The International Youth Think Tank at the Munich Security Conference: Reflections

20 February

In June of last year, myself and a team of youth fellows from the IYTT arrived in Strasbourg for the 2023 European Youth Event. Arriving in the city there was a palpable excitement in the air. The streets were full of young people, excited and inspired, sporting their brightly coloured EYE tote bags absorbed in diverse conversations around democracy. Landing in Munich for the 2024 Munich Security Conference, the atmosphere was noticeably different. Given the year so far, continued conflict in Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar, and many more, anxiety hanging over elections already carried out and those still to come, this was understandable. The Bayerischer Hof was host to a closely guarded inner circle, the cordon around it so large as to prevent the protesters of all political persuasions, as well as all passer-bys, from even seeing the venue. And yet, the conference itself, once within, was bursting with the same optimism found in Strasbourg in the previous year.

Whilst the main conference was an exclusive affair, we had access to Amerikahaus and their plethora of official side-events. Notable was the diversity of their panellists. Young students were seated alongside seasoned professionals, the convergence of optimism and experience producing some incredible ideas, amplified by the diversity of nationalities, fields, and perspectives. This was most notable in two of the later panels held at Amerikahaus; Rise of Generative AI: May AI Provide a Solid Policy Recommendation? and The Fuse is Female: Why it Matters: The Role of Women in Promoting Security and Nuclear Disarmament. These two panels both raised pertinent and timely questions. 

In the first of these panels, whilst Dr. Sumit Chanda, global CISO of Eviden, a sector leading tech company, demonstrated a remarkable optimism around the potential for artificial intelligence and our ability to shape it to our needs, Lorenzo Cavallon, a masters student from Sciences Po, selected for the panel based upon a speech written for the NATO speech-writing competition, offered a more cautious view, eloquently voicing concerns around the emergence of a machine capable of competing with humans and the human propensity to compare ourselves to such machines. More practically, Prof. Dr. Christoph Lütge, Director of the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich proffered concerns around the effective governance of artificial intelligence suggesting, in contrast to many commentators who argue that regulation should come more quickly, regulators should make sure not to act in haste and risk incorrect or inefficient regulation. This led to some inspired discussion amongst our IYTT group centred on AI as a useful, but limited, tool that should be understood as such in order to properly grasp its capabilities.

The second of these, The Fuse is Female, was similarly powerful although centred on a markedly different subject matter. A panel of academics (Prof. Nicole Deitelhoff, Executive Director of the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute) and policy makers (Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, United States Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security,  Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Chairwoman of the German Defense Committee, and panel chair Julia Berghofer, Senior Policy Fellow and Project Manager at the European Leadership Network) brought together ideas around the importance of diversity in peace accords, highlighting the increased success of policy devised by diverse groups. Such comments were underlined by powerful audience statements and questions that centred on the disproportionate plight of women in many conflicts around the world today. An interesting discussion point arising within the panel was that of feminist security. Although Prof. Deitelhoff asserted, quite rightly we felt, that women should not be included in security discussions because of essentialist ideas about their ‘compassion’ but rather because they make up 50% of the world’s population, Ms. Berghofer proposed an interesting pushback, suggesting that being a woman in security did not amount to feminist security and that, in fact, the compassion and human focus of feminist security was something to be celebrated. Certainly an impressive and thought provoking panel. 

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was, however, a roundtable organised by the Transatlantic Hub and the Aspen Institute discussing disinformation and the role of journalism in all its forms to combat it, hosted at the Mindspace Stachus, a space impressive and accommodating in equal measure. Here I must thank the wonderful Tina Höfinghoff, an inspiring policy maker, innovator, leader, and founder of the Transatlantic Hub for inviting youth fellows from the IYTT to attend and engage with this event. 

Headlining Tackling the Infodemic – Disinformation in Times of Crisis, Conflicts, and Wars and the Challenge to Democracies in the Super Election Year of 2024 were two Ukrainian communication specialists, content creators, and social media influencers Julia Tymoshenko and Valeriia Voshchevska. These two incredible young women spoke about the difficulties of fighting disinformation online, sharing moving personal stories about the attacks they have faced as individuals, and notably as women, against coordinated online disinformation operations. More positively they spoke about the power of authenticity and personality in fighting disinformation, highlighting the need for real people with real stories. 

Alongside them was Alliance 90/The Greens Bundestag Member Agnieszka Brugger, First Deputy Spokesperson of the German Federal Government Christiane Hoffmann, and Meta’s Public Policy Director for the Germanic region Semjon Rens. Each of the panellists offered diverse insights into the world of fighting disinformation. Mrs. Brugger spoke very powerfully about the power of in-person engagement in politics, something I was later reminded of when handed a ‘Demokratie Denkel’ later on, an initiative by the Junge Akademie Frankfurt to put drinks coasters with questions about democracy on them in bars and meeting places around Germany in the hopes of inspiring conversation, a very promising reminder that the future of politics is not entirely digital. Mr. Rens offered some interesting insights on the difficulties social media companies have in combating disinformation on their platforms whilst also drawing attention to the potential for using AI as a tool to combat the misinformation it was otherwise being used to propagate. Finally, prompted by the IYTT’s own Urban Strandberg, Mrs. Hoffman gave some interesting insights into the role of journalism as an institution and as a process working to combat disinformation. Although she did not entirely share the IYTT’s belief in the importance of the editorial process of institutional journalism her comments certainly inspired an interesting conversation into the ways in which both individuals and institutions are important within journalism and how they could work together in order to be ever more effective. 

Whilst this year’s Munich Security Conference, the title of the 2024 report being “Lose-Lose?” was largely a pessimistic affair, the current state of the world providing little space for optimism in the realpolitik of the Bayerischer Hof, the story inside Amerikahaus and the Mindspace Stachus was quite the opposite. Even faced with the current state of play in world affairs, the speakers remained staunchly optimistic, this optimism taken up by the youth fellows of the IYTT. Although the path forward in international security does not promise to be an easy one, this weekend has shown that it will, at the very least, be a more open, more diverse, and, despite all fears around AI, a more human future.

Joe Earnshaw

Youth Fellow