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International Affairs Editor

Munich Security Conference: The Davos of Defence

Le 03-02-2012

Mention the Munich Security Conference to all but diehard news geeks and European policy wonks, and you tend to draw blank stares.

Yet even if you've never heard of the event that insiders regard as the "Davos" of global security brainstorming, you're probably familiar with some of the headlines that have sprung from its freewheeling forums in recent years.

This is where, in 2007, Vladimir Putin sent a collective shudder down the spines of Western policymakers when he warned of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.

It's also where, a year later, in 2008, US Vice President Joe Biden launched one of Barack Obama's earliest foreign policy initiatives when he declared a "reset" in Washington's strained relationship with Moscow.

And lest we forget, it's from a Munich podium that British Prime Minister David Cameron last year declared an end to "multiculturalism" - the kaleidoscopically inclusive model of societal tolerance that had been the touchstone of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia.

The three-day conference opening this Friday has chosen a broad Asia-Pacific theme for its 48th edition - a nod to what many see as an inexorable shift in the global balance of power, from West to East.

From missile shields to Syria

Over three days, a VIP line-up of global movers and shakers will square off on issues ranging from European missile shields (a Russian tripwire topic) and the financial crisis to Syria and building a new Middle East, one year after the Arab Spring erupted.

That's enough to fill the agendas of several G20s and a slew of euro summits. But Munich has rarely been short on ambition.

This year's list of participants reads like a roll-call of foreign policy hotshots, from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Russian foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

But if the past is any precedent, the Munich Security Conference will refuse, once again, to hew to any neatly chosen prescriptions.

The gathering in this proud Bavarian city in the shadow of the Alps is taking place at an especially fraught moment for the gatekeepers of global security.

It comes at the end of a roller-coaster week that saw Leon Panetta suggest an earlier end to US troops' combat role in Afghanistan, setting off a flurry of speculation as to what that really means for troops on the ground. As well as for a potential Taliban comeback.

Doppelgangers on defence

We can expect the Afghan riddle to loom large when Panetta speaks Saturday in a widely anticipated panel on Euro-Atlantic security.

He will be seated just a few feet from NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a sort of defence-policy doppelganger who shares Panetta's vision of an accelerated timetable for winding down NATO's Afghan mission.

Likewise, Russia's foreign minister, Lavrov, makes his appearance just a couple of days after Russia managed to water down a draft UN Security Concil resolution on Syria to the point that some are now asking, "What's the point?".

The document now under discussion has dropped any reference to Bashar Assad relinquishing power; nor does it call for tough economic sanctions or an arms embargo. Whatever Lavrov says or doesn't say, Syria's fate will stalk this conference.

As will another immediate threat with possibly outsized security implications: the drive for energy and natural resources in geopolitically explosive areas.

Iran's threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tough economic sanctions on its oil industry will be one of those hot-button issues that participants shun at their own peril.

'America's Pacific Century'

You can be sure that Heydar Aliyev, president of oil-rich Azerbaijan, will be attuned to every word - and offering a few of his own - at Friday's panel on the new security parameters of energy and resources.

Of course, the broad theme of the conference is the rise of Asia as a geopolitical power player. Hillary Clinton made no bones about the magnitude of this shift when she spoke recently of "America's Pacific century".

As Obama reiterated in Canberra, Australia a couple of months back, the overall trend in American defense diplomacy is towards a lighter footprint in Europe, and a more muscular presence across the Asia/Pacific region.

It's perhaps no coincidence that the conference finale on Sunday will be a session devoted to cyber security.

With the growing proliferation of targeted cyber attacks against individuals, corporations and entire governments, the Munich Security Conference is asking this year whether a good offense is the best defense.

Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to divining which lightning-rod security issue will grab the spotlight at Munich this year.

There's always a potential breaking-news headline waiting in the wings at the Munich conference - just like the time a participant asked the German defence minister, point blank, at the conference's opening panel: "Would Germany go to war for Israel?".

The minister parried the question. But this being Munich, we can expect more zingers like that before the final bell on Sunday.