Numerous locals in Munich assured me that the winters there are normally sunny. This past weekend, however, the weather during the 2018 Munich Security Conference (MSC) was cold and gray. The climate inside the meetings was equally forbidding.
As a first-time attendee, I found it difficult to gauge the tenor of this meeting in comparison with those of the past. The whole point of security conferences is to talk about doom and gloom. Still, longtime attendees told me that this MSC was pretty listless.
Part of it may have been the contrast with 2017, when the Europeans were freaked out by the Trump administration. That led to a fair number of heavy hitters coming to Munich and expressing the enduring strength of the transatlantic relationship. Vice President Pence came to try to reassure rattled Europeans.
By comparison, this year lacked star power. The most important European head of state in attendance was British Prime Minister Theresa May, and you can insert your own arch comment here. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was supposed to accept the Ewald von Kleist Award, but his wife, Cindy McCain, had to accept in his stead. The U.S. defense secretary normally addresses the conference. Although Jim Mattis was in attendance, he did not speak this year, deferring to national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
The result was a conference that was, in the words of one former State Department official, “depressing and irrelevant,” but not boring. Here’s a sample:
- A World Bank official saying, “I don’t believe there is a country in the Arab world that is 100 percent stable.”
- The French defense minister warning about “fragmented reality.”
- The emir of Qatar blasting tensions with the Gulf Cooperation Council as “a futile crisis manufactured by my neighbors.”
- The prime minister of Turkey accusing the United States of allying with terrorists.
- The German foreign minister lamenting that “the European Union has never learned to act in a geopolitical way.”
- Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) warning of a response of “biblical” proportions on North Korea.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly comparing the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal to the 1938 appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich.
How bleak was it? The most optimistic person I saw at the conference was the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, who explained at a side event: “It’s impossible to be a president in a country at war and not be optimistic.”
What explains the current security malaise? It would be easy to blame the Trump administration, but to be fair, the U.S. representatives acquitted themselves reasonably well. I could have deleted maybe 10 words, and McMaster’s plenary speech would not have sounded out of place if Susan E. Rice had said it in 2016. The Europeans lauded the myriad generals and senior envoys who were present. There was some not-so-veiled criticism of the White House, but it wasn’t a major theme.
I suspect the reason this MSC was so depressing was the complete absence of any articulation of a positive vision for the future. Offering up an aspirational future is hardly a guarantee that the world will get there. Nonetheless, visions can matter, even when expressed only as aspirations. “Europe whole and free,” or “new world order” had effects.
The most optimistic thing one can say about this year’s Munich Security Conference was that at least officials were acknowledging the problems as bluntly as possible. Europeans and Americans openly castigated Russia for its cyber activities, with McMaster trumpeting Robert S. Mueller III’s indictments as “incontrovertible” evidence of interference. Turkey made its disagreements with its NATO partners clear, as did Poland. Everyone lamented the erosion of trust in Western societies and the need to figure out cyber problems.
There are some ideas for how the West might respond to challenges — see Jim Goldgeier’s excellent “War on the Rocks” essay, or Jake Sullivan’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs — but those voices were not articulated with any confidence at this conference.
Will things be better by 2019? Perhaps. By then, the E.U. might be able to talk about PESCO as more than a notional entity. The Trump administration might finally have a secretary of state whose primary job isn’t eviscerating the State Department.
I fear, however, that this year’s honesty that there are serious problems is a more disturbing harbinger. It is not that people are frankly acknowledging reality. It is that they are acknowledging that they have no idea how to fix any of the problems.
John McCain’s message ended with this paragraph:
I am counting on all of you, my friends, to honor the precious, beautiful things that are still entrusted to our care. I am counting on you to be brave. I am counting on you to be useful. I am counting on you to keep the faith, and never give up — though the true radiance of our world may at times seem obscured, though we will suffer adversity and setbacks and misfortune — never, ever stop fighting for all that is good and just and decent about our world and each other.
There were a lot of fights at Munich. There was not a lot of fighting for all that is good.