What was once a gathering of western national security experts, attended by a few scores of military people, civil servants, scholars, and journalists, has mutated into a policy happening attended by a global mob. And the seeming success of this event—its quantum growth in size, the policy stars it draws, the media attention it receives, its ever-growing sense of self-importance—masks its failure as an institution.
Typically, the highlights of the conference are the big speeches by ministers of defense or even prime ministers and presidents. In 2003, for example, there was a dramatic stand off between Donald Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer, his German counterpart. By contrast, most of this year’s speakers, as one participant put it, “felt like they were phoning it in.” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, rather than appearing, as he usually does, like a man ready to rip a kitten’s head off to please his master in the Kremlin, merely stared with dead eyes as he delivered a ritual denunciation of European neo-Nazis. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, gave a punchy speech about the wicked enemies of freedom, peppered with some tart remarks about the recent indictment of Russian internet trolls who interfered in American elections. He may not even have boarded his airplane for the trip home before getting a hard Twitter slap from his boss, who still cannot admit, let alone choose to counter, the most severe attack on American democracy in our lifetime.
For decades now, the U.S. delegation to Munich has been led by Senator John McCain. But this year his doctors kept him home. He was replaced by Senator Lindsey Graham and a bipartisan group of senators and representatives. What were supposed to be two planes filled with senators, representatives, and a horde of the commentariat who serve as troubadours and court jesters for the people’s representatives, however, were light. Most of us had come to pay tribute to McCain, the grand old man who could weld Republicans and Democrats, former diplomats and journalists, into Team America, ready to show that, on the fundamentals, Americans agreed and stood undaunted. “What I fear, my friends, is that we have grown complacent,” McCain warned in 2015, as Russia despoiled Ukraine. “The values, customs, laws, and institutions that make up our idea of international order are neither self-enforcing nor self-sustaining.” In 2017, he reassured a world dismayed by the election of a self-professed America Firster by re-stating American values with ringing clarity. Many of us will not return to Munich next year without McCain’s flashing eye, honest wit, and unquenchable courage to call things, and people, by their names.
The Americans did their best, duly serving on panels and engaging in “bilats”—the unending pull-asides and separate meetings with their counterparts from other countries. They offered the right bipartisan formulae. They filed into crowded rooms for special meetings about social media and software tools they do not fully understand. But hanging over them was a mood of confused impotence. The attendees knew that U.S. officials might say the right things, but none could anticipate what their erratic, ill-informed, and temperamental president would do.