Letters: Is the Munich Security Conference to Blame for the Void in International Relations?

Readers respond to Eliot Cohen’s critique of a gathering that may now have lost its way.

Ralph Orlowski / Reuters

Witnessing the Collapse of the Global Elite

This year’s security conference in Munich, Eliot Cohen argued, was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.

Eliot Cohen is one of my heroes. As a professor, he taught me the value of succinctness; as a friend, he taught me a lot more. I admire him for his historical knowledge and moral compass—and for his never-ending readiness to teach, guide, and mentor. So I hope he will forgive me if I join those who take issue with his recent analysis of the Munich Security Conference—an event that I run and that remains much closer to its roots than Eliot seems ready to admit. While it may seem petty to get into a quarrel about something as trivial as a policy conference, I believe six of Eliot’s arguments in particular warrant a written response to his piece in The Atlantic last month.

First, Eliot is right that our conference did little to fill the current void in international relations. But he is wrong in suggesting, even if only indirectly, that it ever could have or was ever designed to. Since the days of its founder, Ewald von Kleist, the former Wehrkundetagung has been meant “not as a desk and auditorium conference, but a discussion between equal and active participants on how to tackle common security challenges.” Nothing more, nothing less.

As such, what Eliot sees as a failure of the institution is, in reality, representative of something much bigger and more worrisome. The fact that grown statesmen refuse to listen to each other in the plenary, the fact that delegations leave the conference hall when the leaders of neighboring countries speak, or the fact that even the most senior politicians of Europe refuse to sit on a panel together has little to do with our conference. But it has everything to do with the sorry state of international affairs. As Thomas Wright tweeted, “the [MSC] is the messenger, not the message. It reveals the world we are in; it doesn’t create it.”

For decades, the West presented a relatively consolidated front in Munich. One would come to the conference to discuss the future of the transatlantic alliance with one’s likeminded peers and return home reassured in the feeling that all was in order. Those days are over, or so it seems. Whether permanent or temporary, whether reversible or not, the creeping disintegration of the liberal international order was all too palpable that weekend.

Second, Eliot is right that those speaking on the main stage had little of substance or vision to offer in response. Many of the speakers seemed to be addressing their electorates at home rather than their peers in the hall. Few had truly inspirational ideas or policies to present, even fewer concrete policy proposals. But Eliot is wrong to link this political entropy with what he calls “the algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance.” Had Eliot attended any of the roughly 150 side events in Munich, he would have met many intellectual peers. He would have been able to engage in highly substantive discussions on anything from the INF Treaty to nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence. He would have heard concrete policy proposals and maybe, just maybe, he would have been reminded of those cherished moments with the likes of Manfred Wörner and Thérèse Delpech. Bringing that feeling back into the main plenary hall is one of the many challenges we face as an institution, but it is certainly not an insurmountable one. It will necessitate new formats, more interaction, and a revised invitation list. We are working on all of them.

Third, Eliot is certainly right that the conference has changed dramatically over the last decades. It has become (much) bigger, covers a much broader spectrum of international security issues, and has become more visible and more high-ranking. In itself that is neither good nor bad, but representative of a changed notion of the term “security community.” It is no longer enough to assemble a handful of policy wonks and military officers around a table—even though the MSC continues to do that with many of its other formats such as the off-the-record Munich Strategy Forum every December. Today’s multidimensional strategic environment necessitates a much broader and more inclusive approach.

At the end of the day, however, the true value of a conference like ours depends on whether it contributes anything to anything. I would argue that the facts speak for themselves: At this year’s conference, we facilitated more than 2,100 bilateral meetings; we offered more than 100 prominent partner institutions, ranging from the Rand Corporation and Chatham House to the World Food Programme, from the Atlantic Council and NATO to the Royal United Services Institute, an opportunity to share their insights; and we served as a platform for dozens of multilateral negotiation formats such as the Normandy talks. As hundreds of senior decision-makers talk with and listen to each other, the spirit of the Wehrkundetagung is there to grasp.

Fourth, Eliot is right that Senator John McCain was missed sorely in Munich. Just like Senator John Tower before him, he has been the heart and soul of the U.S. congressional delegation for decades. He spoke out when no one else did. He reassured allies and warned enemies. And he embodied America’s moral leadership of the West. Why Eliot would announce that he (and many others) will not return to Munich without McCain “re-stating American values with ringing clarity” there is beyond me, however.

We need more people like John McCain, not fewer. We need people to step bravely into his shoes, not people who falter once their idol is gone. As John said in his statement accepting the Kleist Award, “Put simply, we come to Munich because sustaining our vision of world order, though it requires wealth and power and realism, is not merely a material struggle. It is a moral struggle. It is about the values that will govern our world. That is why we are allies. That is why we have stood by each other, and sacrificed for each other, and invested in our common defense—and why we must continue to do so.”

Staying home just will not do, Eliot. It never does! Remember the saying you were once so fond of, sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to sit down and do nothing.” Or, to cite John McCain once more, “I am counting on you to be useful. I am counting on you to keep the faith, and never give up.” This is all the more important in times where faith in America’s leadership is eroding fast and spoilers are queuing up to fill the void. Staying home will only speed up the process. We need a strong U.S. delegation to hold up the flag!

Eliot has also criticized our invitation policy. While there is certainly much to criticize in general—there are still not enough women, and the median age is still too high, and there may even be too many guests overall—the fact that we include people whose policies and opinions a conservative U.S. academic does not agree with should not be seen as a dent in our armor; on the contrary. We strongly believe that talking with people is always better than talking about people. This is why we invite what Eliot calls “dictators’ henchmen” just as we have invited the heads of Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name just a few. While there is certainly a valid argument against offering a stage to every villain, there is an equally valid argument for including all sides of a conflict in its resolution. It is for this reason that we ask our guests to engage with and seek to understand those that they do not agree with. If one wants to preach to the converted or stay in one’s comfort zone, Munich is indeed not the place to go.

In Munich you will have to live with other views and, ideally, be ready to defend yours. Most of our participants are. Within the space of two hours on Sunday, the Prime Minister of Israel as well as the Foreign Ministers from Iran and Saudi Arabia sat on the stage and faced difficult questions from the audience, just like Theresa May, Jean-Claude Juncker, Petro Poroschenko, Sebastian Kurz, Mark Rutte, António Guterres and many others did over the days before. Yes, time for questions was often too short and, yes, we sometimes failed to challenge dubious positions with the necessary vigor, but we did our bit to promote good ideas and to hold bad ideas to account.

Lastly, Eliot accuses us, I believe quite unfairly, of a growing sense of self-importance. Yes, the Munich Security Conference has become bigger. Yes, it has become more visible and, yes, by becoming more transparent and inclusive it is no longer the closed shop Wehrkunde was during the days of the Cold War. But its purpose—to build trust and sustain a continuous, curated and informal dialogue within the international security community—has not changed. Neither has its self-conception: We want to remain a platform, not become an agenda-setter. We want to foster networks, not make headlines. We want to be a place for serious work, and not a show.

Dear Eliot, let me assure you: We know our place—and we will stay there. Just as Ewald von Kleist would have wanted us to. We also know our shortcomings and will continue to work on them. We appreciate feedback and criticism and need people like you to keep us on our toes. However much we continue to emulate the ideals of Ewald von Kleist, though, we will not be able to escape the constraints of our times. Don’t blame us for them! Help us to change them!

Benedikt Franke
Chief Operating Officer, Munich Security Conference Foundation
Munich, Germany

I am writing to thank you for your recent article on the Munich Security Conference. I am a practicing lawyer and also hold a master’s degree in international relations from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa.

When I read accounts like yours, I’m left with a feeling of sadness for what’s become of the country that once was not afraid to take on the mantle of “leader of the free world.” To a foreign (in this case, Canadian) observer, the America that rebuilt democracies and economies after WWII, won the Cold War, and built a system of international alliances and institutions that maintained stability for over 70 years has suddenly gone awol.

Throughout my career as legal counsel at the Bank of Canada (Canada’s central bank), I always enjoyed working with U.S. justice and regulatory authorities on strengthening the international financial system. I admired the professionalism and respectfulness of the American representatives and their willingness to take the lead in forging a consensus among the often disparate views of the countries at the table.

These days, not so much. The America of today seems bent on pulling out of trade pacts, destabilizing alliances, and treating international relations as a series of zero-sum business transactions. Although America remains the preeminent military power, its hegemony when it was truly “great” rested not only on that power but on its moral authority as the leader of an international system based on democratic principles, human rights, sustainability, and the rule of law. It is now rapidly losing that moral authority, to become just another “great power” in a multipolar world. It really does feel like we’re moving out of the era of Pax Americana into a much more dangerous international environment.

Robert Turnbull
Ottawa, Canada