There was complete agreement that Europe needs to spend more on its own safety, the only difference was the words used to express this.
  • Munich’s Bayerischer Hof and its surrounding neighbourhood provided the home for this sixtieth edition of the Security Conference, where, it is only a slight overstatement to say, everyone of note could be found.
  • The conference’s most important themes included the Russia-Ukraine war, the conflict in the Middle East, and the strengthening of European defence.
  • Support for Ukraine remained undiminished among the conference’s participants, yet its prospects received a much gloomier assessment behind the scenes. Alexei Navalny’s death provided further oil to the flames as condemnation of Russia only became more pronounced.
  • High levels of commitment to the future of transatlantic cooperation were highlighted by the Europeans and by the Americans, although fear, expressed or tacit, of the potential ramifications of the re-election of Trump abounded.
  • Although China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs again this year expressed belief in international cooperation, he also made it clear: Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

The 60th Munich Security Conference took place from 16th to the 18th of February, where hundreds of politicians, security and military experts, and corporate giants from around the world discussed today’s security challenges in public and behind closed doors.

The main venue of the conference, the Bayerischer Hof, with its usual police security during the conference.
The main venue of the conference, the Bayerischer Hof, with its usual police security during the conference. Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/MSC/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

In the decades since its inception, the conference has served as a key event in demonstrating transatlantic commitment, but now the organisers are seeking to broaden the global participation, with more and more participants from the Global South. Although it is still easy to get the feeling that you are swimming in a sea of self-important sharks in tailored suits, the assembly has started to become a little more diversified and more and more traditional attire is visible.

While the range of participants these days covers almost the entire globe, there are still notable exceptions. Despite no-one accusing China of championing the transatlantic embrace, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs was a returning guest to Munich. Vladimir Putin, rather unsurprisingly, did not receive an invite.

In spite of Putin’s absence, he has previously been an important attendee. It is impossible to forget that one of the important "first" steps of the Western World and Russia’s estrangement came in a notorious speech which Putin gave at the 2007 conference.

Since 2022, the conference has, instead of Russian dignitaries, admitted attendees from the ever diminishing numbers of the Russian opposition and civil societies. The same is also true this year for Iraq.

The starting point: lose-lose, everyone loses The latest Munich Safety Report, which forms the basis for the themes of the conference, makes for some quite bleak reading: a US presidential election promising to be far from peaceful is on the horizon; the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is not going as well as some of the conference participants would hope, still rages; and last October saw the outbreak of a regional conflict in the Middle East which is likely to grow and draw in both Americans and Europeans (take the EU mission to the Red Sea as an example).

Under the Joe Biden presidency, relations between the USA and the EU have remained relatively close, but without major breakthrough. While there are a number of areas in which the USA has outwardly advocated multilateral solutions, in practice it has behaved much more unilaterally. The US is, on the global stage, seen as becoming increasingly isolated and, at home, Biden continues to lose votes among the Arab-American community. The longer the war in the Middle East goes on, the worse this will be for him.

Post-Cold War optimism belongs to the past

Amidst growing geopolitical rivalries and economic slowdowns, some members of the Western community, various autocracies, and the Global South feel that the benefits of the current world order are unevenly distributed. Changes in economic relations have had important security implications as the drawbacks of mutual dependence have made themselves felt. Economically, numerous democratic states have become subject to the whims of authoritarian countries and China is still not seen by many as a responsible member of the liberal world order. While what concerns the Global South is not the reduction of national territories and influence, but rather the fact that they have never had any.

Russian aggression in Ukraine and the increasing threat that China represents have once again brought the politics of deterrence back to the fore. From the European perspective, security must no longer be built with Russia, but against it. There are also growing fears of escalation in the South

China Sea and in the Sahel region, where a wave of coups has been sweeping through and destabilising the area.

It has become clear that such is the geopolitical tension that the effect is being felt even in those areas which are not supposed to be zero sum games, as in climate politics, where cooperation would be to the benefit of all. Technological progress, long considered as a motor of global prosperity, is now increasingly being pitted against each other by rivals. China, the United States, and other countries are seeking to take the lead in such strategic technologies as semi-conductors or artificial intelligence. And, while striving for dominance of these sectors, they are willing to accept the collateral welfare loss deriving from the fragmentation of the technology sector.

It was under these prevailing conditions that world leaders met in Munich to discuss whether a move from the starting point of lose-lose to one of mutual benefit is at all possible.


