The most striking event at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in February did not involve the roster of Western presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who speak each year from the stage in the Bayerischer Hof Hotel. Rather it was a discussion between government ministers and leaders from Namibia, Colombia, the Philippines and Brazil, moderated by the MSC’s new chairman, Christoph Heusgen, that provided a stark illustration of the West’s declining influence over what is sometimes known as the “Global South”.
During this session, introduced by Heusgen as “the most important of all the panels we are doing”, it rapidly became clear how far apart the governments of many such countries are from the mainstream American and European positions on supporting Ukraine’s self-defence. Mauro Vieira, Brazil’s new foreign minister, called for “an atmosphere that would lead us to some kind of understanding and a negotiation”. Francia Márquez, Colombia’s vice-president, argued that the global community should refocus on humanitarian topics such as hunger and the climate crisis. Ukraine and Russia could learn from her own country’s peace process, she argued: “The important thing is that we can reconcile and can turn the page.” Heusgen, a veteran German diplomat, concluded by observing that his country’s own history illustrates that there are times when one cannot sit on the fence.
Two weeks later I meet Heusgen at the MSC’s office in Berlin. The exchange in Munich has stuck with me. Should we be surprised by the seemingly widening gulf between the West and the Global South on Russia, Ukraine and indeed other topics? And is this just an inevitable reality of the West’s declining power, or can it be remedied? As a foreign policy adviser to Angela Merkel and subsequently Germany’s ambassador to the UN, Heusgen is as good an authority as any to ask. For a diplomat known for sharing the former chancellor’s inscrutability, his reply is surprisingly blunt. The West, he argues, has neglected relations with Latin America, Africa and Asia. For too long, other topics have claimed higher priority in the chancelleries and foreign ministries of North America and Europe, creating a vacuum which powers like Russia and China have exploited.
It was at the UN, Heusgen says, that he “realised how active China and Russia are all over the world. They invest much more time and they concentrate their means much more on these countries.” He adds that this sheer focus on the Global South (a term he prefers not to use) often trumped the West’s greater spending on development support in many of those same states. “Countries abstained in the UN on the question of the Russian aggression, including some to whom we pay about ten times as much in development aid as the Chinese or Russians,” he says. “But they focus much more on infrastructure. They have huge embassies. They have the direct contact to the president. The first trip of China’s new foreign minister was to Africa.”
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The MSC is a major feature of the North Atlantic diplomatic and security policy calendar. Founded in 1963 by Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, one of the Wehrmacht plotters who had attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, the conference has played stage to many of the most significant shifts in recent world politics. It was there, for example, that Vladimir Putin gave an infamous speech in 2007 that took aim at Nato and its allies in passages that foretold much of what was to come in Russian foreign and military policy.
This year’s conference was Heusgen’s first since taking over as chairman. He tells me that he deliberately sought to accord relations with the Global South new prominence as part of a wider, dawning recognition in Western capitals of the urgency of the topic. “It was not only me putting it on the agenda, but many people realise that if we do not work more with those countries, we will lose the majority in the UN and influence over the shape of the future global order. We need these countries. We need to listen to them more. And we have to explain more.”
This, he stresses, is beginning to happen – “I think many more people understand that we have to reach out beyond the West” – but much more needs to be done. Policies on the Global South need higher institutional priority to make the West “more active than the Chinese”, so: more interactions between leaders, more visits, bigger embassies. Citing the case of a new Africa strategy recently issued by Germany’s international development ministry seemingly without co-ordination with other parts of the federal government, he says this also demands policies that are much better connected. “You cannot just do it as a ministry for economic co-operation,” he says. “You cannot just do it as a foreign ministry. You cannot just do it as a trade ministry. You have to join forces, and you have to get the private sector involved.”
Beyond bilateral relations, Heusgen also calls for new engagement through international institutions. The UN, he says, remains indispensable: “For my proposal of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression where you can put the leadership of a country on trial – in this case Russia – you need the legitimacy of the UN. You need the General Assembly to recommend such a court.” But other spaces for multilateralism must flourish. Inviting developing-world governments to G7 summits, as the German chancellor Olaf Scholz did last year, is a good step, but the G7 is still seen as a Global North club. The G20 is more inclusive, but remains waylaid by some of the US-China tensions also present in the UN.
“My formula would be a renamed G7 where you assemble like-minded countries from around the globe that stay together and that are supporting the rules-based international order.” He points to past initiatives such as the Compact with Africa, a co-ordination structure involving 12 African countries created under Germany’s presidency of the G20 in 2017, and the Alliance for Multilateralism, a group of over 70 states launched by France and Germany in 2019. (In an aside echoing wider sentiments in Berlin, Heusgen welcomes the improvement in relations between Britain and the EU: “We were very happy that Prime Minister [Rishi] Sunak attended the Munich Security Conference. Neither the European Union nor the UK can afford to go in different ways on global issues.”)
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Heusgen stresses that renewed engagement with states in Latin America, Africa and Asia should be in the right tenor – recognising the deep legacy of Western colonialism and more recent failings by Western governments. “We have to put ourselves more into the shoes of [these] countries. When I was in the UN, I was desperately urging Berlin: we have to have more Covid vaccines. And Germany was the leading power on finance for the Covax mechanism [funding equitable access to vaccines]. But from my perspective, it came too late.”
The Americans are not always the best-placed to lead. “They carry a very heavy burden,” Heusgen notes, given accusations of double standards over topics such as the Iraq War and the suspicion in the Global South that they are motivated by their rivalry with China. So others, including Germany, have to step up. “I think many countries do not want to make a choice, and I understand that. And therefore we should come in saying, ‘We do not care if you work with China or not, we care about whether there is good governance and whether there is basis for a co-operation between us.’ ”
Here we come to Namibia. Of the four leaders on that stage in Munich, perhaps the most outspoken call for “reconciliation” between Ukraine and Russia came from Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, prime minister of the south-west African country. The following week her government was among 32 (including China and India) that abstained in a UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion. This, says Heusgen, “has to do also with a lot of Chinese investment [in Namibia]”. But Namibia, he says, is an example of a democratic country with which the West can realistically work to improve its relations, noting the new agreement between Germany and Namibia to co-operate on green hydrogen technology. “I’m optimistic that if we continue to invest this way they will see jobs being created, they see their energy needs satisfied and may say, ‘Well, you know, Germany is a good partner to work with.’ ”
As our discussion draws to a close, Heusgen qualifies his argument. Yes, the West must engage more with the Global South; it must adopt a spirit of humility and sensitivity to the recent and more distant past; it must learn from its mistakes. But it must also be clear about what is at stake in cases like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a difference between a world of impunity and a world of accountability. “I think the question is: do we want to live in a world where you base your actions on the UN Charter and the rule of law? Or do you want to live in a world where the law of strongest is predominant?” He is right. That is the question. And it is one that people, rich and poor, north and south – if they are being honest and clear-eyed about their interests – can answer only one way.
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