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What They Didn’t Talk About in Munich

Participants in the Munich conference offered more platitudes than solutions.

Munich Security Conference
2023 Munich Security Conference (Photo by Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The latest iteration of the fabled Munich Security Conference has concluded. Unlike past years, this conference was conducted with a major conflict raging a couple hours away by air. Unsurprisingly, serious unease pervaded the proceedings.

Observed Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig: “If even the Germans have woken up to the perils of the world’s current geopolitical state, this could well be the moment to really start worrying.” Indeed, he allowed that “For some attendees, the vibe in the crowded Bayerischer Hof hotel where the gathering takes place carried echoes of 1938,” and the infamous Munich conference regarding Czechoslovakia, with World War II less than two years away.


Of course, no international gathering at which participants want to ensure America’s continued role as security provider and guarantor would be complete without reference to Britain’s and France’s notorious appeasement of Adolf Hitler. Yet that episode was the exception, not the rule—when appeasement of another nation’s grievances failed to prevent conflict. A little appeasement in the summer of 1914 likely would have prevented World War I, and its continuation, after a generation of rest and rearmament, in World War II.

So, too, in the Russo-Ukraine war. As has been oft detailed, after the end of the Cold War the allies did their inadvertent best to drive Moscow toward war. Lying to successive governments, expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, dismantling Moscow’s historic Serbian friend, promoting regime change in Russia’s neighbors, and using NATO to pursue aggressive, out-of-area operations in Serbia and Libya, could not help but turn Moscow hostile. A little “appeasement,” choosing not to turn Kiev into a Western security partner, for example, could have avoided the current conflict.

Of course, this possibility went unmentioned in Munich, even though this was the same conference at which Russia’s Vladimir Putin previously made his security concerns known to all. In 2007, well before Moscow’s military action in Georgia, let alone Ukraine, he warned participants what was to come: “This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms.”

He didn’t disappoint, inveighing not only against NATO expansion, but also, more dramatically, “the unipolar model.” He explained: “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.” Alas, nothing changed, and here we are today.

Moscow, understandably, was a central concern at the latest conference, yet European participants offered more platitudes than solutions. Although hope was expressed for regime change in Russia, so far there are few signs suggesting such a result is likely, or, more importantly, that it would yield a more liberal and democratic government. Demands for economic reparations and war-crimes trials risk making the end of hostilities, let alone formal peace, less likely. Continuing sanctions and diplomatic isolation after the war's conclusion would look a lot like a renewed Cold War: forcing Moscow to more closely embrace China, invest more deeply in the Global South, and act more nearly like North Korea (only with a much larger economy and far more nuclear weapons).


Although the participants covered many issues, there was no reflection on America’s and Europe’s roles in creating much of the conflict and chaos evident today. The catastrophes of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya obviously are long forgotten. The murder and mayhem of Yemen—a victim of Saudi and Emirati aggression aided and abetted by Washington, London, and others—received only brief mention. And, of course, no one admitted the litany of allied lies and threatening behavior that contributed to Russia’s criminal and unjustified aggression against Ukraine. Speakers acted as if Moscow’s invasion was preordained, a matter of fate, or something beyond understanding. Which is nonsense, an attempt to obscure Washington’s and Brussels’ shared responsibility for the ongoing horror. Allied officials, along with Vladimir Putin, should be held accountable for their grievous and costly mistakes.

At least the role of Europe in its own defense was mentioned, though hardly satisfactorily. There was much self-congratulation surrounding promises by various European governments to do more, but little admission that so far efforts have fallen dramatically short of promises. For instance, the Times of London’s columnist Edward Lucas complained that “Our £55 billion defense budget is staggeringly badly spent.” More specifically, he cited a “hollowed-out armed forces,” noting that “some of our woes, such as the procurement quagmire and the army’s recruitment problems, are too public to hide. Others, such as nuclear submarine availability, are still more worrying, but rightly secret.”

In mid-February, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told the Washington Post that “Despite promises of a huge boost in defense spending in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s armed forces are in a worse place than a year ago.” The Brookings Institution’s Costanze Stelzenmueller has warned that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s

solemn promise that Germany would finally live up to its 2 per cent of GDP defense spending commitment to NATO remains unfulfilled. Boris Pistorius, his energetic new defense minister, has warned that his €50bn budget will need an extra €10bn per year to push it up from its current level of 1.44 per cent and to tackle desperately overdue armed forces reform. Work on Germany’s first national security strategy has ground to a halt because of turf battles between the chancellery and the foreign ministry. Cue Schadenfreude in the Kremlin—and Angst among the allies.

There was talk about the People’s Republic of China, but discussions of a Pacific military role for Europe and NATO are fantasies. The Europeans have spent decades skimping on their own defense. If they won’t protect themselves from nearby threats, they aren’t going to launch an expeditionary force against the PRC to fight for Taiwan or anyone else. Indeed, so far their efforts to act like Pacific powers have been embarrassing. Last year Germany sent the frigate Bayern on a forlorn voyage to the Pacific to intimidate Beijing. At least Paris stations a few ships in the region, though they would be an afterthought in any conflict with China.

Even more important while receiving less attention is the status of nuclear deterrence. Extended deterrence has been established policy since the Cold War, yet Washington’s promise to risk American cities to protect consistently feckless allies has grown ever more dangerous. The rise of North Korea as a nuclear power makes the U.S. commitment to the Republic of Korea particularly problematic. America’s increasingly open and extensive proxy war against Russia through Ukraine also creates serious dangers of nuclear escalation, which are not warranted by the limited security interests at stake. For a Europe unwilling to spend seriously on conventional forces, nuclear deterrence might be its best option if it truly fears further Russian aggression despite Moscow’s difficulty in subduing Ukraine.

Lost was the opportunity to challenge Washington’s dominant role in setting allied policy toward Iran. There was a session focused on the recent demonstrations and status of women. However, Iran’s revived nuclear program and Israeli threats to bomb Tehran’s nuclear facilities risk turning the Middle East into a giant military and political bonfire. Blame falls squarely on Washington, which exited the nuclear deal and imposed a raft of sanctions on Iran. Rather than surrender, as expected by the Trump administration, the Islamic Republic interfered with Gulf oil traffic, bombed Saudi oil facilities, shipped oil to Venezuela, subjected U.S. bases to rocket attack, and even targeted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. So much for intimidating the hardline Islamist regime.

Finally, attendees expressed distress at the failure of the Global South to submissively fall into line behind the allies against Russia as expected. Participants appeared to favor improved communication, not better policies. But the U.S. in particular would do better changing its approach to poorer nations. For instance, promiscuous and murderous military intervention, such as that in Iraq, could be eschewed. Blatant hypocrisy, lecturing one nation about democracy while kowtowing to even worse human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, could be acknowledged. Application of debilitating sanctions in pursuit of dubious and often unattainable objectives, as in Cuba, Syria, and many more nations, could be curbed. In all cases Washington officials should rely on simple hypocrisy rather than leaven their insulting pronouncements with ostentatious sanctimony.

The Munich conference was dominated by allied officials, along with the vast scrum of factotums, Ukraine advocates, publicists, think-tankers, lobbyists, arms makers, advocates, and more making the case for their essential goodness, moral vision, and overweening agenda. As such, it illustrated what is so wrong today with U.S. foreign policy. It is time to emphasize the interests of the American people, though that likely will have to wait for Joe Biden’s exit from the Oval Office.