This year too there was no question as to the war in Ukraine being one of the leading themes of the conference. Zelensky himself took to the floor as the Ukrainians attended with a large delegation, including many ministers, parliamentary representatives, alongside political and military experts. While those taking part in panel discussions ceaselessly lobbied the Western community for support (be it money, weapons, or even battle-horses), the Ukrainians in the audience were particularly vocal in their questioning of Western politicians in the hope of a concrete promise. Yet it was clear that the speakers were used to being faced by such questions and the politicians remained politicians: the Ukrainians received no answer (at least in public) about whether they would receive Taurus missiles from Germany, or whether they would receive a proposal for immediate admission to NATO at July’s Washington Summit, nor when long-awaited deliveries of ammunition would arrive.

According to Ursula von der Leyen, Ukraine should be integrated into European defence programmes (an EU Defense Innovation Office is to open in Kyiv). And former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stated that not only should Ukraine be helped for as long as it needs it, but also with what it needs. That is, the Western communities self-imposed restrictions on arms transfers should be lifted and Ukraine should be invited to join NATO without further delay.

While speeches held in public were characterised by unreserved backing for Ukraine, military leaders were reportedly still debating whether Ukraine’s problems were able to be solved.

Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference. 17th February 2024.
Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference. 17th February 2024. David Hecker/MSC/David Hecker

The answer was, for the most part, yes, but only if backed by a unified Western will to do so. US credibility has, however, been badly undermined by Biden’s promise to stand beside Ukraine for as long as it needs, while it is now uncertain as to whether the House of Representatives will pass the 61 billion dollar American aid package. In the background, the mood surrounding Ukraine’s increasingly desperate situation was more discouraging, yet Viktor Orbán is the only person speaking openly about immediate peace talks.

The conference spectacularly demonstrated Ukraine’s efforts to mobilise beyond the Western alliance to the wider international community and an important element of this was the meeting between the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi.

The death of Alexei Navalny News of Navalny’s death was received not long after the opening of the Munich conference. While it was always likely that Navalny’s role and imprisonment would have been discussed anyway, since Russia was represented not by the Putin regime, but by opposition members living in exile, the breaking news ensured that almost all discussions and remarks on transatlantic cooperation began with remarks about his death, and the responsibility that Putin had in it. This atmosphere was further intensified as when news broke, Yulia Navalnaya, the late politician's wife was in Munich and appeared visibly shaken as she spoke at the conference (Navalnaya had already been scheduled to speak, although obviously the contents of her speech were altered due to the circumstances and she spent just a few minutes on stage).

Yulia Navalnaya speaks in Munich, shortly after the announcement of her husband's death
Yulia Navalnaya speaks in Munich, shortly after the announcement of her husband's death THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP

US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking around half an hour before Navalnaya’s speech, stated that, if news of Navalny’s death were confirmed, the USA would hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible and would react appropriately. The following day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared that Putin could no longer be considered the legitimate leader of Russia following Navalny’s death. The informal meeting of G7 foreign ministers began with a minute’s silence, in a clear indication that the incident would serve only to increase Russia’s international isolation.

Europe must bring its defence industry up to speed

Although everyone at the conference expressed their belief in the future of the transatlantic alliance, the reality is that as the USA’s attention shifts to the India-Pacific region, so too will its resource, regardless of who sits in the White House.

There was complete agreement that Europe needs to spend more on its own safety, the only difference was the words used to express this. Olaf Scholz, German Chancellor, acknowledged that although money spent on security will be missed elsewhere, there is nothing if there is no safety. By this summer’s NATO summit in Washington, there will already be 18 European countries whose defence spending reaches 2% of GDP.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr St?re, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr St?re, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/MSC/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

The EU has to spend more, and it needs to spend better, quicker and with more a focus on Europe if their defence investments are to reap rewards. As a sign of the importance of its common defence, an EU strategy for the defence industry is due to be published within a few weeks and Ursula von der Leyen has promised a separate defence commissioner if re-elected. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters, have both been touted for the role of defence commissioner. Neither can be considered among the Hungarian government’s favourites, but Viktor Orbán does support the development of European defence industries and the creation of a European army. Although in these areas too, it may easily come to pass that our government wishes to fight its own battles.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, speaking on behalf of the G7 countries, remarked that the European army carries political weight and without a strong European defence, the EU cannot be an equal member of the Atlantic Alliance. Without robust European defence, the EU cannot have an effective foreign policy. If we want a politically strong Europe, he added, we will need a real common foreign policy. This requires a European army.

China’s higher level participation

No mutual trust exists between the USA and China, despite the latter not being considered as a "chaos" actor – such as Russia, Iran, or North-Korea – nor as a country likely to cause unpleasant surprises. How long this remains the case, however, is far from clear, especially if Donald Trump is re-elected in November. Thus far, China has remained open to participation in a world order based upon certain rules, an importance attested to by the attendance at the conference of Wang Yi, China’s highest ranking foreign minister, who engaged in bilateral talks with the foreign ministers of America (Antony Blinken), the UK (David Cameron), Canada (Mélanie Joly), Ukraine (Dmytro Kuleba) and France (Stéphane Séjourné).

Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi Alexandra Beier/MSC/Alexandra Beier

Yi’s speech contained some element’s which would not be considered as progression by all present. He defended the steadily developing Sino-Russian relations, which, according to Chinese assessments, have an impact on the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region. He also sought to draw Europe’s attention to the importance of not being distracted by ideology or geopolitics. While he spoke at length on China’s recipe for conflict resolution not being the imposition of one side’s will on the other, and on how unilateralism and the politics of force are currently the greatest challenges to the world order, he also took pains to emphasise: Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and the question of Taiwan is an internal matter of China’s and, in the interests of stability, Taiwanese independence must be firmly rejected.

No solution draws near for conflict in the Middle East

Although the announcement of Navalny’s death overshadowed and pushed the conflict slightly into the background, the conflict in Gaza was set to form one of the leading themes of the conference. A number of significant and high ranking Middle Eastern delegations travelled to Munich (Israeli, Saudi, Qatari, and, to a smaller extent, Palestinian), where they engaged in important talks behind closed doors, such as those between the Israeli and Qatari dignitaries. Although little progress has been reported on the hostages situation. Qatar’s participation did receive criticism from some quarters as Qatar is one of Hamas’ largest financial backers and their Prime Minister appeared on a panel on the question of Middle Eastern peace.

Israel, in a similar manner to Ukraine and in a clear demonstration of the importance they hold the support of the international community in their war against the Palestinians, attended with a sizeable contingent. Besides the high ranking officials and generals (likely including the entirety of the Israeli secret service commanders), their delegation included hostages freed from Gaza and family members of those still held. The participants, among other events, held a rather harrowing panel discussion, in which the hostages and the family members recounted their personal stories. The freeing of the remaining hostages currently constitutes Israel’s top foreign policy priority and all other priorities follow from this, according to a statement for Israel’s foreign minister, Katz. For this reason, the freed hostages and the family members are being taken to as many places around the world as possible so that their stories can be heard.

A number of themes recurrent throughout the conference included the two-state solution, Israel’s right to self-defence, the release of the hostages, and the urgency of bringing in a ceasefire. The oft mentioned "day after", or what is to happen when Israel ceases military operations in Gaza, came no closer to agreement on creating any form of timetable for the two-state solution. Although a conference live streamed around the world was always unlikely to feature a solution to one of the most fundamental conflicts in the Middle East. It was, though, telling that Israeli politicians occupying any official position failed to take part in panels containing representatives from Arab states.

From a Palestinian perspective, only the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh took part in any meaningful capacity, giving an introductory interview before the Peace in Pieces round table discussion. He did not remain for the discussion itself, in which there was an Israeli participant.

Donald Trump: not there, but on everyone’s lips

It was clear that the majority of the participants were showing great concern about Donald Trump’s potential re-election. The question that kept coming up at the end of the most varied discussions was "what if?".

While the general conclusion was that we must await the results of the United State’s voters in November, the speakers were in agreement that strong transatlantic cooperation remained in the interest of the USA.

Of course, at such events everybody politely steers clear of anything resembling a hard-hitting answer. Perhaps the closest to one came from the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, who remarked that if anything were to happen in Albania, the United States would put out a communique calling for calm, on both sides. He would urge the Democrats and the Republicans to heed their own advice and to not drag out any drama. Although Europeans should, according to Netherlands's Prime Minister Mark Rutte – a name many have been touting as future NATO Secretary General – just stop whining about Trump.

Over the last few years in the United States not only has there been a change in domestic priorities, but it also cannot be ignored that the geopolitical environment is very different. Under Trump, for example, there was no hint of the extensive wars which are currently raging. The political climate has certainly changed over the last few years. Trump, however, has not.

The potential return of Trump’s should not be considered as a question of whether it will be better or worse for everyone, rather preparations must be made for everything becoming much more extreme.

Trump is unpredictable, especially when compared to Biden. We cannot be sure that he won’t strike out against China or Iran. And, if this were to come to pass, there is a good chance of this causing a host of reactions in response. History also shows that Trump is no friend of the European Union. While he has no problem with individual countries, especially with the countries of those leaders happy to cosy up to him, a strong, united Europe remains far from his thinking.

