Of Strategy and Schnitzel: Munich Security Conference 2023

John McCain MSC

My first Munich Security Conference, back in 2005, was a wonky gathering of transatlantic security policymakers. All the proceedings took place in the Bayerische Hof ballroom, and a cloud hung over the largely European (and theoretically nonsmoking) audience. Delegates’ eyes lit with excitement as they debated NATO’s strategic concept, evaluated the war in Iraq, and urged each other (but not their own governments) to boost defense spending. Beer flowed liberally — brats were consumed en masse.

Nein more. The beer and brats remain, but the conference has grown bigger, global in scope and participation, glitzier and replete with media and roving security details. Getting a seat for the most popular speakers means showing up well before a session begins. Side events compete with off-the-books gatherings, dinners, and (I’m not making this up) a foosball tournament. The net effect is more Zirkus than Konferenz.

But there was something else this year. Most speakers and delegates shared a sense of threat. They sought unity and action. They believed that the future of world order turns on the outcome in Ukraine. The last full in-person conference, in 2020, focused on “Westlessness,” an Elmer Fudd-sounding neologism connoting uncertainty about Western coherence and purpose. No more. The West is now unified in its aims. It is the West’s capacity and endurance that are in question.



Representatives from the U.S. government showed up in strength this time: the vice president, secretary of state, CIA director, U.S. trade representative, and almost 50 members of the House and Senate — including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Turner. The leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries spoke. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky kicked off the proceedings with a remote address from Kyiv.

The discussions crossed many topics, but four themes struck me as emblematic of the 2023 Munich zeitgeist. Ukraine naturally dominated the focus from beginning to end. Leaders are focused less on abstract questions of global order and more on pedestrian issues like industrial production and munitions stocks. The transatlantic allies are united, but problems remain on the horizon. And, in the end, John McCain’s views have taken root in Western leadership.

Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming focus was on Europe’s first state-on-state land war since 1945. Russian officials were disinvited (as were Iranians). This is the first time they didn’t attend the conference since the 1990s, when it was a more tightly focused transatlantic affair. European anger at Moscow was exceeded only by the support for Ukraine. Americans may have arrived with Chinese balloons on the mind, but the talk was virtually all Ukraine, all the time.

Vice President Kamala Harris accused Russia of crimes against humanity and pledged America’s enduring support for the Ukrainian government. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to “double down” on Britain’s military support for Kyiv. President Emmanuel Macron called on allies to intensify weapons deliveries and said France is “ready for a prolonged conflict.” Chancellor Olaf Scholz even urged countries to join Germany in sending tanks to Ukraine. The West is, they all said, in this for the long haul, and will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

The corridor talk was considerably more anxious. The Russian spring offensive has begun. While optimists pointed to tank deliveries and the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive, worries about a prolonged war abounded. Western support cannot remain at current levels indefinitely. Political support may ebb, stockpiles are dwindling, and populations could grow less generous over time. In a long war of attrition, Moscow might have the upper hand.

Perhaps sensing such sentiments, Zelensky’s overarching plea in his speech was to move fast. “We need to hurry up,” he said, with the delivery of new weapons systems and other forms of support. “We need speed.” Much discussion revolved around how best to answer that call. No magic solutions emerged. 

Guns and Ammo

Most conferences feature abstract discussions about international order and its discontents. This year’s focused on the more concrete — even mundane — issues that undergird that order. The Ukrainian military is, Europeans acknowledged, firing ammunition faster than the continent’s industry can produce it. The United States remains the largest source of military assistance but has constraints on its own stockpiles and production lines.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for a joint effort to scale up munitions production. Secretary of State Antony Blinken entered into a discussion of weapons maintenance, training, and incentives to keep military production lines open. Everyone — Ukraine, Europe and now countries in Asia — wants to rearm. But how, and on what timeline?

Allied Solidarity

External threats pull allies together, and this year features a big one. Long gone are debates over Iraq and Afghanistan, charges of American unilateralism, and criticism of European quiescence. No one harangued allies about free-riding or pointed out their failure to spend two percent of GDP on defense. 

