The Munich Security Conference: Going Beyond the Zero-sum Game of International Diplomacy


The Munich Security Conference (MSC) took place from February 16 to February 18, 2024, at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich. Global leaders from around 50 countries gathered to put forward a collective policy to counter the latest global challenges. The MSC assembles more than 450 senior decision-makers as well as thought leaders from around the world, including heads of state, ministers, leading personalities of international and non-governmental organizations, high-ranking representatives from business, the media, academia and civil society to debate pressing issues of international security policy.

The United States was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.  US Vice President Harris delivered a major foreign policy speech designed to reassure the United States’  European allies regarding the future of US global leadership. This concern was stronger this year because of Europe’s  dependence on  US military power and the prospect of Donald Trump returning  to the US presidency. As a result, a related concern was mentioned amongst the conference attendees: Europe still lacks the military industrial capacity and the political will to be able to defend itself.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also participated in the conference. Before attending the MSC, the Ukrainian president was in Paris to sign a bilateral security agreement with France. He also traveled to Berlin on the same day. China was represented by its Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who then visited Spain and France. Israel was represented by President Isaac Herzog and the Palestinian Authority by Prime Minister Mohammad  Shtayyeh.  It is important to note that neither Russia nor Iran were invited.

In the conference’s  2024 report, the main idea was that “relative-gains concerns take the shape of zero-sum beliefs – the conviction that another actor’s gains necessarily entail losses for oneself.” Also, according to  the report, “there is a real risk that more and more countries end up in a lose-lose situation, which is no longer about who gains more, but only about who loses less.” Overcoming the lose-lose dynamic was at the center of the 2024 conference agenda. The agenda of the MSC 2024 included dialogue and discussions on a wide array of topics. These topics are of great importance, especially in the context of recent global and regional developments. The main topics tackled during the MSC 2024 were as follows: global security challenges,  the future of the international order, regional conflicts and crises, the evolving relationship between Europe and the  world including the EU’s key partnerships, the possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine and the expansion of the EU. 

The question of relative gains in international relations could be best addressed in the context of the Global North and Global South debate. This debate stimulates thinking over this concept (relative gains) as the Global North is also dissatisfied with its current share of global leadership and is worried about the rise of Chinese power on the global stage. The zero-sum game belief is key to understanding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine after more than two years of military confrontation. Despite Zelenskyy’s optimism about Ukraine’s chances of winning the war,  MSC attendees expressed concerns over  Ukraine’s prospects for victory in light of ongoing Russian aggression and future US support for Kyiv. Moreover,  Western officials used the moment to press that Ukraine would lose the war without the $60 billion more in  US military aid which currently is awaiting a vote of approval in the US Congress. Nevertheless, they also sounded far from certain about what a victory might look like for Ukraine, even with extra US military aid.

On the other hand, a Republican opponent of additional US funding for Ukraine argued at the MSC that the package which is currently stuck in the US Congress would not “fundamentally change the reality” on the ground and that Russia has an incentive to negotiate peace. According to Senator JD Vance, an Ohio Republican and ally of Donald Trump “the problem in Ukraine … is that there’s no clear end point” and that the  United States  does not make enough weapons to support wars in eastern Europe, the Middle East and “potentially a contingency in East Asia.” Despite this opinion, one has to consider that Republican senators have been deeply divided on Ukraine.

The conference speakers also noted that the Indo-Pacific region could be the next location of a global conflict with far-reaching consequences. This region sees 60% of maritime trade pass through it. The rise of instability was also part of the  MSC agenda, especially against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that erupted in October 2023. EU High Representative for  Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell expressed his concerns about Israel’s strategy in the ongoing conflict and raised his voice in favor of a two-state solution. He explained that “Hamas is an idea, and you don’t kill an idea.” On the sidelines of the conference, Israeli President Isaac Herzog secretly met with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani to discuss the negotiations aimed at securing the release of the hostages in Gaza, according to Axios. In the regional dialogue, the lose-lose situation in the Sahel region was also mentioned because of the humanitarian consequences of heightened political instability.

Last but not least, receding globalization was also cited as a concern. Indeed, economic and technological interconnectedness and interdependence are no longer perceived as mutually beneficial policies by nation-states.   Many countries are pursuing strategies based on self-reliance rather than interdependence. This trend also potentially undermines efforts to curb the effects of climate change. Drone warfare and artificial intelligence risks were also among the talking points at the MSC, especially in the context of the war between Ukraine and Russia. On the final day of the MSC, participants discussed the enlargement of the EU  and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

On the whole, the conference attendees agreed that the rules-based international order is in desperate need of change. According to them,  the solution could be the implementation of positive-sum policies.

Editorial Team