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In Munich, the Security Conference has ended, but the world’s bigger challenges – rising conflicts, armament, and civil hardship continue. German news channels mostly agree that the outcome of the Security Conference was nothing but disillusioning. The topics that attracted the most attention were Iran and its nuclear program, the war in Syria, the tension between the two NATO members Turkey and the US and US foreign policy under Donald Trump. While these issues are undeniably important, what stands out is how the discourse is revolving much more around security and protection in a strictly military sense than around the “peace through dialogue” premise that it was supposed to carry out originally. This article highlights the twofold paradigm shift in international security policy: 1) the alteration in carrying out solutions to conflict and 2) the change in the discourse and rhetoric.

Contemporary Solutions to Conflict

Looking at the world today, it seems that a peaceful dialogue as a method for conflict resolution has been replaced by rearmament and violent confrontations. The mobilization of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic region as a deterrence to Russia is one example displaying an enthusiasm for war that, one might argue, resembles the one preceding WWI. If we do not pay more attention to this alarming development it could lead to catastrophic effects another time. To oppose this violent and aggressive enforcement of security, a parallel discourse has taken place since 2003 on the exact same days as the Munich Security Conference: Die Internationale Münchner Friedenskonferenz – the Munich Peace Conference was created out of the need for real peace initiatives that do not support war or war-like methods to forcefully establish peace. Peace Conference enthusiasts denounce the weapons industry for enriching themselves through each war that is supposed to fight yet another war.

With the same aim of promoting disarmament and a sustainable policy of détente, Nonviolent Peaceforces are opposing the heavily armed troops of UN Peacekeepers who are encouraged to use their weaponry in combat situations. Shannon Zimmerman, a PhD researcher at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), attempts to understand “How did we get here” in a TED talk from 2016. Her research on UN Peacekeeping and counterterrorism efforts concentrates on the ways and methods these missions are carried out. In order to understand the shift in international security policy, Zimmerman explores how the concepts and our perceptions of peace and security have changed over time. While Peacekeepers in 1948 started out as unarmed observers on the ground, they are now, as she points out showing these pictures below, armed and trained military personnel.

PeacekeepersSource: Shannon Zimmerman: “Is The Future Of Peacekeeping Peaceful?”, TEDx talk, September 2nd 2016

More Than One Understanding of Security

Listening to Zimmerman giving a talk on how peace and security are conceptualized in the Western hemisphere and in what manner these ideas have changed over time, hints at just how unstable these concepts are in reality. Concerning the rhetoric of public discourse on these issues, globalization has advocated for Western ideas and values like democracy and peaceful dialogue. The Western discourse is mainly specified by a few global players in a non-participatory manner and diffused through mass media around the globe – where people have access to it. Hence, what we know about peace and security, stems from our environment. What becomes apparent in contemporary politics is that, while continuously negotiating global peace and security, government representatives pay less and less attention to these core values of democracy and dialogue themselves. Manipulative rhetorical speeches by politicians and mass media stipulate the fear of the population in face of actual, but more often perceived (and dubious) threats. This contaminates the international discourse on security and potentially evokes and blows up negative emotions like fear, anger, resentment and hatred. This kind of language is employed to promote international military security interventions, something I have already explored in a previous article.

Furthermore, even within the Western world there is dispute about what security really means and how to achieve security or the feeling of security. More than a theoretical change over time, these notions have different meanings depending on the (cultural) context. Take Germany and the United States for example. The repeated shootings at US schools nourish the ongoing debate on firearms: a  case in which Americans and Germans (Europeans) differ tremendously and which shows that the two countries have very diverging views when it comes to security.

By contrast, Germany is characterized by its thorough social security net and its vast insurance landscape. In the United States, liberal labor market policies and private insurance schemes emphasize America’s focus on individualism and flexibility within the economy (as well as without). Although these countries might be seen as moving closer towards one another – the United States adopting obligatory public health insurance plans and Germany liberalizing its labor market policies – the respective country’s core values have not shifted as much. Considering how long it took for the Transatlantic Safe Harbor agreement to get settled, because Germans insisted on their right to privacy and data protection, security needs to be studied from a historical perspective.

Germany has been shaped by many wars and two major surveillance regimes during the Nazi era (Gestapo) and the Soviet occupation (Stasi) after World War II. During these times, the country has learned its lesson of survival: Do not talk and only give away as little information as possible. Personal security will be guaranteed through the protection of personal information and both – security and privacy – still form core values of German culture. Meanwhile, the American understanding of security involves freedom of speech and sharing all the information available. The pioneer culture still shapes everyday interactions as well as public discourses on security. Their motto is rather: If you are doing something that no one else is supposed to see, then it is probably something you should not be doing. An aphorism that shakes the Germans at their core after experiencing life under totalitarian regimes twice. Learning that every little piece of information could possibly be used against you, will not be unlearned easily until new experiences serve as good practice examples to replace the old horrifying ones.

Until today, we can see these two very different ways of interaction play a role in politics and social life. In an article in the Journal of Intercultural Mediation and Communication, Jacquelyn Reeves, Intercultural Consultant, enlightens us about German and American interactions on Facebook. Reeves is an expert on American and German communication and privacy styles, both – on- and offline.

The Hypocrisy of Military Interventions and Surveillance

The peaceful outcome of violent interventions has been questioned repeatedly in this article. Moreover, the German example exhibits clearly that surveillance did not lead to a feeling of more security for ordinary people either, but quite the contrary. The cases of China, North Korea, Turkey, South Sudan, Poland, should add only a few other examples from the 21st century to the German precedent. In a world where security is defined and interpreted in various and changing ways, how to find international consensus? For a change, international strategy on security should take into account different national discourses and cultural variations in the interpretation of peace and security. This includes first and foremost returning to peaceful dialogue as a core value of democracy. Furthermore, listening to and respecting local security needs instead of trampling over your opponents with your own agenda. It is crucial to overcome challenges to this democratic process, i.e. conflicts, by sticking to the core value of democracy, rather than by adopting strictly military solutions.

oto: Toy Soldiers (Max Pixel)

Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.

About the Author: Christiane Butler

Christiane Butler is from Berlin and has lived, studied and/or worked in Spain, Mexico, Ethiopia, Denmark and Tanzania. As explorer and researcher, Christiane is passionate about people and cultures. She is especially engaged with women's issues, which brought her to a development project in Addis Ababa with the Ethiopian Women's Exporters' Association (EWEA) in 2016. Christiane is currently studying the MSc in Global Development at the University of Copenhagen.

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