Instead, each leader urged the others to be more ambitious. Scholz pledged permanently to spend two percent of GDP on defense — and his defense minister said that two percent should be the NATO floor from which allies aim higher. Japan’s foreign minister outlined his country’s intent to double defense spending and acquire new strike capabilities. He joined South Korea’s foreign minister in talking about cooperation against Asian threats. The insecurity bred by today’s global fragmentation is unifying likeminded countries. 



Wheres China?

Remarkably little of the conference focused on China, the stated top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Beijing’s diplomat Wang Yi claimed that Washington downed China’s balloon (which was, he said, a civilian instrument that veered off course) “to divert attention from its domestic problems.” Hardly persuasive to skeptical listeners, Wang also encouraged Europe to “manifest its strategic autonomy” — from America, presumably. Asked to reassure that China wasn’t planning imminent escalation against Taiwan, Wang demurred. “Let me assure the audience,” he said instead, “that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. It has never been a country and it will never be a country in the future.” 

In fact, however, little of the conference focused on the Indo-Pacific and, where it did, a strong Ukraine angle prevailed. Harris’ one mention of China, for instance, was in a warning not to provide lethal support to Russia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observed that “What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow.” Asian representatives agreed, and expressed concern that Moscow’s invasion could invite action by would-be aggressors in Asia. But while back in Washington, policymakers think about China, in Europe they think about Russia. 

John McCain Won

The congressional delegation, now led by Senators Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse, still goes by the name “CODEL McCain” some six years after his last appearance in Munich. McCain went to the conference year after year, and over time his speeches nearly produced a call-and-response quality. The senator would warn about Russian repression — President Vladimir Putin’s “creeping coup,” he called it two decades ago — and external aggression. He implored the world to keep an eye on Ukraine. He urged strong transatlantic solidarity in the face of common threats, as rivalry and conflict are no thing of the past. He insisted that the West was bound by interests and values, that power matters, and that the transatlantic partners must be strong and active rather than weak and inward-looking. Democracy, he emphasized, is worth cherishing and preserving in our own countries and abroad.

The general reaction to such appeals was often grudging, bordering on outright disagreement. Europe had domestic concerns, its leaders argued, and had to keep foreign activism and defense spending in check. In a globalized world, the task is to employ economic interdependence rather than deterrence in the face of challenges. Pointing out Russian transgressions is undiplomatic and unhelpful — we have no choice but to live with Moscow. For all the rosy talk of shared transatlantic values, maybe Europe and America weren’t quite so similar after all.

The invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a new strategic era, and the new reality permeated every speech delivered in Munich this year. Macron denounced “a Russia which has chosen war,” and the Wagner Group, a “neo-mafia medium of Russia.” Scholz decried Moscow’s “imperialist war of aggression” and implored others to send weapons to Ukraine. In place of Russian and Iranian officials, human rights activists represented the two countries. 

One after another, policymakers emphasized the need for Western unity and strength, the bonding power of shared values, and the imperative to be active in defending a liberal international order. Yes, autocracies were represented in Munich. But the feel was more like a gathering of the free world. 

Amid it all, Vance Serchuk, who as a former Senate staffer has witnessed many a Munich Security Conference, said it quietly: McCain won Munich. The addresses delivered by Scholz and Macron and Sunak and so many others were McCain-like speeches. The stress on shared ideals, the focus on power and unity, the diagnosis of revisionist powers, the defense of international order, the emphasis on democracy’s strengths, even calling out Russian misbehavior: it was all there, again and again.

Giving his own final address in 2017, McCain shared why he had participated in this once-wonky, once-sedate conference for more than three decades. “We come to Munich,” he said, “year in and year out — to revitalize our common moral purpose, our belief that our values are worth the fighting for.” And so they are. 

That, more than anything else, sums up the 2023 Munich zeitgeist.



Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and former foreign policy advisor to Sen. John McCain.

Image: Munich Security Conference