17.02.23 Review

A Revision of Revisionism: A new Munich Security Report contends that, in order to successfully confront the world’s autocrats, the West must revise its vision of the international order

The war in Ukraine has turned the debate over the future of the world order into a practical matter, sharpening the divide between liberal and autocratic visions for its future. The Munich Security Report, usually published in advance of the authoritative annual Munich Security Conference, urges Western policy makers to rethink their vision of the international order to make it more accessible and attractive to developing countries that are yet to choose a side in the confrontation between the ‘Global West’ and the ‘Global South’. The report outlines the main points of contention that must be reconsidered: the universalist concept of human rights, the design of global infrastructure and trade, and nuclear security.

The annual international security forum (Munich Security Conference) took place in Munich last week. Despite the fact that representatives from Russia were not invited this year, the country was one of the main topics on the agenda. And, indeed, it is important to note that Vladimir Putin's first ‘revisionist’ speech was delivered at the very same forum in 2007, where he outlined the basic tenets of this new confrontation between Russia and the West. Traditionally, the conference is preceded by the presentation of a major security report, this year titled ‘Re:vision’

The debate over the future of the international order is typically quite abstract. But Russia's attack on Ukraine has transformed the conflict between the various visions for the globe into a brutal and lethal reality, as stated in the report. The challenges posed by authoritarian revisionism, led by China and Russia, are ‘awakening’ liberal democracies. To defend and assert their principles, these liberal democracies must thus reevaluate their vision of a suitable international order. They must make this vision more appealing and digestible to many developing countries to renew systemic competition against autocratic regimes, while taking into account the legitimate fears and criticisms that exist.

This is the report's primary focus and ultimate point. To successfully defend the liberal vision of the international order in the face of Chinese and Russian revisionism, a broader coalition must be formed, including some of the countries that have not yet joined the sanctions against Russia. The very fact that some did not join the sanctions is a sign that the world's autocracies are not alone in their discontent with the status quo. These revisionists are attempting to sway governments in Africa, Latin America, and Asia with anti-colonial narratives. This means that liberal democracies cannot be content with merely defending the status quo.

The conflict between the competing visions for the world order is unfolding in a variety of fields. In the area of human rights, for example, China seeks to call into question both their conceptual basis and the tools used to uphold them, thus creating a world that is safe for autocracies. China contrasts the liberal concept of human rights with the doctrine that collective rights, defined and upheld by the state, trump individual civil and political liberties. The colonial past has encouraged countries of the 'Global South' to share the view that national sovereignty takes precedence over international law, and as a result, they join China in denying the universality, assertion, and protection of human rights. 

According to the report, global infrastructures have also become a source of geopolitical competition. Liberal and authoritarian camps are openly competing to define and govern the world's physical and digital infrastructures. In the digital sphere, China leads a group of autocracies attempting to promote their techno-authoritarian interpretation of its architecture, while the transatlantic coalition is only gradually moving towards a common vision of open digital infrastructure (Re: Russia recently wrote about this strategy, Russia’s move towards a Chinese model of digital authoritarianism, and the controversy surrounding the use of digital surveillance technologies in Europe).

Trade and economic interdependence are increasingly seen as a vulnerability and a tool for coercion in this current era of pervasive competition. The use of trade relations as a weapon has gone hand in hand with the rise in protectionism. So far, the Western alliance has been unable to present a new vision of trade infrastructure which would serve mutual prosperity while curtailing vulnerabilities. At the same time, China is promoting its own, ostensibly unconditional, model of economic partnership as an alternative to the US and European models, which place a high value on the principles of democracy, free markets, accountability, and transparency. Many countries view this as an attractive alternative due to growing dissatisfaction with their rate of development and the benefits they receive from international trade. 

A nuclear security crisis is evidently an area of contention, the report states. Russia's use of nuclear blackmail undermines two key pillars of the global nuclear order: the policy of non-proliferation and the prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons as anything other than a deterrent (Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons to enact retribution). The reduction of nuclear arms control treaties is further evidence of this security crisis. Experts warn that we are on the verge of a world with no arms control treaties accompanied by an increasing number of nuclear warheads. For example, Russia has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, violated the Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missile Treaty, and the fate of the bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia remains unclear. 

The next decade will be critical  in the struggle for a future world order, the authors conclude. While 2022 was a year of increased authoritarian revisionism, it also marked a turning point, demonstrating how aggressive revisionism can be countered, with Ukraine's heroic resistance and Western solidarity in the face of Russian aggression as an example.