Is about More than Ukraine

Speaking in Munich, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg argued that the conflict in Ukraine was a global fight, not a regional one. His comments were reminiscent of others’ statements that the battle for Ukraine is the “fulcrum” by which the 21st century will turn, and that the very fate of the international order depends upon what happens in Ukraine. Indeed, any acquiescence to Russia’s aggression could have a real impact on international norms, emboldening not only Putin, but potentially China and others that may aspire to alter the territorial status quo. Beyond the normative impact of the war, the material effects, including food and energy prices, have dramatically affected people across globe, in particular those already in crisis.

But for many, the changing climate, the rise of China, the fate of economic development, the next global pandemic, or the advance of artificial intelligence will have more far-reaching consequences. Even the 2023 Munich Security Index, which tracks public perceptions of risk across 12 countries (G7 plus Brazil, India, China, South Africa, and Ukraine), shows an economic or financial crisis as the aggregate #1 perceived risk among the public polled, followed by climate change.

Moving on From Munich

On February 23, a few days after the close of the Munich Security Conference, 141 UN member states voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, with just seven member states voting against. In this sense, overall global solidarity against Russia’s war of aggression remains strong. However, if the North Atlantic leadership is going to maintain this broad coalition against Russia’s invasion over time, it will need to do a better job in understanding how the conflict is seen outside of Europe and the United States.

Too often member states that have abstained from the UN resolutions, demurred from taking part in the sanctions regimes, or avoided vocally condemning Russia are depicted as “fence sitters.” However the notion of fence-sitting assumes these member states are waiting to choose sides in a bipolar world, rather than taking a strategic position to maximize their national interest in a multipolar world. This point was raised strongly at the side event in Munich on “Centering the South,” organized by the International Peace Institute.

Today’s global order is not the same as that of the Cold War, and framing alignment as an “us versus them” proposition fails to take into account the dynamics of the current system. Multipolarity ought not be conflated with the rise of authoritarianism. Yet, some of the current rhetoric suggests that unalignment with North Atlantic liberal democracies concerning Ukraine is a choice to be aligned with authoritarian order.

Not only do UN voting patterns on Ukraine not reflect a clear democracy-autocracy divide, but such a framing is perceived by some as an attempt to preserve the power of the old system, which has been experienced as unequal, lacking in solidarity, and out-of-date.

In some ways, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the solidarity of the international community and a shared commitment to upholding the UN Charter. Yet, there is real work to be done to further strengthen global solidarity across regions.

Speaking at the opening Town Hall in Munich, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo said, “We on the continent have been left to defend ourselves. If we indeed have cooperation between the South and the North, the fundamental requirement of solidarity in the political world is to overcome the ‘them and us.’” And in order to do that, he said, we must reexamine the institutions of global order.

The Munich Security Report 2023 calls for a “Re:Vision” of the global order. To be successful, such a reenvisioning must be about more than preserving the past. It must be about a vision for the future and a more inclusive and equitable world order for all—North, South, East, and West. That is something we can all agree is worth fighting for.

Adam Lupel is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Jenna Russo is Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at IPI.