Balkan chill

Some of the talks were held in a much more laid-back atmosphere. As in the "Balkans" round-table discussion, where Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama took centre stage and entertained participants by displaying not only a beautiful patterned tie, but also his sparkling wit. While the audience chuckled along, the North-Macedonian President besides him announced, with his serious face, how much he adored the Greeks and how he would never dream of saying anything to the opposite. He also added it was evident which Balkan states were in line for EU membership, as the leaders of these had been mic’d up, while he, on the other hand, was forced to speak into a microphone. Entrance into the EU, he would go on to say, was much like the pre-marital stages of a relationship: you are invited to dinner, but cannot stay the night until after the wedding.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in his stunning tie at the Munich Security Policy Conference
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in his stunning tie at the Munich Security Policy Conference Torsten Silz/MSC/Torsten Silz

Their discussion did also evince a sense of disillusionment with the delays in their ascension to EU membership. The Ukraine war has shown them that EU membership means security and any delays merely serve as but more fuel for nationalist movements.

There was agreement amongst the participants that the EU must be prepared for their ascension as the current 27 members seem unable to reach consensus on a whole raft of issues. If 6 Balkan states were to be added to this mix, one cannot fail to imagine what chaos may ensue. Yet, the EU needs a success story and perhaps it can be found in membership for the Balkan states.

The biggest companies didn’t miss out

It is no longer possible to imagine Munich without the leading weapons manufacturing or tech companies and this year was no different as companies including Rheinmetall, Google, Microsoft, and Meta were all in attendance. Beside taking advantage of ample lobbying opportunities the labyrinthian corridors of the conference offered dinners and cocktail parties were put on for the select few.

The security conference also played host to an announcement by the leading 20 technology companies of an agreement to filter misleading AI-generated content during elections.

The thousands of negotiations behind the scenes

Over the course of the last sixty years, the Security Conference has slowly been building itself into becoming a business sponsorship standing behind it. Its entire organisation makes it clear that the explicit purpose is to ensure that every viewpoint is presented on the highest stage. Only a part of the whole plays out in front of the public. The most important meetings (especially those between various defence and intelligence officials) and informal negotiations play no part in a program released at the very last second on the first morning of the event. Though these bilateral speed-dates are likely to have a much more significant effect on world events than anything uttered in front of an audience of the public. Last year’s conference saw more than 2000 of these bilateral meetings taking place far from prying eyes.

No Hungarians This Year Either

This year, as the last, higher-level representation from the Hungarian government was missing from the conference. The sole Hungarian on the list of the official participants was Krisztián Oláh, Director General of the Information Office (Információs Hivatal) responsible for foreign intelligence. In comparison, all of our neighbours sent minister led delegations and made the most of all of the networking opportunities that the Security Conference offered.

It is, of course, valid to raise the question as to the real effect such a conference can have. An effect which can never be known as there is no way to gauge this. But we do know that participation represents a commitment to maintaining a world based on cooperation and rules. And it is clearly important if so many countries are prepared to have such a high-level presence.

Hungary did, albeit minimally, feature in some of the panel discussions, chiefly in relation to its obstruction of Sweden’s NATO membership, but also in discussions on certain estrangements within the EU (the Ukraine question, position on Israel, etc.). Although Hungary’s name did not need to be mentioned for it to be resoundingly clear that those leaders attending have a very different view of the challenges facing Europe than Viktor Orbán, whose opinions, as last year, remain all alone. For three and a half days participants discussed how and why Ukraine should be supported and integrated into the Western alliance system and into the European security architecture. No one remained of the opinion that this was an internal Slavic affair. Similarly, all NATO members were – to quote Kamala Harris – eager to see Sweden become a member of NATO.

German Precision

Throughout the event, every care was taken to ensure no late-starts or delays. All panel discussion started, at the very latest, within 5 minutes of their official starting time, even if some of the invitees had not yet arrived. Elsewhere though, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani all arrived late to their own talks. During the conference, I was at one such (press)event that started late, probably by a fluke of coincidence one that had been organised by the Italian embassy. Yet all irony aside, a member of the Italian delegation said when asked that Antonio Tajani’s press conference on the G7 had started half an hour late due to an informal meeting of G7 foreign ministers beforehand. A meeting in which Tajani had signed a bilateral agreement on energy issues with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, worth approximately 200 million euros.

Police check around the Bayerischer Hof
Police check around the Bayerischer Hof Marc Mueller/MSC/Marc Mueller

German precision was also evident in the safety checks. Although no cordon maze around the conference was in effect, such as the one built for Orbán’s annual State of the Nation speech, there was a huge police presence. The main area surrounding the conference could only be accessed with a badge and after an extensive security screening (followed by a full security screening on each entry to the various buildings). The streets were secured by – exceptionally polite – police, commandos, and security guards. As talks were often held at the same time in separate buildings, and even though the press were held separately from the public, any movement between two locations both began and ended with a search, but there was never more than a minute’s wait anywhere.


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.