MUNICH — Cut through the haze of hoary proclamations emanating from the main stage of the Munich Security Conference about Western solidarity and common purpose this weekend, and one can’t help but notice more than a hint of foreboding just beneath the surface.
Even as Western leaders congratulate themselves for their generosity toward Ukraine, the country’s armed forces are running low on ammunition, equipment and even men. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who opened the conference from Kyiv on Friday, urged the free world to send more help — and fast. “We need speed,” he said.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris turned the heat up on Russia on another front, accusing the country of “crimes against humanity.” “Let us all agree. On behalf of all the victims, both known and unknown: justice must be served,” she said.
In other words, Russian leaders could be looking at Nuremberg 2.0. That’s bound to make a few people in Moscow nervous, especially those old enough to remember what happened to Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milošević and his entourage.
The outlook in Asia is no less fraught. Taiwan remains on edge, as the country tries to guess China’s next move. Here too, the news from Munich wasn’t reassuring.
“What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did nothing to contradict that narrative. “Let me assure the audience that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory,” Wang told the conference when asked about Beijing’s designs on the self-governed island. Taiwan “has never been a country and it will never be a country in the future.”
For some attendees, the vibe in the crowded Bayerischer Hof hotel where the gathering takes place carried echoes of 1938. That year, the Bavarian capital hosted a conference that resulted in the infamous Munich Agreement, in which European powers ceded the Sudetenland to Germany in a misguided effort they believed could preserve peace.
“We all know that there is a storm brewing outside, but here inside the Bayerischer Hof all seems normal,” wrote Andrew Michta, dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the Germany-based Marshall Center. “It all seems so routine, and yet it all changes suddenly when a Ukrainian parliamentarian pointedly tells the audience we are failing to act fast enough.”
The only people smiling at this year’s security conference are the defense contractors. Arms sales are booming by all accounts.
Even Germany, which in recent years perfected the art of explaining away its failure to meet its NATO defense spending commitment, promised to reverse course. Indeed, German officials appeared to be trying to outdo one another to prove just how hawkish they’ve become.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed to “permanently” meet NATO’s defense spending goal for individual members of two percent of GDP.
Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, a Social Democrat like Scholz, called for even more, saying that “it will not be possible to fulfill the tasks that lie ahead of us with barely two percent.”
Keep in mind that at the beginning of last year, leading Social Democrats were still calling on the U.S. to remove all of its nuclear warheads from German soil.
In other words, 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.
CORRECTION: Jens Stoltenberg’s reference to Asia has been updated.