MUNICH, GERMANY. The Munich Security Conference 2014 is here. Politicians, diplomats, academics and foreign policy aficionados from all over world are once again gathered in Munich to discuss the most prominent security challenges of the past, present and future. Critics of the conference claim that ‘it’s just another Davos, lots of talk and no action’. The parallel may seem valid, but this statement reveals a lack of insight into the dynamics of security politics and foreign affairs. In stark contrast to the world of economy and finance, where a conference of mere talk is considered a complete failure, international politics is all about the talk.
Talk, however, can be misleading and deceiving, both willingly and unwillingly. Willingly conducted misleading is hard to prevent, and may even be considered an innate feature of international politics, but unwillingly conducted misleading can, and should, be reduced to a minimum, as this creates uncertainty, confusion and ultimately insecurity. How do we avoid this? Talk. Political leaders and their aides must engage in frank and straightforwardly honest talks on questions of security and foreign affairs. Not only would this make for interesting discussions in itself, but it would also socialise the actors on the scene of ‘international anarchy’ into a culture of dialogues, understanding and mutual respect, instead of today’s monologues, misunderstandings and mutual deceit. Deconstructed, this is a question about human nature and the essence of politics.
Being an elected official can be quite unpleasant at times. Not only are you expected to defend the interests of your voters, but you also have your own interests and moral standards to think about, and these may not always coincide. Politicians deal with this dilemma in different ways: some happily goes against their beliefs in the name of democracy, whereas others choose to trust their own integrity and defies the Rousseauian volonté générale. Ultimately, it is a question about political calculus and strategy. In what is often a traumatic epiphany for ideological youth politicians entering the world of national and international politics, what you communicate as a government official is not always what you mean, and what you mean is not always what you communicate. Some call it pragmatism, others call it politics.
Fortunately, the state is not run solely by politicians. weberian bureaucracies are essential in shaping the policies of liberal democracies all over the world, facilitating for continuity despite frequent government reshufflings and ideological variations. In no field is this more apparent than within foreign policy. Politicians come and go while the diplomatic corps remains (to some politician’s great dismay). The foreign policy bureaucracies do undoubtedly fill an important role in not only constructing viable policies for their respective governments, but also in interpreting the equivalent foreign policies of other states. This, however, is a tedious and oftentimes ungrateful undertaking, as foreign policies are notoriously hard to interpret. Why? Because however much the bureaucrats would want their bureaucratic counterparts in other states to simply present for them their grand schemes, they are not going to. The politicians will, which adds an extra layer of obfuscation to complicate the otherwise easy task. Not only is deciphering political rhetoric time consuming and incredibly challenging, it can also lead to serious misunderstandings and grave misperceptions of the other part’s intentions.
The history is full of deliberate misleading, but few state leaders have been so badly mislead, and by consequence taken so immense losses, as did Stalin in the Second World War. However absurd it may seem today, all available evidence suggests that he actually believed that Hitler would not violate their (in)famous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which made it clear that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union. Indeed, Stalin was so convinced that Hitler would not ‘defect’ from their agreement, that he disregarded over 80 separate and equally well argued intelligence reports from his own extensive and presumably world-leading intelligence system indicating that the opposite was the case. What was a well played move by Hitler and won him precious time, was a catastrophe for Stalin and the soldiers of the red army, who ended up being brutally surprised by Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
What we observe today is something completely different, but in some ways even more catastrophic than what shook Stalin’s Soviet: the failure of the international community to take any action in conflict areas such as Syria, Congo and Iraq, due to our respective states perceived inability to correctly asses the intentions, motivations and goals of the other actors involved. Recent experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan has cemented an insurmountable reluctance in our response to the humanitarian crises in Syria and Congo. In Syria, for instance, where militant islamist groups flourish, it may seem hard to separate the intentions of one group from the other, so the foreign policy bureaucrats ‘do their best’ in interpreting statements from islamist group spokesmen and analysing relevant intelligence in the quest of such knowledge. Unfortunately, their best is not good enough. The solution, however, is simpler than one might expect: let’s start talking.
Political games and abstract strategic interests can never justify state action that leads to civilian casualties and human suffering. However, existential threats to the survival of the state and its people can. Such threats, when announced openly in the media by state actors, always have a unique cultural and historical backdrop. Often, these circumstances are largely shared by both parts in a conflict. Russia and Georgia in 2008, Sudan and South Sudan, and Pakistan and India, are all examples of conflicts where the parts had much in common. The only way of avoiding open conflict and war is by bringing the parts together and engage in honest talks, but this must be done before the talks become peace negotiations! Talks must be un-binding, semi-formal and frequent. This is an absolute prerequisite of healthy relations between countries, and is, unfortunately, not being given enough attention in the ongoing debates over security policies and foreign affairs.
In the name of humanity, it is about time we allow political honesty and straightforwardness to have the renaissance it deserves. Instead of relying on bureaucrats to assess what the intentions of other states and actors are, invite the responsible decision makers over for a cup of tea and talk openly and freely about what is in our common interest. Surprisingly often, you will find that your assessments of others are overly harsh and that many of your problems can be solved by learning to know your counterpart and the persona behind the constructed media statements and polished rhetoric. Initially, honesty may hurt, and the world may seem less pleasant for a moment, but at the end of the day, if this can help us to limit conflicts, wars and human suffering, it will always be worth it.