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In search of the new world order in Munich
Collages by Mark Harris. Source photographs: Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich © Dagmar Wiede/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy; Joe Biden © MediaPunch Inc./Alamy; Volodymyr Zelensky © Chris Emil Janßen/IMAGO/Alamy; Vladimir Putin © World History Archive/Alamy; Henry Kissinger © Dennis Brack/Danita Delimont/Alamy; Adolf Hitler © David Cole/Alamy

Collages by Mark Harris. Source photographs: Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich © Dagmar Wiede/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy; Joe Biden © MediaPunch Inc./Alamy; Volodymyr Zelensky © Chris Emil Janßen/IMAGO/Alamy; Vladimir Putin © World History Archive/Alamy; Henry Kissinger © Dennis Brack/Danita Delimont/Alamy; Adolf Hitler © David Cole/Alamy



Naturally, I too will be staying at the Bayerischer Hof.
—Franz Kafka

The Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich is an indestructible fortress of Mitteleuropean culture where tour guides like to pause. Richard Wagner repaired to the Hof for tea after his opera performances in Munich; Sigmund Freud fell out with Carl Jung in the Hof over the status of the libido; Kafka stayed at the Hof when he gave his second, and final, public reading to a hostile audience. A decade later, Hitler learned to crack crabs at the Hof under the supervision of a society hostess, and Joseph Goebbels counted on its rooms for a good night’s rest. The Hof weathered the revolutions of 1848; it withstood the revolution of 1918–19, in which the socialist leader Kurt Eisner was assassinated in front of the hotel and Bavaria briefly became a workers’-council republic; it rebuffed the Nazis’ attempts to buy it in the Thirties; and, after it was nearly destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in 1944, it was reconstructed with beaverlike industry. Today its wide façade of three hundred and thirty-seven rooms imposes itself over the small Promenadeplatz like a slice of meringue cake too large for its plate. Every February, hundreds of diplomats, politicians, academics, and arms dealers convene here for the Munich Security Conference.

I came to Munich to get a closer look at Europe’s “security culture” at its “transatlantic family meeting,” the largest backdoor diplomatic gathering in the world. There was a threefold crisis in global politics—Ukraine, Gaza, Taiwan, each of which threatened to become a wider conflagration and fan flames toward the others. On the day before the conference began, the doors of dozens of Mercedes and BMWs slammed shut in front of the Hof as security teams surveyed the grounds. More than five thousand police officers were on duty in central Munich, five for each conference participant, which transformed the Old Town into a museum under martial law. There were police checkpoints on all the streets leading to the hotel, officers stationed on the tops of buildings, a helicopter overhead, and small groups of ordinary people at the cordons. The onlookers I talked to were waiting for the Klitschko brothers: Vitali, the mayor of Kyiv, and Wladimir, both of whom were former world heavyweight boxing champions. In the early Aughts, the Klitschkos appeared together in commercials for the Kinder Milk-Slice, and they remain celebrities for Germans of a certain age.

In front of the Hof, there was a small, makeshift memorial of laminated photos and candles around the base of a statue. As I approached, I expected to see images of the Israeli hostages in Gaza or perhaps the prisoners of Mariupol. Instead it was a shrine to Michael Jackson, vigilantly maintained by a society in Munich, to commemorate his stays at the Hof in the Nineties. During one visit, Jackson’s entourage tossed down to the crowds in the plaza below a great amount of the hotel’s fine linens on which they had scrawled i love you.

The Munich Security Conference aspires to a different tone. It is the bodily expression of the raft of values that fall under the euphemism “Atlanticism.” The Atlanticist is a special species of Western liberal who sees the world order as an American-led, European-assisted project that requires hard-nosed dealing with the rest of the globe, which must, whether through entreaties or force, hegemony or domination, be kept in its place. For Atlanticists, “credibility” is a word to conjure with. It means staying the course in whatever quagmire they have made—from Vietnam to Afghanistan—the idea being that rival powers will take this as a sign of steadfastness rather than the hubris of an elite that diagnoses its own citizenry’s aversion to wars abroad as a form of populist disease. Though Atlanticism began its life as Anglo-Saxonism—and the U.S.-U.K. relationship remains its kernel—its most pungent variants, and the fervor of the converted, are found in Central and Eastern Europe. The arteries of Atlanticism run across the Continent in the form of NATO academies, John F. Kennedy Avenues, and the Amerikahäuser in German cities, where you can check out a biography of Davy Crockett or The Great Depression for Dummies and gaze on the walls at posters of national parks. The Munich Conference itself is only one among a galaxy of Atlanticist institutions—the German Marshall Fund, the Federal Academy for Security Policy, the Atlantic Council, the Atlantic Initiative, the Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft, the Atlantic Brücke—all of which tug hard to forestall the expiry date of a worldview that has seen better days.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the golden age of the Atlanticists was the Nineties, when American power still seemed supreme, when China was just becoming an oil importer, Indian internet connections were patchy, and Russian children drank vodka on Nevsky Prospekt in the chaos of post-Communism. But the real golden age was the early Sixties, when American power was not merely maintained but in ascendance, when wide domestic opposition to wars of choice abroad had only just made itself felt. When there was an enemy to be faced down across the Iron Curtain that organized moral life. When the old Nazi-built Tempelhof Airport in Berlin included a U.S. air base with a bowling alley and a basketball court. For Atlanticists, most of them aging men but with no shortage of youthful pretenders among them, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been the equivalent of a blood transfusion.

The world order was changing; no one denied that. Some, like Hamas, didn’t want to get left behind by the new arrangements; others, like Russia, wanted to get in some last-minute edits; and China was becoming fonder of an increasingly open-access international order, all the more since the United States seemed determined to recapture its rogue-state status of the Bush years. Germany, meanwhile, the great reviser and loser of the past two major reshufflings, is addicted to the crumbling status quo. In fact, Germany and Israel share opposite bunks in the same privileged berth: Germany, a nation whose intellectuals believe more than any other in post-nationalism; Israel, a nation that adheres to the prerogatives of a nineteenth-century European ethnonationalist state born in the wrong region, too late. Israel heavily insures its security, with a first-rate military, an effective lobby in Washington, nuclear weapons, and extra territory seized in the Six-Day War; Germany is grievously underinsured, with a weak army, no national lobby in Washington, the country itself a storage unit for nuclear weapons whose ignition codes are commanded by the U.S. president, and the extension of its territory is unspeakable even among the German far right. The two countries are additionally locked in an embrace it would take a Bismarck to break, and which far exceeds a malignant outgrowth of memory politics, with Germany providing Israel with discounted submarines, which are capable of firing nuclear weapons, while Israel’s largest defense deal to date is to supply Germany with long-range Arrow 3 missiles for the European Sky Shield Initiative that the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, spearheaded in 2022 in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Israel and Germany occupy these extreme positions at the favor of Washington, which is fighting a proxy war hotter than any conflict with Russia during the Cold War years, gearing up for a showdown with China in Asia, and being pinpricked by the Houthis of Yemen, which the Biden Administration bombed relentlessly throughout the weekend.

This was the deep-shit Munich Security Conference. The mood the year before had been buoyant about the chances of Ukraine delivering a major defeat to Russia. Now the Russians had routed the Ukrainians in Avdiivka, were targeting medical facilities, were securing a land bridge to Crimea, and were ramping up armaments production in a roaring war economy. Putin had given a long interview to Tucker Carlson in which he dangled the prospect of a peace deal. There were at least thirty thousand Ukrainian soldiers dead in a country with a manpower shortage, and as much as ten times as many Russian troops killed or wounded, though their numbers were much easier to replenish. Last year, Israel seemed to be riding into the sunset with a number of Arab states as they agreed to share spyware and migrant labor from Asia and get richer together. Now Israel was engaged in a Vernichtungskrieg in Gaza. It was a massacre with all the trimmings—the detonations of universities; missiles fired into maternity wards; the deliberate starvation of Gazans with assistance from Israeli civil society—all while the U.S. Air Force prepared to drop energy bars on the survivors. Where to put the Palestinians? Could the Australians offer Christmas Island? Might the British Tories be persuaded to include them in their plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda? Could they staff the resorts Jared Kushner seemed to envision for the Gaza waterfront? Did anybody have a PDF of the Madagascar Plan?

Africa itself was not looking good. Across the Sahel a series of coups and insurgencies left only the government of Mauritania unscathed; the French were washing their hands, yet again, of their last imperial playground. In the Central African Republic, Russian Wagner Group mercenaries were running a brewery and controlled the country’s largest gold mine, though the government was flirting with an American security firm to help run the state. In Eurasia, by the start of the year, a strikingly successful cleansing of a local population—the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh—had been completed by Azerbaijan with Israeli drones. In Europe, meanwhile, Switzerland had cast off centuries of neutrality (by participating in the economic war against Russia) and Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach of Ireland, a neutral country outside NATO, was attending Munich for the first time. As for the major European powers, Germany and France both faced hard-right insurgencies of different vintages, and their leaders felt themselves entering a tight spot between Wicked Putin to the east and Wicked Trump to the west. Der Spiegel, the national weekly, asked on its cover whether—despite the clause barring it from doing so in the reunification treaty—Germany might need to acquire nuclear weapons. The men and women at Munich were existentially juiced, but they were also panicked.



We smile at astrological hopes
And leave the sky to expert men
—Adrienne Rich

As the first day of the conference got under way at the Hof, reports came that Alexei Navalny had died in the Arctic penal colony where, in old tsarist style, the Kremlin had sentenced him to nineteen years. The conference-goers peered into their phones and interpreted the news as a message from Putin: I may not be in Munich in person this year, but I am there in spirit. “Do you think they actually killed him today or that they just saved the news until now?” a young German journalist giddily asked an English counterpart working for a Swedish-owned website. Within minutes of learning of Navalny’s demise, Christoph Heusgen—the head of the conference, Angela Merkel’s onetime foreign-policy guru, and the former German ambassador to the United Nations—took the stage. The audience settled in for an impromptu eulogy of Navalny. “Henry Kissinger died,” Heusgen declared, “whose death we mourn today.” He was sticking to his speech cards, but then, in the pantheon of Atlanticism, Kissinger did come before Navalny. Heusgen followed with the report of Navalny’s death—and of the fact that Navalny’s wife happened to be in Munich. In measured tones, Heusgen announced that this conference’s theme was “Lose-Lose,” which sounded about right when it came to the global order, until Heusgen added, with a twinkle of mischief, “But we have put a question mark.” He reminded the audience that the motto of the conference was “peace through dialogue”—though Russians and Iranians were not invited—and that nobody should submit to “doom and gloom.” “We have asked all moderators to look in their discussions for a silver lining,” Heusgen said, with the particular satisfaction Germans and diplomats, and especially German diplomats, derive from alighting upon an English cliché.

A long convoy of black Chevy Suburbans coiled around the Promenadeplatz. Kamala Harris was in the Hof. Ever since Joe Biden, a true Atlanticist junkie, made it a thing, American vice presidents were expected to make appearances at Munich. Harris walked into the ballroom with at least two disadvantages. The first was the anticipation that Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, would soon address the conference. That would overshadow anything Harris said. The second was that Harris was in a place where Europeans judge Americans according to how far they deviate from John McCain. Beset with these deficits, Harris had to get the message across that, no, Washington would not abandon the Europeans now that the Russian bear was at the door. She needed to reassure the room that Trump was a lunatic to say that the Russians could do “whatever the hell they want” to European countries that didn’t meet their NATO defense budgets. Harris did all these things, but in a check-the-box fashion. “Not since the end of the Cold War has this forum convened under such dire circumstances,” she said. Nods all around. “Our sacred commitment to NATO remains ironclad.” Pray go on, heavenly muse. Harris regretted that “some in the United States” wanted to “isolate ourselves from the world.” But that wasn’t going to happen. It was in America’s strategic interest, Harris declared, to be the global leader, and it redounded to the great benefit of everyday Americans. Now it was time to win against Russia! There was a halftime urgency in Harris’s tone, but it wasn’t connecting with the conference-goers. You sensed they wanted a grizzled call to arms from someone in epaulets instead of a pep talk from a field-hockey coach. But it was a campaign year, and Harris was lobbing talking points to CNN, to MSNBC, to C-SPAN. Before a room where Nigerian military brass mingled with Latvian diplomats, Harris delivered a State of the Union warm-up to Democrats in Ohio. “We have made a once-in-a-generation investment to rebuild our roads and bridges and ports and highways with more than forty thousand infrastructure projects across all of our fifty states,” she declared. “We’re bringing semiconductor manufacturing back to America, which will secure our supply chains and enable the future of technology.” It was like so much that poured out of the Biden Administration: a nationalist and even Trumpian policy, paired with carefully subdued zeal to signal we-got-this competence and aren’t-we-better-than-the-alternative civility.

In one of the side events, Israel Katz, the Israeli foreign affairs minister, was interviewed by one of Germany’s tawdriest newshounds, Paul Ronzheimer, a journalist for the tabloid Bild who made his name during the Greek debt crisis, when he distributed drachmas in Omonoia Square and encouraged the Greeks to stop grifting hardworking Germans and leave the euro zone. It was surprising to see Ronzheimer there, since Bild—the American equivalent would be People magazine run out of a back office of the Reagan Administration—had repeatedly hammered Christoph Heusgen and the Munich Security Conference for their insufficient loyalty to Israel. Heusgen once referred offhand to the attack of October 7 as an “action,” which he’d been trying to live down ever since. Ronzheimer led the charge in Bild. “You have to imagine it,” he wrote:

One of Germany’s most important ex-diplomats, the head of the world’s most important security conference, agrees with all the “yes, but” Israel campaigners, while the charred and mutilated bodies of innocent people are still being found here in Israel.

Yet Ronzheimer was a natural choice to interview the Israeli foreign affairs minister. It was Israel Katz’s first time in Germany, and this, along with the fact that his parents had survived the Judeocide, made Ronzheimer assume a reverential posture toward his guest. Thuggishly, the diplomat told Ronzheimer that “it would not be a good idea” for António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, to run into him in the hallways in Munich. If Israel was not allowed to finish off the job in Gaza, Katz said, there would be “Gaza Strips in London, Gaza Strips in Paris, Gaza Strips in Berlin.” Nobody understood what this meant. Was Katz suggesting that there was a future in which parts of the capital cities of Britain and Europe—Tower Hamlets and Newham, Belleville and Clichy, certainly Neukölln—would require counterinsurgency operations and, just to be safe, aerial bombing? And if so, would eradicating Hamas somehow avert that prospect? As their talk came to a close, Ronzheimer thanked Katz for making the trip, while people carrying posters of the Israeli hostages surrounded Katz for selfies.

I later heard a rumor that Yulia Navalnaya broke down in tears after her midday speech on the main stage in Munich. But as she spoke, her defiance captured conference-goers’ imaginations. “I would like to call upon all the international community, all the people in the world. We should come together, and we should fight against this evil. We should fight this horrific regime in Russia,” she declared to a standing ovation. We were present for what was effectively Navalny’s canonization. It helped that he had shed his Russian chauvinism (for a long time it seemed unlikely that Navalny would have stomached Russia losing Crimea any more than Gorbachev would have). Navalny himself had been educated by his own dissidence; he had transformed, and reached the point where he more accurately inhabited the old Western dream for Russia, dating back to 1917, when the reformist Alexander Kerensky ruled the country for three months before being ejected by the Bolsheviks. Navalny’s death produced a powerful spectacle (powerful enough for Trump to register the discursive quake and claim a few days later that he too was a dissident). As Yulia Navalnaya left the stage, Nancy Pelosi expertly positioned herself to receive her in her arms.

On the curb outside the Hof, I found scattered debris of the Obama Administration. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign-policy speechwriter, the coiner of “the Blob,” was reminiscing with one of Vice President Harris’s advance staffers. “You remember that motorcade in Delhi near the Red Fort?” Harris’s staffer said. “Oh yeah,” Rhodes said. “There are those times when you know it’s just faster to get out and walk.” Rhodes didn’t seem to hold the conference in high regard. “Obama never came to Munich,” he told me. “It’s more of a senators’ thing. Biden used to love it. McCain really used to love it.” On the American participation in the Gaza war, Rhodes was withering. It was a reminder of how much American foreign policy was generational, with Rhodes more sensitive than his elders, including his old boss, to how the country was viewed at home and abroad. As we were speaking, we received news that Senator Lindsey Graham would not be attending the conference this year. “Graham is going down to the southern border, so he can avoid conversations with his old German friends,” Rhodes said. The leading Republican star attending the conference would be the junior senator from Ohio, J. D. Vance. “Of course Vance is coming,” Rhodes said. “Vance is just coming to troll.”



The U.S.A. is indispensable, but Russia is immovable.
—Egon Bahr

The Munich Security Conference was founded in 1963 by a curious throwback figure in German history, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist sprung from a Prussian aristocratic family of ardent monarchists. His father—who shared his first name—was determined to thwart the democratic advances of the age. The elder Kleist not only welcomed the demise of the Weimar Republic, but faulted the Nazis for being too incompetent a band of hooligans to dismantle it. He accused Hitler of “chickening out” during the failed 1923 Munich putsch and worried the Nazi Party was too infected with ideas of social equality. The elder Kleist tried to persuade his conservative peers to prevent Hitler’s chancellorship—to make him postal minister instead—and published a pamphlet, National Socialism: A Danger, the year before Hitler came to power. The elder Kleist spent many of the following years in hiding. He narrowly escaped the Night of the Long Knives, and tried to drum up anti-Nazi resistance in England, where he met with Winston Churchill. Meanwhile, his son, twenty-one years old, was tapped by Claus von Stauffenberg to be the suicide bomber in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. In a scene the younger Kleist would recount for decades afterward, he traveled to his family’s West Pomerania estate to ask his father’s blessing. “You have to do it,” the elder Kleist told his son while looking out the window. “A person who fails at a moment like this will never be happy again in his life.” The plan was for the younger Kleist to ignite explosives in a briefcase while standing next to Hitler during a review of new Wehrmacht uniforms. Hitler canceled the reviews, and Kleist never got his chance. A few months later, Stauffenberg placed a bomb under a table where Hitler was meeting. When the bomb exploded, four attendees died, but Hitler survived, and after the plot failed, most of the conspirators, including the elder Kleist, were rounded up and executed. The younger Kleist miraculously survived. He was interrogated dozens of times and spent several months at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, before eventually being released a free man, possibly with the expectation he would lead authorities to other traitors. He was advised by a sympathetic Gestapo officer to blend back in to the Wehrmacht, which he did by joining Army Group Caesar in northern Italy, where he spent the rest of the war.

In 1945, it took U.S. Army intelligence less than twenty-four hours to pick out Kleist as a precious asset among the sea of POWs in a soccer stadium in Genoa. The Americans plied him with Chianti and cigarettes, and offered him three years of paid study in America if he would propagandize on behalf of the U.S. occupation. Kleist, still a German conservative of the old mold, refused. “We have many ways of making you cooperate,” his American captors told him. “I don’t think so,” Kleist replied. “I was just held by the Gestapo, and they’re better at this than you.”

Many high-level Nazis were rehabilitated by Washington in preparation for the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but Kleist was something special: a hard-right-wing anticommunist with sterling anti-Nazi credentials. The real political innovation of West Germany, as far as the Americans were concerned, was to produce a new breed of Western-oriented, pro-market German conservatives, a category that had historically defined itself against Western liberalism. The threat the U.S. occupying forces were worried about came from the growing German peace movement. War-weary and disoriented, the German population was reluctant to rearm when a war had just led to their society’s destruction. West German Social Democrats also believed that the integration of West Germany into NATO and the U.S. security sphere would close the door on the eventual unification of the country. In 1951, nearly six million people in West Germany signed a petition against rearmament. In response to such developments, the Central Intelligence Agency devoted itself to building up an anticommunist, pro-armament constituency in West Germany via propaganda, youth indoctrination, and the recovery of the Wehrmacht’s own capacities, the history of which the CIA began thoroughly airbrushing. In 1952, among a phalanx of other initiatives, the CIA set up the Gesellschaft für Wehrkunde, the Society of Military Studies, with figures such as Felix Steiner, a former SS general responsible for legions of atrocities, including the execution of at least six hundred Jews in Ukraine, at the heart of the organization. Georg-Hans Reinhardt, the star panzer general, joined the group in 1954, while Kleist’s anti-Nazi exploits made him the perfect ornament to top the outfit. He no longer saw any point in resisting the West, and took up the post.

The U.S. project of making West Germans into Cold Warriors was successful. By the late Fifties, much of the official resistance to an American-led order was diminished. The Soviets had made one world-historical blunder after another. Caught off guard by the Allies’ most formidable weapon, the deutsche mark pegged to the dollar, the Soviets had blockaded Berlin and set themselves up for a multidimensional demonstration of Western supremacy, the Berlin airlift. West Germany hosted hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and a major air base, Ramstein. The Nazi-linked armaments behemoths—Thyssen, Krupp, and Heckler & Koch (founded by veterans of Mauser)—became integrated with the U.S. military and police, helping to supply submarines, artillery components, and handguns to the hegemon. If German leaders wanted more independence to maneuver, it would not come via the military but rather through the disciplining of their economy, to make themselves into highly competitive exporters that could in turn discipline countries in their sphere. But German public opinion still did not always please its American patrons. In 1963, Egon Bahr, who in a few years would become the foreign-policy architect to the new Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt, outlined the policy of Ostpolitik, in which West Germany would seek rapprochement with the Eastern bloc and start trying to issue its own peace dividend. That same year, Kleist founded the Munich Security Conference in an effort to strengthen Atlanticist backbone.

For the next thirty years, the conference was where NATO functionaries could, without too much media glare, fine-tune European and U.S. relations, adjusting the degree of European autonomy as suited the moment. By the late Nineties, when the Cold Warrior chancellor Helmut Kohl was finally out of power, his chief foreign-policy strategist, Horst Teltschik, oversaw the conference’s transformation into a see-and-be-seen jamboree. The Russian threat evaporated, and old sparring partners like Egon Bahr and Henry Kissinger could pretend that détente and Ostpolitik had been the same thing.

Many of the most notable Munich moments came in the Aughts. In 2002, the Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder refused to sign off on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. (The refusal arguably enhanced American hegemony—making it seem as though genuine dissent within the order was possible—while Germany still supported the war effort by nonmilitary means.) In the following years, the interventionist strain of U.S. policymakers browbeat Europe, and Germany in particular, into submission. The year after Vladimir Putin made a visit to the 2007 Munich Conference and told the guests that any move toward NATO by Ukraine would be a fatal mistake—the videotape of the performance shows Angela Merkel in the audience wryly smiling at his familiar Russian bluntness—the Bush Administration duly forced the leaders of France and Germany, against their protests at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, to declare that Ukraine would one day join NATO, at a time when most of the Ukrainian population did not support such a prospect.

In 2008, in the full storm of the financial crisis, the diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger became the head of the conference. He was by far the most effective publicist in its history, though much of this took the form of Davosification. It was Ischinger who brought in the CEOs, and who welcomed participants to the first financial-crisis-era meeting by announcing that they would discuss “banks, not tanks.” It was Ischinger who entered the breach of Twitter to fence with graduate students of international relations. By 2014, the Munich Conference was where U.S. neoconservatives went to pummel their European counterparts for acting independently. In a private session on the sidelines of the 2015 conference, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, criticized the peace framework Germany was working out with Russia in the Minsk agreements, reportedly decrying “Merkel’s Moscow stuff”—i.e., Berlin’s search for a diplomatic compromise with the Kremlin. Nuland would also make clear the United States’ vigorous opposition to new sources of German autonomy, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Ischinger became embroiled in a number of scandals—most notably by denying he profited from the Munich Conference, before Der Spiegel revealed that he owned a 30 percent stake in a company that sold appointments and contacts at the conference—and Christoph Heusgen succeeded him. A sixty-nine-year-old, cool-mannered Düsseldorfer, Heusgen had served for twelve years as Merkel’s chief foreign-policy adviser. He has fond memories of being billeted in the Bush daughters’ bedroom during a diplomatic visit to George W. Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch. Heusgen followed Merkel in thinking that the prosperity of German industry relied on cheap Russian natural gas, no matter what the American opposition. But since the Ukraine war, Heusgen has carefully readjusted his view of Merkel’s record. In a recent book, he distanced himself from the Minsk agreements that he had helped negotiate with Merkel. Yet he has since hinted that something like the Minsk agreements will still be necessary to reduce the violence in Ukraine. A man with delicate antennae, he has finely tracked the elite consensus of the country, which, once the war in Ukraine began, seemed to cast off the last vestiges of Merkel’s outlook and submit to U.S. demands to increase its military spending and buy U.S.-supplied energy. In his February interview with Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin evinced his nostalgia for Germans—from Willy Brandt to Merkel—who made even the faintest murmur outside the Atlanticist script. Putin mentioned Egon Bahr’s proposal in the Nineties for the replacement of NATO with a new European security architecture that would include Russia. “He was a wise old man,” Putin said of Bahr, “but no one listened to him.”



It is not possible in every war for the victor to overthrow his enemy completely.
—Carl von Clausewitz

The second day of the conference was opened by the German chancellor. In his youth, Olaf Scholz had been a left-leaning Social Democrat with long, curly hair who seemed ready to follow the way of Willy Brandt. He made his name as the mayor of Hamburg, Germany’s worldliest city, and had been the finance minister in Merkel’s coalition government. Last year he was criticized across the Anglo and German press for prevaricating about the Ukraine war in its early months. In particular, he was faulted for holding back shipments of artillery and tanks, a hesitation in keeping with the majority of the German population’s own doubts. He has since come to heel. “I’m probably not telling you anything new when I say that Germany will invest two percent of its GDP in defense this year,” Scholz began, “and also in the coming years—in the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond.” Scholz has the unfortunate habit, even when he is saying something important, of sounding like a notary reading aloud the terms of a contract. But at Munich he would demonstrate Germany’s loyalty to the Western alliance, its promise to make good on payments going forward, and the conjoining of Ukraine and Israel as the common cause of humanity. Then came highly sanded-down pieces of NATO mantra. “Without security,” he muttered, “all else is nothing.” And then the fealty. “Since the start of the war, the United States has provided Ukraine with something over twenty billion dollars a year in military assistance—with a gross domestic product of twenty-eight trillion dollars,” Scholz said. “A similar effort must surely be the least that can be expected from every European country.” After his speech, Hadley Gamble, a former CNBC anchor from Knoxville, Tennessee, gamely interviewed Scholz on the main stage. One was suddenly witnessing either elaborate German innocence or practiced German obtuseness. Scholz insisted that he received regular updates from Tel Aviv confirming that international law was being followed. “What evidence do you have that the Israelis are abiding by international law?” asked Gamble. “We are asking that they do so,” Scholz replied. Gamble, seeing there was no way to get anywhere with the chancellor playing the simpleton, opened the floor to softball questions.

Source photographs: Drones © Ukrinform/Alamy; Russian oil refinery© JSPhoto/Alamy; Ukrainian army officer and troops © John Moore/Getty Images

Source photographs: Drones © Ukrinform/Alamy; Russian oil refinery
© JSPhoto/Alamy; Ukrainian army officer and troops © John Moore/Getty Images

For the past two years, it has been customary for Volodymyr Zelensky to seize the occasion at international gatherings. At Munich, the effect was achieved in part by the sense that here was a man beleaguered by war, whom the Kremlin really wanted dead. An added element of Zelensky’s dignity apparatus was unwittingly supplied by the conference-goers themselves. Everyone knew that Zelensky was in the difficult position of having to seem grateful for all the help the Europeans had given him while at the same time forcefully pressing his case that they were actually leaving him bare-handed, bereft of munitions. He had to put on a smile for a group of people who were privately weighing his chances of success—who were looking down at their phones at the news from Avdiivka (Putin boasted of staying up all night watching the Russian advance)—while beaming with admiration for his performances and clapping wildly. Any kind of peace settlement with Russia was still unspeakable in most Western capitals. The difficulty of Zelensky’s position, the restraint one felt he had to master, only contributed to the conference-goers’ sense of his aura as a savior dealing with penny-pinching cowards.

“Do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself: Why is Putin still able to continue it?” Zelensky told the room. The question he wanted to ask was meant to incite introspection of the “by golly, we should do something” kind. But it seemed possible to hazard an answer. Why was Russia able to continue the war? Because Western sanctions not only didn’t work but backfired, as was likely to be the fate of the extra, post-Navalny round of penalties. It turned out that Russia had built up a war economy that was now churning out nearly three times as many artillery shells as the United States and Europe combined. It turned out that the rest of the world still wanted to buy Russian gas and oil. It turned out that the commodity traders of Switzerland were willing to move en masse to Dubai to handle the Russian volume. Why was Russia able to continue the war? Because only Ukraine was willing to fight and die for Ukraine, however much Emmanuel Macron might fantasize about sending NATO infantry detachments. Why was Russia able to continue the war? Because each Ukrainian drone strike inside Russia’s borders was a gift to the Russian war party, and even the Biden Administration worried that strikes on Russian refineries threatened to drive up global oil prices, which could play to Trump’s favor in November (the Ukrainians’ inadvertently contributing to Trump’s victory with higher energy prices was an irony no one wanted to savor). Why was Russia able to continue the war? Because Russia still had nuclear weapons, more of them than any other power on the planet. One of the more common seesaw conversations I heard among Western strategists in the lead-up to the Munich Conference was the simultaneous urge to imagine Putin in The Hague—should we execute him by firing squad after his guilty verdict or by hanging?—and the grudging acknowledgment that Russia’s nuclear arsenal was a phenomenon with real physical properties.

“ ‘Don’t be South Vietnam!’ ” the historian Niall Ferguson mock-shouted to me over a drink after Zelensky’s talk. We were at Hugo’s, the louche, purple-lit lounge across from the Hof where hangers-on and groupies of the conference congregated. Strippers seemed imminent (the venue was not Ferguson’s choice). “That’s what I told Zelensky and his adviser when I met them,” Ferguson said. “I told them, ‘You want to be North Vietnam.’ And they asked, ‘What do you mean we should be North Vietnam?’ and I told them, ‘You want to fight while talking and talk while fighting.’ ” Ferguson thought the war could still be won, but even if Ukraine couldn’t get all its territory back, it needed to fight toward a more optimal negotiating position. I imagined Ukraine as one of those spots on the map with diagonal lines through it indicating contested territory. Won’t the settlement be something like Korea or Kashmir? I asked. “No, it certainly doesn’t have to be Kashmir, it can be like Finland was a few years ago, a non-NATO but de facto NATO ally.” What was keeping that from happening? I asked. “The Germans need to ramp up their production,” he replied. The German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall was opening a plant in Ukraine, but that kind of thing was hardly enough. “Germany is going to be wiped out in its industrial production by the Chinese,” Ferguson told me. “Their cars are going to be wiped out. It’s in their own interest to build up armaments if they want to preserve any future of German industry.” Outside the lounge were fleets of BMWs and Mercedes poised to vanish. It seemed like a bit of steel-helmet fantasia to think that Germany could replace any iota of its auto profits by becoming an international supplier of heavy weapons. “They should go read Meinecke again,” Ferguson said, laughing. “Die Deutsche Katastrophe!”



Since 1945 we have lived between latent and open civil wars whose terribleness can still be outdone by a nuclear war, as if the civil wars that rage around the world are, reversing the traditional interpretation, our ultimate savior from total destruction.
—Reinhart Koselleck

Ever since taking over the conference in 2022, Christoph Heusgen has wanted to make it less of a cigar-and-cognac affair for old NATO hands. As Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, Heusgen regularly met with people from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America. He has succeeded in making the Munich Security Conference more about the Global South, more about food security, less about nuclear missiles. At Munich there were over one hundred participants from these states. The organizers were particularly pleased that the president of Colombia came at the last minute. When I spoke to the Mauritanian delegation, an assistant to the defense minister, Hanana Ould Sidi, told me, “We have come to teach the art of peace—we have peace within our borders—not to learn it.” The problem was that Israel’s war in Gaza had made this Southern contingent inconvenient, even annoying. It was hard for anyone to get through an interview with the press, or a panel on the stage, without being posed the Gaza question. “There’s a Global South person on every panel,” a journalist said to me outside one of the press rooms, with the suggestion that this made it impossible to do Munich properly. The same frustration was in evidence among many of the conference-goers. They were like people seated in first class expecting côte de boeuf, only to be served a Hindu vegan meal.

The disjuncture took more dramatic shape when I took a walk through the Old Town. In the Marienplatz, where huge Israeli and E.U. banners fluttered from the neo-Gothic New Town Hall, there was a pro-Palestinian protest, tightly fenced in, with police officers looking down from the surrounding buildings. Inside the cordons, a mixture of elderly German peace activists outfitted in antinuclear T-shirts had lived long enough to have the experience of being joined by a much younger group of protesters in keffiyehs carrying placards and Palestinian flags. I passed a young Jewish couple holding each other and a small sign that read jews against genocide. As I reached the corner of the square, a rich Irish brogue roiled the plaza through a microphone. “We know that they are all here: the rogues’ gallery of war criminals! Clinton, Blinken, Stoltenberg, already drenched in the blood of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya . . . and now Gaza!” Why, if it wasn’t Clare Daly, a member of the European Parliament from Ireland, addressing the crowd, with Yanis Varoufakis’s distinctive head bobbing near the front row. As I walked away from the plaza down Theatinerstraße, there was a smaller but no less animated protest for Ukraine ahead of me. Far fewer police officers. On a stage, a Ukrainian man pointed to a blow-up doll of Putin in prison pajamas behind bars, while children held signs that read free the taurus missiles! to shame Germany into sending more advanced weaponry to Kyiv. At the center of the gathering and drumbeats, there was a group of young women wearing traditional Ukrainian costumes with baskets on their heads, while a man shouted through a loudspeaker, “Putin is a murderer! Putin is a murderer!”



I was talking to a mother at my state fair. She said, “Senator, I don’t want my eighteen-year-old fighting in Europe.” I said, “That’s why we’re giving Ukraine weapons. So that doesn’t happen, because if Ukraine loses, and Putin invades one of our NATO allies, then your eighteen-year-old will be fighting in Europe.”
—Senator Pete Ricketts, Republican of Nebraska

The Republicans were relaxed in Munich. They seemed like they just wanted to get to Trader Vic’s, the tiki-style bar in the basement of the Hof. For the Europeans, it was as if they didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, but they understood it perfectly well: America was getting good value out of the war. After softening the ground with the protectionist measures of the Inflation Reduction Act, a policy that excludes Europe from the profits of the U.S. renewables boom, the United States had significantly increased the amount of natural gas it provided Europe; the Russian army was tied down; NATO was rejuvenated; the resubordination of Europe was being lubricated with Ukrainian blood. As I’d heard earlier, Lindsey Graham, more than capable of bullshitting his way through a panel or two, had backed out of attending the conference. In his place was Pete Ricketts, the junior senator from my home state, Nebraska, whose billionaire family owns the Chicago Cubs. In a moment of European concern that Trump, if elected, would leave them to Putin’s mercy, Ricketts was a specimen of interest for the Europeans. Not only did he appear to be devoid of urgency, but he acted like he belonged in Munich and sidled himself onto a panel with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and the prime minister of one of the most hawkish states, Kaja Kallas of Estonia. They pressed Ricketts on why the Republicans were threatening to block aid to Ukraine at this crucial hour. Was he prepared to see a world where Putin won? Where America yielded its global leadership? “In the United States right now we have a pressing national-security issue at our southern border,” Ricketts declared. “Over the course of the past three years, eight and a half million people have either entered our country illegally or attempted to enter our country illegally. Putting that in perspective, that’s more than four times the population of my state, and that’s the number one consideration for people in my state—and frankly across the United States.” Kallas looked at Ricketts as if he were disemboweling a cow. A few moments later, a member of the Ukrainian parliament jumped up and told Ricketts, “We are ready to help you with the border. But do you really think that if Ukraine would fail, that will help American border?” It was a surreal image: Ukrainian combat veterans descending in choppers to take out Guatemalan families. I had seen the Ukrainian MP all throughout the conference. His name was Oleksii Goncharenko. He was one of the new young men coughed up by the war. He had protested the German ambassador’s comments on holding elections in the Donbass by spray-painting nein! on the commemorative portion of the Berlin Wall in Kyiv. Goncharenko was a hot-blooded Ukrainian nationalist who broke with the pro-Russian party of his father, the former mayor of Odesa, who is now wanted by the Ukrainian state.

Outside the entryway of the Hof, I met Goncharenko. “It’s gloomy this year,” he said. I asked him if he wanted NATO to formally enter the war. “That will never happen,” he replied. I asked what he thought the West should do if it proved impossible to recover the eastern regions occupied by Russia. And then Goncharenko said something interesting: “I would say that if all of Ukraine cannot come into NATO, then just take a part of us in for now—take in the part we control.” This seemed to mark a shift at the conference. Whereas inside the Hof NATO commanders and U.S. senators still spoke of taking all of Ukraine back as a necessity, a pure embodiment of Ukrainian nationalism was standing outside speaking in the language of a deal, even if still suffused with the unreality of NATO membership.

“You probably know the average age of Ukrainian soldiers. I was privileged to command soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, typically of age eighteen to twenty-three or so. In Ukraine, it’s over forty!” It was General David Petraeus on the phone. He was in the Four Seasons, near the Hof. I had been trying to reach him all day to get his view on how both the Ukraine war and the Gaza war were going. Petraeus had been coming to Munich for decades, first as a speechwriter for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He, too, believed Russia could be defeated. The U.S. decisions to send more weapons would unlock German decisions to send more weapons, and soon there would be a steady flow to Ukraine. “The lesson here is to stop temporizing. Let’s get on with it.” But Ukraine, according to Petraeus, also had to meet its side of the deal. There needed to be more Ukrainian teenagers on the front line.

I asked the general who had presided over two U.S. defeats in the Middle East how he thought the Israel Defense Forces were faring. “I think the answer lies in a clear hold-and-build approach.” Petraeus meant that the IDF, which he believed didn’t have much experience with the type of operation they were conducting, were not properly holding the north of Gaza. Instead of building from conquered territory, they kept moving on from it. I thanked the general for his time, as I saw J. D. Vance walk by the front of the Hof.

If Ricketts was a standard-issue Republican who, despite some genuflections to Trump, was still at heart a Cold Warrior, Vance was Trump’s man in Munich. He strutted out to the Michael Jackson shrine and offered himself as a target to Scandinavian and Arab journalists who, for different reasons, sized him up like the Antichrist. I kept a bit of distance from Vance in case a sniper from any one of a number of nations decided to take him out. “The reason I’m in Munich is because my political view is not well represented here, but it’s the will of the American people,” Vance told the gathering press. “Look, it’s not even about political will anymore when it comes to Ukraine,” Vance said. “It’s a question of production: we can’t even make enough armaments for Ukraine, and there’s a whole Asian element that we also have to arm for.” I asked Vance what he thought about Ukraine’s reaching a peace with Moscow. “This thing is going to end in a negotiated settlement,” he told me. “The problem is that our sanctions have only resulted in the hypermilitarized Russian state.” Vance was treating Munich as another fairground for his audition to be Trump’s vice president, or at the very least as the Republican Party’s foreign-policy chieftain. As far as that went, it was going well. For the conference, he had prepared a line intended to bring Europeans to their senses. “If this war is so existential,” he asked, “then why aren’t you treating it as existential and building up your armies as if it were Armageddon?” It was one of the shortcomings of the conference that the answer to that sort of question was nowhere to be heard. Vance, who styled himself as the teller of hard truths, was really just giving the predicament another coat of made in usa varnish.

For more than a decade, Washington pushed for European governments to spend more on defense, but insisted that this money primarily be spent buying from U.S. suppliers, not E.U. ones. In 2018, when the Europeans put forward one of several plans to coordinate their spending on domestic manufacturers, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, warned against it becoming “a protectionist vehicle for the E.U.” “We’re going to watch carefully, because if that becomes the case,” Hutchinson threatened, “then it could splinter the strong security alliance that we have.” The result had been an extortion racket in all but name, one that European diplomats for twenty years had decided to honor little by little while knowing full well that if they were to invest too heavily in European-made weapons and armaments, in European interoperable systems, they would be breaking NATO’s unwritten code.

Vance shirked the specifics. If the Americans really wanted to grasp why they were unable to produce enough munitions—American China hawks claimed U.S. long-range precision weapon stocks would not last a week in a confrontation with China over Taiwan—they needed to confront how unattractive making lethal military hardware had become in a highly financialized economy. The Pentagon had not spent decades planning for a protracted land war on the steppes of the Donbass, and defense contractors are run by the same McKinseyfied executive class as the rest of corporate America. Shareholder pressure and the sheer opportunity cost of maintaining the capacity of plants, workers, and supply chains to ramp up production of millions of rounds of shells were immense. To even be able to compete for big government contracts, companies already had to be a “program of record,” which effectively barred new entrants. The major defense contractors, in fact, prefer to have large backlogs—it looks better for financial metrics. So hard-up America had to decide which of its wards was most deserving of its limited matériel: Taiwan, Israel, or Ukraine. There was not enough to go around.

There was not as much talk at Munich as I expected about the world’s other major power, China. The Chinese successfully lurked through the conference amid the distractions of Ukraine and Gaza. It was as if they were determined to pass unnoticed. They spoke on behalf of the international order they now believed was jeopardized by the very powers that had built it. Wang Yi, China’s old, experienced foreign minister, who had been called back into service after one of Xi’s purges, gave a speech so flat that hardly anyone remarked on it. He had a brief chat with Heusgen, as well as Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, afterward and left. Later, I spied him moving quickly through the outdoor tent corridors, followed by a small retinue. They whisked themselves down the street in front of the Hof. I thought Wang would get into one of the long black Mercedes or BMWs, but he and his staff made toward the central train station. “But isn’t that . . . ?” “Yes, that’s Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, member of the politburo of the world’s rising power, walking unguarded in downtown Munich,” the English journalist who worked for the Swedish-owned website mused.

We decided to follow him. Up Salvatorplatz, across Brienner Straße. Was Wang taking the subway? We crossed a main intersection. It was hard to keep up with him. Did the People’s Republic have no security detail? The German cars that China would soon be blotting out of existence jostled for position at the stoplights as we ran across the street. It was two more blocks until we huffed it and caught up to him. “Mr. Wang, I wonder if I could ask you a question,” I said. Wang turned and looked unperturbed, while one member of his entourage intercepted me: “Please, no.” As the rest of the group hurried by, I asked the last staffer, who was smoking, what he made of the conference. He took a smiling drag and said: “Wir sprechen kein Englisch!” “You wasted your breath,” the editor of Foreign Affairs later told me over a drink at Odeonsplatz. “You’ll soon likely be dealing with Liu Jianchao instead, who’s much more approachable. He was at the embassy in London and speaks excellent English. You’ll have better luck with him.”

The final hours of the conference were a desultory exchange of business cards and exhortation to keep up one’s chin. Lost on the managers and technicians at Munich was that security is not the same thing as peace. Attempts even to refer to the history of grand peace settlements on the Continent were thin on the ground. Heusgen seemed to sense it, but could hardly declare that the “Lose-Lose” endgame he called on conference-goers to prevent was no longer amenable to Atlanticist solutions. China was not as convenient an adversary as the Soviet Union. It turned its back on full-scale foreign interventions not long after Ben Rhodes was born; if it had an ideology left to export, it was an updated version of the modernization theory the United States practiced in the Sixties, when it tried to transform the Mekong Delta into the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now China was facing an insurgency at its Belt and Road hub in Pakistan; it was helping the junta of Myanmar negotiate with the armies of ethnic minorities; it was channeling resources out of Africa at a stupendous clip, all while developing its industries and universities, and looking to dump its excess production on foreign ports. Far from being a victim of planning, as the Soviet Union had been, it had reinvigorated the idea of industrial planning in the West.

Ukraine, Gaza, Taiwan: the crises were interconnected. At the time of last year’s conference, the United States had directed Israel to send its American military matériel to Ukraine, while this year the war in Gaza threatened to so remove Ukraine from the minds of Congress that Biden was forced to tie $60 billion in aid to Ukraine to an Israeli package if it were to have any chance of passing. Remember, too, that Japan announced last year that it would send interceptor missiles—a valuable deterrent against any Chinese move on Taiwan—to the United States, presumably for the country to pass on to Ukraine. The tripartite crisis left each of the major players, except Europe, with benefits to show for their position: The United States increased its power over Europe. Russia had wrecked Ukraine, the NATO outpost on its border, while the Kremlin had shorn itself of elite domestic critics, many of whom had left the country en masse. China’s geopolitical position has been improved as the only credible restraint on the Russian attack dog, while it continues to trade for Israeli technology even as it makes old Maoist noises that Palestinians have the right to achieve self-determination through armed struggle.

But there is another scenario in which the U.S. position could badly erode. If German manufacturing really does lose competitiveness in part owing to structurally higher energy costs, and if European governments do boost defense spending but still can’t take on Russia alone and alienate European electorates by forcing austerity in social spending, American grand strategy in Europe could crack apart. It may be that Washington’s plans for Europe worked only in a world in which Russia decisively lost the Ukraine war, or hung on in a stalemate but suffered the kind of economic collapse that the sanctioneers believed they were inflicting. But a Russia that’s a nuclear-armed Chinese resource colony capable of churning out millions of rounds of 152mm shells—and that has reshaped the European security order significantly in its favor, however much it may be facing a long-term counterinsurgency on its western border—is likely to put paid to American illusions about a war that was initially greeted as a welcome chance to deliver a body blow to what IR theorists like to call “a non-peer competitor.”

Any way you cut the cake, Europe is the loser. Not only must it funnel the weakened gains of its national economies to U.S. arms contractors and energy companies as its price for the war on Russia, but it cannot accept Chinese investment to compensate either. The European states are bracing themselves for the American terms of their thread-cutting from the Chinese economy. There is little doubt that Biden’s executive order restricting investment in Chinese technology applies as much to the E.U. as it does at home. The German city of Duisburg, the last point of a rail network connecting Chinese goods to Europe, has curtailed investment, with Chinese freight rail volume dropping 80 percent since 2020. Meanwhile, the Italian leader, Giorgia Meloni, yesterday’s fascist threat to the Continent, is rumored in the Italian press to be set to receive the Global Citizen Award from the Atlantic Council, which praised her for having withdrawn Italy from Beijing’s infrastructure development program, the Belt and Road Initiative.

As the conference came to a close, I saw Armin Papperger, the CEO of Rheinmetall, head toward the Literaturhaus, while Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic walked down the Promenadeplatz, scowling into her phone. At Munich she had met the German Green politician, Anton Hofreiter, who told her that he worried Europe could soon face three autocracies: Russia, China, and the United States. “When he said that, it was my turn to shake my head,” she wrote in The Atlantic, “not because I didn’t believe him, but because it was so hard to hear.” There were more security conferences coming up, little siblings of Munich: the International Security Expo in London, the Black Sea Security Conference, and the “offensive security” Hexacon in Paris. Goncharenko wanted to host his own security conference in Odesa. Outside the Hof, as the line of Mercedes and BMWs stretched into the far distance, and beyond them drivers waited for a price surge, there was a barrage of auf Wiedersehens, au revoirs, goodbyes, back pats, and hastily composed group photos. “Next year in Munich!”

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February 2020

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