Worrywurst at the Munich Security Conference

Harris – MSC2024

The foreign policy elite descended on Munich again this weekend, primed for beer, brats, and bilats. The 2024 Munich Security Conference was crowded and frenzied, as security details jostled delegates straining to connect with movers and shakers. The gathering boasted both an online portal and a smartphone app, and participants used them to set up meetings with old friends and total unknowns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the affair “diplomatic speed dating,” and that about nailed it.

For all the conviviality, however, a somber mood prevailed this year. I’ve been attending this conference for almost two decades now, and the ratio of worries to solutions has rarely felt higher. One year ago, the trans-Atlantic allies were united in their resolve to resist Russia and help Ukraine. Kyiv had recently retaken vast swaths of territory, Moscow’s offensive was sputtering, and hopes for the Ukrainian counteroffensive were high. There were worries about Western industrial production, the sustainability of a long campaign, and balancing a focus on European security with challenges in Asia. But the 2023 Munich zeitgeist was more steely-eyed resolve than wide-eyed alarm.

This year was different.



Russia on the March
Just as the sessions were set to commence, the shocking news of Alexei Navalny’s death stunned participants. Vice President Kamala Harris addressed it up front. “If confirmed,” she said, “this would be a further sign of Vladamir Putin’s brutality. Whatever story they tell, let us be clear: Russia is responsible.” After her speech, and to the audience’s surprise, Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Alexei, then took the stage. She addressed a silenced ballroom with utter composure. Upon hearing the devastating news of her husband’s death, she said, “I thought: should I stand here before you or should I go back to my children? And then I thought: what would have Alexei done in my place? And I’m sure that he would have been standing here on this stage.” After she called with great dignity and eloquence for Putin to be held accountable, the audience rose in sustained applause.

Navalny’s passing hung over the weekend’s proceedings and seemed to reflect Moscow’s new trajectory. Gone were the hopes of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive or claims that Western sanctions would grind Russia’s economy to a halt. So too were predictions that last year’s Prigozhin mutiny would irreparably harm Putin’s domestic invincibility. Instead, participants now worried about Russia retaking land in Ukraine — and during the weekend the town of Avdiivka fell, marking the first major Russian territorial gain since May 2023. Ukraine is running low on ammunition across the eastern front (the head of Ukrainian forces in the south said that the Russians enjoy a 10-to-1 shell advantage), missile and air defense stocks are dwindling, and — absent U.S. assistance — government coffers will soon be bare. Russia, on the other hand, has created a wartime economy, is absorbing ammunition and weapons from North Korea and Iran, and is apparently willing to throw away many more Russian lives in its pursuit of conquest. In the meantime, Putin grows more confident, droning on about ancient history with Tucker Carlson and declaring “Forward! Success! To new borders!” before his countrymen. Reports suggest that he is planning to put a nuclear weapon in space.

For the first time, there was serious talk about an eventual Russian threat to NATO territory. Previously, Russia’s attack on Ukraine was seen, even in Europe, as an affront to the international order, and an impermissible attempt to forcibly change borders. Sentiment has begun to shift toward a view that Russia must be stopped in Ukraine lest it move on to other targets, like Moldova and eventually even NATO countries. The Danish defense minister said that Russia is rearming quickly and could attack NATO within three to five years. The chair of Germany’s Bundestag defense committee put the timeline at five to eight years and the Estonian intelligence service said it was more like a decade.

There was not much consensus to be found on how exactly to stop Russia in Ukraine, beyond calls to provide Kyiv with more military, economic, and humanitarian support. U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance observed that Ukraine would need to make territorial concessions to end the conflict. European leaders pledged new efforts to ramp up weapons production and touted their recent $50 billion assistance pledge. Last month NATO signed a contract to produce $1.2 billion in artillery rounds and Denmark’s prime minister announced in Munich that her country would transfer all of its artillery to Kyiv. Czech President Petr Pavel said that an additional 800,000 artillery rounds could be sourced abroad and delivered to Ukraine in weeks — if a funding source were available.

Europeans talked up the need to boost their own defense spending and industrial output. Germany is expected to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense this year for the first time since the 1990s. Chancellor Olaf Scholz reaffirmed his pledge to maintain defense spending at 2 percent of GDP through “the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond.” His defense minister said German defense spending could one day climb to 3.5 percent of GDP. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, considered a front-runner to replace Jens Stoltenberg as NATO secretary general, said that Europe should “stop moaning and whining” about Donald Trump and instead start spending more on defense. NATO projects that 18 of its 31 members will hit the 2 percent mark this year, up from 2014 when only three members did so. Even so, today the European average remains just 1.6 percent, while Russia this year plans to spend 6 percent of its GDP on defense.

On one matter, everyone — Europeans, Ukrainians, Americans, and delegates from other regions — concurred: What America does, or fails to do, will be vital.

This realization provoked big worry number two.

Come Home America?

The inability of Congress thus far to pass a supplemental aid package, including over $60 billion in assistance to Ukraine, has rattled Europeans and others. Trump’s recent comment — that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to inadequately spending NATO countries — combined with the real potential of a second Trump term to worry them further. Washington has repeatedly pledged to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” What happens if it doesn’t?

The vice president sought to calm such anxieties. “I know there are questions here in Europe and around the world,” she said, “about the future of America’s role of global leadership. These are questions the American people must also ask ourselves.” It is, she continued, “in the fundamental interest of the American people for the United States to fulfill our longstanding role of global leadership,” and in partial fulfillment of that role, the administration “will work to secure critical weapons and resources that Ukraine so badly needs.” Yet with a House of Representatives led by the other party and a presidential election less than nine months away, no administration official could fully reassure skittish allies.

Harris and other administration officials pledged allied solidarity, deep engagement, and sustained support. But that might only be so if President Joe Biden is re-elected. If Trump is elected, the United States might still do the right thing after trying everything else. The reality remains: No matter who said what, next year might see the arrival in Munich of a starkly different U.S. team, with very different priorities.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, attending in person, made the case for urgency. He, too, was focused on American assistance. Referring to the House of Representatives’ two-week recess, he reminded the audience that “dictators do not go on vacation.” “Keeping Ukraine in artificial deficits of weapons,” Zelenskyy said, “particularly in deficits of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war. This self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”

With Russia up and Europe worried, was Washington in or out? Long gone is talk about European “strategic autonomy” or about accommodations with other great powers. Europeans want the United States active and on their side. And while it has grown unfashionable to talk of America as an indispensable power, on the matter of Ukraine and Russia at least, it is.

Everything Else Everywhere, All at Once

European security issues quite naturally dominated a conference founded to discuss important but sometimes arcane trans-Atlantic matters. Yet the war in Gaza raged on and Israeli President Isaac Herzog made an impassioned plea for the return of Hamas-held hostages — even drawing attention to former hostages standing in the balcony. Herzog reportedly met quietly in Munich with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, raising hopes that a return might be in the offing — and perhaps even an end to the fighting on the horizon.

Iranian officials, who for years appeared in Munich to rail against the West, were nowhere to be seen, again this year disinvited by the organizers. The “Axis of Resistance” and Iran’s role in destabilizing the Middle East garnered a decent amount of discussion, as did the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Few concrete proposals emerged.

Then there was China. While Beijing persistently occupies Washington’s foreign policy minds, China produced only a minor ripple in Munich. Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke, sticking to well-rehearsed bromides about Taiwanese independence and the dangers of economic decoupling. Wang met with Blinken and, unlike last year, there were no immediate reports of diplomatic fireworks behind the scenes. If things felt better in Europe, and if the U.S. trajectory were not so uncertain, it’s likely that delegates would focus to a far greater extent on Asia’s promise and China’s challenge. This time around, there were more urgent issues to worry about.

*             *             *

As this informal report describes, the mood was downbeat in Munich. Perhaps I’ve simply been to too many of these conferences over the years, but things seemed to me too pessimistic. It’s true: Russia has some advantages in Ukraine it previously lacked, and Kyiv is running low on weapons and manpower. Yes, there is trouble across the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The U.S. Congress is tied in knots and has trouble agreeing on solutions to major national challenges. And of course, it’s an election year in the United States, with two very different presidential candidates on offer and deep uncertainty about the way ahead.

And yet. The allies — advanced democracies across the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific — retain enormous strengths and advantages of their own. It is the task of leaders to convert those into specific actions that protect their interests and uphold an orderly world. That is entirely possible.

Worry is fine insofar as it goes. Next year in Munich, I hope we’ll hear less in the way of anxiety-ridden diagnoses and more about specific prescriptions. Better still would be commitments to action, such as more Denmark-like pledges of weapons transfers to Ukraine, increased defense spending by the nearly half of NATO countries still under the 2 percent threshold, agreements on joint industrial production, moves to draw down Russia’s frozen foreign reserves, additional nations joining Red Sea patrols, and countries harmonizing their export controls and other economic steps vis-à-vis China.

Shared uneasiness should spur common action. We can envision the alternatives.



Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and coauthor of the forthcoming book Lost Decade: The US Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power.


Image: Munich Security Conference