February 15, 2018
February 16 marks the start of the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC)—the “Davos of international security”—in Germany. A Rolodex of top defense and foreign affairs leaders from Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and elsewhere will convene to take on a wide array of pressing global security issues.

While the issues on the 2018 agenda are varied, a few prominent themes stand out: the rise of great-power competition between the United States, China, and Russia; the looming geopolitical and societal impacts of new technologies and emerging threats; and the future of the liberal international order.

US National Security Advisor HR McMaster, and other senior US officials, will lead the US government delegation to Munich. Their remarks will be widely parsed for indications of new policy statements in the aftermath of US President Donald J. Trump’s first three major strategy releases: the December 2017 National Security Strategy, the January 2018 National Defense Strategy, and the February 2018 summary of the Nuclear Posture Review.

That said, the Americans will not be the only ones making news in the security world. Between the bilats and night owls, here are five key areas to watch at this year’s MSC. 

NATO, the European Union (EU), and the Future of the Transatlantic Partnership

Transatlantic security will once again be the beating heart of the MSC. NATO officials will be out in force, conferencing intensely with each other on the margins of this familiar stomping ground. High on their priority list will be solidifying the major themes and deliverables for the NATO Summit in Brussels this July, where the Alliance is angling to tackle key issues such as burden-sharing, counter-terrorism, Russian aggression, command structure reform, maritime security, and more. 

While it is a topic that has been talked about over (and over) since the start of Trump’s administration, an underlying dynamic framing this year’s discussions is a lingering uncertainty among European allies about the US role in European security. Despite Trump’s belated acknowledgment of the value of NATO and a US defense policy toward Europe that has played out constructively thus far, serious questions remain over who will drive the transatlantic security agenda. Looking ahead, will Europeans continue seeking to integrate their defense capabilities and operations through EU frameworks against the backdrop of growing US pressure to spend more on defense through NATO? Will allies develop a coherent approach to key divisive challenges like Russia, or could diverging threat perceptions and political stumbling blocks on both sides of the Atlantic jeopardize allied solidarity?

The Middle East and the Widening Gulf

Geopolitical security concerns discussed in Munich will extend beyond the transatlantic community to a range of issues threatening the prospects for stability in the Middle East.

Just when it seems the interlocking regional conflicts cannot get any more complicated, the threat of the Syrian war expanding to engulf Israel, Iran, Russia, the United States, the Syrian regime, Syrian rebels, Turkey, and Kurdish forces looms. If this was not enough to tackle, Yemen also continues to suffer, in part as a battleground between Iranian proxies and forces backed by Gulf nations.

Key questions regarding the role of the international community in the future of the region have yet to be answered: Will the momentum build, driven by President Trump, to re-negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in some form to strengthen its core provisions, expand its duration, and broaden its scope to include ballistic missiles? Will rapidly developing Saudi economic and societal reforms propel the Gulf allies, and the broader Middle East over time, toward a brighter and more prosperous future? Could these reforms affect the protests in Iran, driving the Iranian people to demand the rights that they see Saudis beginning to enjoy?

North Korea, China, and the Asia-Pacific

The PyeongChang Olympics may feature a joint North and South Korean women’s hockey team—paving the way for a bit of diplomacy between government officials from the two nations—but tensions remain on the volatile Korean peninsula. All parties are focused on what comes next, when the games end, US-Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) military exercises resume, and a senior South Korean delegation travels to Pyongyang following an invitation by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Will the reclusive regime re-start nuclear weapon and long-range ballistic missile tests, driving tensions back to a boiling point? Would such provocations prompt the “bloody nose” military operation that is all the talk among Korea policy watchers in Washington?

China’s continuing ascent as a global power also casts a shadow over the MSC. The emerging powerhouse nation has increasingly captured international attention due to its growing state-driven economy, assertive military activities in disputed maritime waters and cyberspace, and grand vision of connecting Asia and all adjoining regions, including Europe. Beijing plans to do this by way of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the modern version of China’s Silk Road. The BRI is a sixty-six-country infrastructure plan designed to enhance economic ties among all nations involved. US and European officials will seize opportunities this weekend to continue debating a common approach to address (and, where necessary, counter) China’s activities, investments, and policies in their countries.

A Global World Order Under Threat

At the highest level of analysis, there are reinvigorated discussions of how to react to the growing stressors on the rules-based international order—the global economic and security system that the United States built up in the aftermath of World War II with its allies and partners. While most observers credit this system with undergirding the greatest period of growth and prosperity in human history, its future has become uncertain in the face of the rising tides of populism, the threat of US isolationism, and increasing unchecked authoritarianism in all corners of the globe, among other issues. What becomes of this heralded world order, and the key institutions and principles that support it, when China establishes its own organizations (such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) and Russia continues to violate the sovereignty and polities of other nation-states?

Emerging Technologies and the Future of Security

While cyberspace, digital developments, and increasing connectivity have brought benefits to millions worldwide, the downsides are more prevalent than ever. These tools with positive potential can also be used by aggressive and authoritarian actors—at home and abroad—for dark purposes detrimental to the safety and security of democratic nations.

Will the rapidly proliferating and even more disruptive technology of artificial intelligence (AI) produce the same effect? Moreover, will AI’s continuing creep up the value chain of advanced economies displace millions of workers and further rend already shaken western working classes? How will conventional security actors and institutions adapt and prepare to grapple with these challenges?

These are the questions that the world’s top national security and foreign policy leaders will address at the annual Munich gathering. NATO-nicks, Asia watchers, and tech gurus alike will watch closely as these issues unfold on the MSC stage.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. You can follow him on Twitter @BarryPavel

Lauren Speranza is associate director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenSperanza