Speeches and panel discussions at the Munich Security Conference in Germany over the weekend portrayed a world on the cusp of three potential conflagrations: In the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula and, in years to come, cyberspace.
Add to that a growing concern that arms control agreements that kept the nuclear peace between the U.S and Russia since the 1980s are at risk of unraveling, and the mood among the annual assembly of political leaders and generals was unusually sober.
In an otherwise reassuring speech, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended plans to develop low-yield tactical nuclear missiles as a means to deter Russia, which is developing similar weapons. Both former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel expressed alarm at the implications of such supposedly limited nuclear weapons for Europe.
“I think there is a question of whether we are at the end of an era of formal arms control,’’ said Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who advised the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan. “The way to think about this is to ask why did people invent arms control?”
Emerging as the new area of conflict is a potential great-power arms race in areas such as cyber security and artificial intelligence. At Munich, a breakfast on technology overflowed with delegates. A NATO discussion down the hall was largely empty.
Last year, Trump had just been elected. The new administration’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the defense of Ukraine against Russia were in doubt. The far-right politician Marine Le Pen seemed as likely to become the next French president as Emmanuel Macron.
Even Russia was less of a focus this year, Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said in an interview. And that despite the emergence, mid-conference, of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals as well as organisations.
Cybercrime remains the most pressing concern for Western liberal democracies, according to intelligence officials.
They cited Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — as well as militant groups in the Middle East — as threats to global security.
National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats warned the US is “under attack” by “entities using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the US”.
Donald Trump issued a national security strategy document in December deeming cybersecurity a top priority.
Cyber-based influence campaigns have been a hot topic since the US election, with experts warning such activity poses a major threat to global democracies.
Mr Coats said Russian interference has and will continue to threaten security in the Western world.
He warned it would continue harnessing fake personalities on social media and throwing propaganda at Americans ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” he said.
“Throughout the entire community, we have not seen any evidence of any significant change from last year.”
The next main security threat is nuclear weapons: Mr Coats warned time is running out for the United States to act on North Korea’s nuclear threats.
He said North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction present “a potentially existential” threat to the US and its allies and is likely to conduct more weapons tests this year.
“North Korea continues to pose an ever more increasing threat to the United States and its interests,” Mr Coats said.
Lastly, terrorism continues to be a major global threat, including homegrown terrorism.
“Homegrown violent extremist terrorism, including inspired and self-radical individuals, represent the primary and most difficult to detect Sunni terrorism threat in the United States,” stated Mr Coats.
Islamic State militants have lost significant ground in Iraq and Syria, but Mr Coats said they “remain a threat” and will most likely attempt to regroup.
The threat to the UK from terrorism is currently ranked as “severe”.
With these main security threats facing the international community, it is comforting to see that global institutions and agencies are working closely to reduce the risk of attacks.