I attended the Munich Security Conference for the first time this year, so I may be a member of Washington’s so-called Blob after all. I was grateful for the opportunity and enjoyed the experience, but I can’t say that I came away from it feeling better about the current state of the world.
Russia’s War in Ukraine
Understanding the conflict one year on.
The war in Ukraine dominated the proceedings, of course, and there were two important dividing lines in the collective conversation.
The first gap was the vastly different perceptions, narratives, and preferred responses between the trans-Atlantic community on the one hand and key members of the global south on the other. Several important media outlets have described this gap already, and a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations contains compelling survey data documenting it. I attended several sessions and private dinners focused on this issue, and the discussions were revealing.
Diehard Atlanticists tend to portray the war in Ukraine as the single most important geopolitical issue in the world today. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said the war had “far-reaching global ramifications,” and the head of one U.S.-based think tank called it “the fulcrum of the 21st century.” Similarly, when asked how the war might end, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock replied that anything less than a complete Russian defeat and withdrawal would mean “the end of the international order and the end of international law.”
In this narrative, in short, what is at stake in Ukraine is the future of the entire rules-based order—and even the future of freedom itself. Some American and European speakers seemed to be competing to see who could give the most Churchillian speech, insisting that there was no substitute for victory, dismissing any risk of escalation, and calling for Ukraine’s supporters to give Kyiv whatever it needs to win a quick and decisive victory.
The rest of the world sees it differently. Nobody was defending Russia or President Vladimir Putin in Munich, and the United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine “immediately, completely and unconditionally” passed with more than 140 votes a few days later. But states outside the trans-Atlantic coalition (including important powers such as India, Brazil, or Saudi Arabia) have not joined Western-led efforts to sanction Russia and do not see the conflict in the same apocalyptic terms that most officials in the West do. Atlanticists in Munich seemed baffled by their stance, and a few people were sharply critical. I heard another Western think tank head chide nonaligned states by saying, “This conference is not about moral ambiguity.”
In fact, this gap is not that hard to understand. For starters, people outside the West view the rules-based order and Western insistence that states not violate international law as rank hypocrisy, and they were particularly resentful of Western attempts to claim the moral high ground on this issue. In their view, not only do Western powers make most of the rules, but they are also perfectly willing to violate these rules whenever it suits them. Not surprisingly, representatives from the global south were quick to bring up the United States’ illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003—where was the rules-based order then? Similarly, several speakers pointed out that the same Western governments warning that Russia is violating the post-World War II norm against acquiring territory by conquest did nothing to stop Israel from conquering the Golan Heights and West Bank, annexing the former and filling the latter with settlers. Russia is now heavily sanctioned—understandably—whereas the United States gives Israel generous economic and military aid as well as uses its veto to shield Israel from criticism in the U.N. Security Council. Such blatant double standards make Western moral posturing hard to swallow.
Furthermore, key states in the global south do not share the Western belief that the future of the 21st century is going to be determined by the outcome of the war. For them, economic development, climate change, migration, civil conflicts, terrorism, the rising power of India and China, and many others will all exert a greater impact on humanity’s future than the fate of the Donbas or Crimea. They wonder why Western governments quickly found tens of billions of dollars to send Ukraine but wouldn’t pay enough to mount an effective global vaccination campaign against COVID-19. They ask why Ukraine is now in the spotlight 24/7, but the West devotes only intermittent attention to the lives being lost in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, or other trouble spots. They are angry watching European states welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms, given their prior hostility to refugees fleeing equally horrific situations in Syria or Afghanistan. And because the war is affecting their interests adversely (e.g., through higher food prices), they are more interested in ending it than helping Kyiv achieve all its war aims.
The global south’s measured stance does not mean it is “pro-Russian”; it means those states are merely as self-interested as other countries are. It also means the gap between the West and the so-called rest is not likely to go away.
The second gap I observed in Munich was a gulf between the optimism that top officials expressed in public and the more pessimistic assessments one heard in private. In the main events featuring officials such as Harris, Baerbock, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and others, one heard upbeat tales of Western unity and long-term prospects for victory. U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky echoed this message during Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv last week. While acknowledging that difficult days lie ahead, the focus in Munich was on the victory that would one day be won.
In private, however, the conversations were much more somber. None of my private meetings included officials at the very top of key governments, but nobody I spoke with expected the war to end soon and no one thought Ukraine would be able to retake all of its lost territory (including Crimea) no matter how much aid it gets in the next year. Indeed, increasingly fervent calls for more lethal aid (such as tanks, artillery, Army Tactical Missile Systems, and fighter planes) may reflect an awareness that Ukraine is in worse shape than mainstream reports indicate. Most of the people I spoke with expect a continued grinding stalemate, perhaps leading to a cease-fire some months from now. Western aid for Ukraine is not aiming for victory; therefore, the real goal is to put Kyiv in a position to strike a favorable bargain when the time comes.
This gap between public optimism and private realism is not surprising either. Leaders at war need to maintain public morale (and alliance cohesion), and that means telling an upbeat story in public. Expressing confidence in success and committing to fight for as long as it takes may help convince the enemy to revise its own war aims downward. Even if one thinks it’s time to cut a deal, saying this out loud will undermine one’s own bargaining position and get a worse outcome in the end.
But here’s what worries me. The Biden administration’s rhetorical support for Ukraine keeps increasing, and it continues to promise us some sort of happy Hollywood ending. Biden’s trip to Kyiv was a bold move that underscored his stamina and personal commitment to helping Ukraine, but it also tied his political fortunes to the war’s outcome more directly and visibly. If Biden can’t deliver what he’s promised, then what looks like a compelling demonstration of U.S. leadership today will look a lot less impressive a year from now. If the war is still at a brutal stalemate in February 2024 and Ukraine is being destroyed, then Biden will face pressure either to do more or look for a plan B. Given what he’s promised, anything less than complete victory will look like failure. Moreover, if China decides to give Russia more help, then Biden might have to impose additional sanctions on the world’s second-largest economy, triggering new supply chain problems and jeopardizing the delicate economic recovery that is now underway. And if that happens, Republican presidential hopefuls (one of them in particular) will be licking their chops and liking their chances.