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Munich’s Bacchanal of Beery Bathos

The Western leaders at this year’s security conference were long on rhetoric and short on realism.

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(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

It was painful to listen to Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference mindlessly uttering catchphrases in a practiced quivering staccato voice in an attempt to project statesmanship that was as fake as Madonna’s face. 

“In the case of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, we have examined the evidence, we know the legal standards, and there is no doubt: These are crimes against humanity,” Harris declared, adding a warning to “those who have perpetrated these crimes, and to their superiors who are complicit in those crimes: You will be held to account.” 

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There is some speculation that Russians have committed war crimes, including mass executions. Two questions, however, immediately arise: Did Ukrainians commit them too? And who evaluates and punishes the aforementioned crimes? George W. Bush and Barack Obama might know from personal experience how spurious, easy, and unprovable the war crimes charge might be, and how easy it is to dodge.

“International relations” is anarchic because there are no global policemen; nuclear powers are nuclear powers for a reason, namely, it discourages direct interference from others. But once you lob the charge and promise retribution, you are then expected to address a question of major importance. “How, Comrade?” 

My colleague Jude Russo asked why, of all places, is the security conference in Munich. To which, I could logically only come up with one answer: The beer is solid—and what else could explain the mind-numbing self-congratulatory therapy sessions? It was not a serious conference on strategy because there is no strategic debate at least among the Westerners. There was consensus—which undercuts the point of having a conference anyway, of course. 

Here’s Britain’s prime middle-manager Rishi Sunak sounding like a first-year student who just got hold of a new essay by John Ikenberry. “When Putin started this war, he gambled that our resolve would falter. Even now, he is betting we will lose our nerve,” Sunak declaimed from behind the royal We; he added that Britain is standing on the side of "freedom, democracy and the rule of law”, and pledged to be the first country to provide Ukraine with long-range weapons. "The U.K. is ready to help any country to provide Ukraine planes they need today but we must also train Ukrainian pilots to use advanced jets." 

Jolly good. Britain, though, lacks the production capacity to sustain such charity, so Sunak’s royal We means, in principle, America. The British interest in fomenting a war in the eastern parts of Europe can be extrapolated from historic British strategy, to keep the European Union divided and America in. It is a remarkably successful strategic policy, purely from the perspective of enhancing London’s power on the coat-tails of D.C.

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The only accidental voice of Reason was French President Emmanuel Macron, although his case for the neglected goddess was, at best, incoherent. "I do not think, as some people do, that we must aim for a total defeat of Russia, attacking Russia on its own soil... Those observers want to, above all else, crush Russia. That has never been the position of France and it will never be our position,” he said. He suggested rather that it is necessary to “bring Russia back to the table and build a lasting peace.” 

For a Frenchman, he seems to strangely misremember how an escalatory spiral works. You don’t need to declare a war on Russia to end up having one, as attested by France’s own history prior to the First World War, where neither major powers wanted a war, but were forced into it anyway, due to competing spirals of escalations, threats, and war hysteria. France rightly wants strategic autonomy, but refuses to massively prop up the military, naval, and nuclear umbrella; Macron seeks a balance with Russia but refuses to stop the escalatory spiral of NATO. The easy way to call the shots is to have military power to back it up. No one is stopping France from providing the security cover over Europe or deciding how far and how long that cover runs. If Poland can ramp up defense, so can France. Absent that, a cynic would argue, it is all political theatre.

Sobriety should return soon. The Russian war machine is slowly spinning up production. Ukraine’s structural disadvantages will start to show soonPoll after poll demonstrate declining American support—and who could blame the American public, amidst inflation, crumbling infrastructure, crippling woke bureaucracy opposed to the way of life of the majority of the American military recruitment pool, and allies who are sanctimonious and beggarly by turns. 

“It is worrying what is coming,” admitted Kajsa Ollongren, the Netherlands’ defense minister. You bet—maybe you should have thought about that earlier. What is Netherland’s defense budget again? 

But more importantly, another major beast might be waking up. China is arguably preparing to enter the fray. The question ahead of us is therefore the same one articulated by the great American IR scholar Hulk Hogan: Whatchya gonna do? A prudent realist strategy would have been to ignore a local war, or at least to have found an equilibrium and conclude a negotiated settlement while the leverage is available. 

Instead, we are heading to the second year and the strategists in Beijing cannot seem to believe their luck. Our luck in bleeding Russia dry might run out soon, and the hunter, as the cliché goes, might find out how it feels to be hunted. No doubt the neoconservatives and liberal primacists will consider this another deterrence failure, and seek to double down. Normal Americans however must decide if this is necessary. The air over Donbas simply doesn’t matter as much as the air over Ohio. As I said in a recent interview, China’s interest in stalling Russia’s fall is crucial. They seek to bog down the U.S. in a European war, essentially reversing the role of the conflict and the strategy we are currently employing on Russia. If the U.S. and Europe are determined to deplete themselves in a local war of attrition in an area of zero strategic importance, it only leads to the unrivalled Chinese hegemony when they finally decide to make a move. No great power in human history has embarked on building a massive navy at a breakneck pace unless it is planning on something big. It’s a story as old as time.