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The world is splintering into ‘the west v the rest’ – and that leaves us all in more danger

<span>Children in the remains of a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza, 22 February 2024. </span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Children in the remains of a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza, 22 February 2024. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

How countries manage their security and defence against international threats in the most basic way – war and peace, in other words – is back in fashion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war in Gaza, coups and civil wars in a number of African countries, and the threat of military escalation in east Asia, be it in Taiwan, the South China Sea or the Korean peninsula, have made sure of that.

By now, however, no one disputes that foreign policy is about a lot more than diplomacy, intelligence, strategic alliances or weapons stockpiles. It should also encompass, for example, the climate crisis, food security and artificial intelligence. There is a long way to go but recognition of the overlapping complexity was on full display at the recent Munich security conference, the annual gathering known as the Davos of defence.

I first started attending the Munich event more than a decade ago. Back then, I felt like a fish out of water. There were only a handful of women present at the conference and the vast majority of attendees were old(ish) white men in suits or military types in uniforms.

Change over the years has been impressive, in many ways inspiring. Female participation has increased tremendously, as has geographic representation. Of the dozens of heads of state and ministers present, many now come from countries in the global south. There is a much greater variety of participants, with presidents, ministers, generals and top spooks sharing the space with climate warriors, tech wizards, human rights activists and more.

The climate crisis, energy, food security, artificial intelligence, migration, multilateralism and global supply chains now feature prominently on the programme. Taking the conference as a microcosm of the international security arena, all this is good news.

Yet many of the discussions stilll take place in separate bubbles. There was a distinct and very dark conversation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tainted by the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Ukraine’s loss of the city of Avdiivka to Russian forces, the US Congress’s stalling of military aid to Ukraine and the spectre of Donald Trump looming on the horizon.

There was the utterly depressing discussion on the Middle East, with the Israeli government showing no signs of restraint, the Qatari, Egyptian and Saudi regimes having little to offer, and the Biden administration, while expressing opposition to Israel’s onslaught on Rafah in words, unwilling to use the levers it has to stop Israel.

With these discussions are taking place separately, the tragic irony connecting them is missed. The suspension of military assistance to Ukraine due to the US Congress’s stalling is providing Russia with a military edge, while in the Middle East, Joe Biden’s unwillingness to even hint at the suspension of military aid to Israel lies at the core of the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

It is not just debates on the wars in Europe and the Middle East that are disconnected. Even more so it is true for other topics at the top of the global agenda. Countries in the global north are absorbed by Ukraine. Those in the global south are
far more concerned with the climate emergency, food security and mass displacement.

And despite the obvious linkages between them, the war-food-security nexus being the most obvious, the conversations often take place in different spaces and involve different people.

Worse still, whereas there was a conscious effort by the west to engage the global south on Ukraine during the first year after the fullscale invasion, those timid attempts have gone mute. Raising Ukraine today elicits no sympathy whatsoever given the west’s horrifying double standards, if not complicity, with Israel’s war in Gaza.

The world is ever more connected. Nowhere is this clearer than in the conflicts unfolding now, from the global food and energy crises triggered by the impact of Russia’s assault on Ukraine to the genocide case against Israel brought by South Africa at the international court of justice, or the Houthis’ disruption of global trade routes by attacking vessels passing through the Red Sea.

Yet the world is ever more divided and fragmented, with spaces for true dialogue, cooperation and understanding narrowing by the day.

I was struck, for instance, by how the make-up of the audience in the main hall at Munich visibly altered during two consecutive panels, one on European defence, the other on the Middle East. I stayed in the room throughout and saw the (mostly) white crowd leave after the first session when a more diverse group of people came in. Of course participants were busy having bilaterals and returned when the topic in the hall was closer to their heart. Yet I also think that people are more comfortable staying in their echo chambers.

The wars unfolding now, while regional, have global repercussions, feeding into mistrust, misunderstanding and a “west versus the rest” narrative across the world. This in turn complicates the search for solutions to the major transnational challenges of our age. Voices from all corners of the world can successfully be convened and brought together. But the global disconnect between them is growing wider.

  • Nathalie Tocci is a Guardian Europe columnist

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