Let's get this out of the way first. The world will not look differently after this weekend's Munich Security Conference. Conflicts won't be ended, peace treaties won't be signed. That is neither the goal nor the function of the annual gathering that has international leaders and experts descending on Bavaria in early February. The Munich Security Conference is after all not a parliamentary body or some other official decision-making venue.
The Munich Security Conference won't solve the world's many pressing issues. But it can provide crucial input for the political leaders whose job it is to understand the way the world today works.
Instead it is a high-level platform for international dialogue and exchange on security issues. At its best, such a venue can push politicians to leave their rehearsed talking points at home, listen to different perspectives and engage in frank debates about key issues. Judging from the state of global affairs in early 2015 new ideas and fresh thinking are desperately needed.
Let's just take three pressing issues. The international community has put a lot of muscle and money into fighting terrorism since the attacks of 9/11. But after more than a decade, the terrorist threat has morphed and worsened as highlighted by events in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen and Paris. Real progress looks different. Beyond the traditional responses of bombing terrorist strongholds and increasing security at home there is little in terms of a fresh vision.
The Ukraine crisis is another example. The conflict between Kyiv and Moscow erupted with full force in late 2013. Since then Russia has annexed Crimea and open fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops has led to the deaths of almost 4,000 and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Despite a cease-fire agreement and continuous shuttle diplomacy the conflict has escalated rather than died down. A solution is nowhere in sight.
The refugee crisis is a third example. Even before the situation in Syria and Iraq spiraled out of control, the world was struggling badly with the rising number of refugees. Since then the plight of hundreds of thousands of additional refugees has finally managed to drive home the urgency of the issue even to politicians in Europe and elsewhere who had avoided addressing it before. It evolved from a global to a very local political topic. But a succinct and concerted approach on what to do about it and how to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place is still lacking.
All three issues have in common that after trying (and failing) with various ways to deal with them, political leaders seem currently at a loss how to solve them. Still, through trial-and-error we have learned important lessons. Notwithstanding the US debate about supplying Ukraine with arms and going after the "Islamic State" militarily, it is now generally accepted wisdom that both the terrorist threat and the Ukraine conflict can ultimately not be solved with arms. And it is also evident that in order to come to grips with the refugee crisis the situation of the people in their home countries must be improved.
These are important lessons. But stating them does not suffice. In order to address and solve the root causes of these crises the lessons learned must become part of an internationally agreed political concept that can be implemented. To get there true outside-the box-thinking is required.
That's where the Munich Security Conference comes in. It offers international leaders and scholars the chance to listen, debate and vet fresh ideas to tackle the most pressing global problems. They should not squander that opportunity.