The 2016 Munich Security Conference (Feb. 11, 2016 - Source: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images Europe)
The 2016 Munich Security Conference (Feb. 11, 2016 – Source: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images Europe)

The 52nd Munich Security Conference (MSC) has come to an end and has left the world with a litany of horrific concerns. From February 12-14, 2016, over 600 of the world’s most influential decision-makers in international security policy gathered in Munich, Germany to discuss some of the most troubling security threats facing our global community today. Over the past five decades, the Conference has become the preeminent global forum for the examination of security policy and this year the attendees had a great deal to talk about. Among those in attendance were Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain, General James Clapper, and Admiral James Stavridis. Bleak predictions were shared by all and Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, the MSC Chairman, made the bold proclamation that “the international order may be in its worst shape since the end of the Cold War.” How is it possible that the world has taken a step backward in global relations since the shredding of the Iron Curtain in 1991?

Throughout the Conference, leaders in international security addressed this unfathomable question. This year’s assembly was defined by overwhelming frustration regarding myriad international crises including the continued terror brought forth by the Islamic State; the devastating civil war raging in Syria; unprecedented Russian aggression; the refugee crises in Europe, and the general loosening of the mold that formed the European Union. Among other topics discussed were the rise of cyber warfare and the growing necessity for countries to elevate their cyber security measures. Clearly, the world has its proverbial hands full.

Perhaps the most ominous concerns shared by the MSC attendees were not Islamic State terror or a new generation of cyber weaponry, but an overwhelming lack of confidence in the ability of the United States to efficiently and effectively provide global leadership. Officials pleaded for the United States to take action. Whether that action comes in the form of shifting the balance of power in Syria or combating Russian hostility, increasing NATO forces in East Europe, world leaders made it clear that U.S. inaction is increasingly debilitating. In his address to the Conference, Secretary Kerry rejected this accusation of U.S. incompetence and promised the world that “[t]his moment is not as overwhelming as people think it is.” Leaders were hardly convinced.

Secretary Kerry’s blasé remarks came on the heels of the release of Intelligence Chief James Clapper’s Worldwide Threat Assessment on February 9, 2016, just a week before the MSC. The Threat Assessment is a comprehensive outline of current threats to our national security, and General Clapper noted eight key global threats that are of the upmost importance to the Intelligence Community. The growing perils surrounding cyber and technology, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, space and counterspace, counterintelligence, transnational organized crime, economics and natural resources and human security were all delineated in General Clapper’s report. Of all these dangers, the three most widely talked about issues at the MSC were cyber security, terrorism, and human security.

Cyber threats have emerged as the consequence of advanced global innovation and the increasing availability of technological resources. Today, we are immersed in what military strategists call fourth-generation warfare (4GW). This era of warfighting is defined by the blurring of the lines that once demarcated the battlefield. Cyber warfare has become a new characteristic of 4GW, threatening our national security in ways that have yet to be discovered. The concept of Internet of Things (IoT) was discussed at length by guests at a “Cyber Dinner” hosted by the Atlantic Council. Attendees envisioned a world where smart appliances would be deployed in future conflicts. Soon, more than 30 billion smart chips will be embedded in your everyday appliances – cars, thermostats, refrigerators, elevators, medical devises. As intriguing as this development may be, it creates a host of concerns involving a new generation of weaponry that will likely propel the world into an era where cyberwar will pose one of the gravest threats in history. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have proven to be frontrunners in the cyber race. Cyber espionage has become a real security concern, which compromises not only individual privacy, but also national security. Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and current Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, noted that “warfare has always been a process of invention and adjustment.” Certainly, invention and adjustment will be necessary in order to combat the growing cyber and technology threat faced by the international community.

In addition to the looming cyberwars, violent extremism has created a challenging and menacing global environment. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become the dominant terrorist threat due to their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, as well as their broad outreach and presence in other countries. At the MSC, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi vowed that he “intend[s] to make this year the final year of the Daesh’s existence in Iraq.”  Despite counterterrorism efforts, Al-Qaida affiliates have positioned themselves to make gains in 2016 and continue to pose a threat to national security. In addition, the rise of homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) has become an increasingly dangerous peril to U.S. interests. The July 2015 attack against military facilities in Chattanooga and the 2016 attack in San Bernadino are just two examples of the domestic threat posed by HVEs. The challenge now is defeating this domestic terror. Non-state actors pose a unique challenge to world leaders. The fight is not as much against a group, as it is against an ideology – a battle not easily won.

Another issue raised at this year’s MSC was human security. The refugee crisis in Europe has presented the continent with one of its largest dilemmas to date. Unless the catalyst for this historic movement toward Europe can be quelled in 2016, which the Intelligence Community deems very unlikely, Europe will continue to see an overwhelming and unmanageable flow of refugees and other migrants within this coming year. In addition, migration and displacement is a predicted threat to Asia, Africa and the Americas in 2016. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 60 million people are currently displaced worldwide. General Clapper explained in the 2016 Threat Assessment that this outrageous number is largely due to wars, weak border patrols, and relatively easy access to routes and information. The refugee problem will continue to place extraordinary pressure on the global community and will trigger a record level of humanitarian requests. A major concern for many international security policy experts is the growing possibility that these refugees will become easy targets for terrorist exploitation. Leaders at the MSC voiced their ambivalence regarding the way the international community has dealt with the refugee crisis. Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, warned that “when we start treating refugees who are fleeing from war and prosecution as criminals…there is little difference between us and those who are causing them to flee.” Human security will undoubtedly be a high priority in 2016. Perhaps through an increased understanding of populations through open source security efforts, we may find the key to effectively addressing this issue.

What should we make of all this? Senator John McCain demanded an answer from the MSC participants. “Don’t we see what is happening?” he asked. “Do we care? The world order that we built, our dearest inheritance, is coming apart.” The sea of weighty concerns that crashed down in waves at the MSC may be a warning to all, and the Conference, itself the embodiment of international cooperation, must continue to work together to stem this disconcerting tide. The free flow of ideas and the open lines of communication on display at a conference such as the MSC is one of the most powerful weapons at the disposal of international security policymakers. As a nation and as a member of the global community, the United States is currently facing what seems to be an overwhelming array of security threats and must not hesitate to step forward to provide the leadership that the world is seeking. Secretary Kerry ended his MSC remarks by assuring the audience that “[w]e are going to do just fine.” Are we? Only time will tell.