Ziya Meral is a Senior Fellow at the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research – and a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI.
The UK government attracted criticism for not sending a senior ministerial delegation to the Munich Security Conference. Reactions are understandable: the MSC is a world-leading gathering of policymakers, experts, and practitioners, with a continental European and transatlantic focus. It is a good opportunity for countries to push for their agendas and messaging. What most attendees value in such events is meeting their peers, holding side conversations, and chances to engage with key individuals. So, yes, it is a missed opportunity for the government.
Yet at the same time, one can also legitimately question whether such gatherings amount to something, or whether they eventually create their own self-endorsing narratives and networks, and whether senior political speeches are attempts to communicate with the world or perform for their own home audiences. Similarly, one can question whether people who are present in the room are the right target audience, or in fact, the most relevant people for the conversation and issue at hand, as there will never be a limit to people wanting to attend such gatherings.
However, it is impossible to deny the value brought by such events to the host country: from messaging, to engagement and building of networks among key office holders. But let me turn the discussions on whether the UK should invest senior presence in the MSC or the World Economic Forum upside down. There is every reason to argue that the UK needs a regular flagship event of its own, bringing together a global network of practitioners, experts, officials, and businesses, to wrestle with defence and security questions, both to enable creativity and fresh inputs into its own policy thinking, but also to have a relevant platform of its own to communicate to the world.
The British defence and foreign policy circles are no strangers to such gatherings. Chatham House runs a London conference every year as its flagship event on international affairs. The Royal United Services Institute runs a widely praised Land Warfare Conference, among other events, which brings together military and defence personnel from across the world to London every year. The IISS holds events in Bahrain and Singapore which gather influential office holders in those regions. The FCO and Wilton Park regularly organise multiple events ranging from smaller confidential discussions to large events based on specific initiatives. Ditchley Park hosts highly respectable global discussions throughout the year.
There is also a myriad of internal events within the MoD network. The British Army partners with RUSI for the Land Warfare Conference, and our annual Making Sense of a Confusing World conference at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst attracts some 700 Army officers and wider defence personnel to hear from and engage with the same world leading experts that partake in events like the MSC and WEF. There is also the DSEI gathering every autumn, though focused on defence industry, it also hosts smaller events and talks and attracts a large global attendance.
What a lot of these initiatives miss out on is the cross governmental presence, and the dual mandate of both reaching out to foreign and domestic audiences, as well as reaching inwards to our personnel and wider public for their development and participation. They are also weakened by their institutional parameters and interests, and at times, simply repeating each other.
What we need is all of these leading think tanks, academics, defence and security personnel, and the private sector, working together annually, to deliver a world class event, both for the UK to reach out to a truly global audience, but also reach inward to help our own officials, politicians, pundits, businesses to think beyond their immediate concerns and interests. Grounding this within a framework of defence and security allows a rich integrated platform for both the UK to explore emerging questions and to find ways to deepen our partnerships with a broad range of countries all around the world.
For such a gathering to deliver an effective outcome, it needs to move on from the usual shortcomings that haunt such initiatives:
First of all, there is every reason to argue that such a conference should not be held in London. Edinburgh and Belfast would both be highly strategic hosts, with top notch universities that can partner and offer their students a chance to volunteer. Both have an impressive selection of estates that can host such discussions with a lot on offer to delegates beyond meetings. The costs will be cheaper than London, and their social and political impact would be in line with the Government’s recognition of the need to expand policy and diplomacy activities beyond London. Belfast would particularly be a strategic choice.
Secondly, no single individual or issue or institution should be allowed to dominate or shift the focus of the event on to itself. A senior and respected retired UK diplomatic, political, security or military figure could chair the initiative, supported by a professionally lead group of directors for the content and operations, and an executive board made up of all major partners and donors. All should be brought together with a clear vision and values statement that will enable them to develop a neutral platform which will run throughout the years. Bridging the gap between military and security officials with their civilian, political and subject matter expert peers in an integrated framework would be its strongest difference from similar initiatives.
Thirdly, its funding should be based on government, private sector, charitable grants and contributions in kind from institutions to ensure independence and focus on a broader vision rather than a narrower one reflecting a key funder interest. And finally, the topics and speakers that are chosen need to be engaging, stimulating, timely, and strategic in outlook, with creative event formats and communication strategies that ignore the usual boredom of sitting down in such audiences and usual names and themes dominating yet another ‘dialogue’.
I do share overall weariness about yet another conference on the horizon, but the UK is going through a historic process of redefining its place in today’s fast changing world, and needs both the input from brightest and best minds from across the world, but also to have platforms to communicate and pursue its agendas. Thus, rather than debating whether British officials should attend influential events elsewhere, it is time to debate how we can all contribute to developing more such platforms here.