I went to the Munich Security Conference (MSC) this past weekend, but I am not sure that I found it. Usually, I was lost – jostled by crowds and desperate for a cup of coffee. I only attended one event as an audience member and that was because I wandered in accidentally and was too embarrassed to leave. I spent a lot of time searching for bilateral meeting rooms, going through security, and showing people my badge. Admittedly, my lack of orientation is not interesting – it probably says more about my unwillingness to crack open the intimidating book-length programme than any sort of fundamental flaw in the transatlantic alliance.
Still, I am now supposed to explain what the “mood” of the conference was this year and I find myself at a loss. Does such a large, disorienting, and multi-stage event even have a mood? The MSC is a more a society than a conference. It has social classes – leaders, speakers, participants, observers, delegates, and the hated press. It has cliques, an impressive police force, and even real estate issues (“what hotel are you at?”). Like any society, perceptions of the whole differ, often radically, depending on how you encounter it. My encounter with the conference was dominated by logistical issues – could I get to the place I needed to be in roughly on time, with fly zipped and my bladder not dangerously full? I was not alone. Those logistical issues dominated most conversations – substance was an afterthought that I jotted down for later (until I lost my pen and then my notes).
Others will have had different and perhaps more edifying experiences. But they won’t have all had the same one. They will likely judge “the mood” by the part of MSC society that they encountered. Judging from the press reports, if they spent time with the US government delegation, they’ll talk about China and how Europe must join America in protecting the world against Chinese authoritarianism. The think-tankers seemed focused on the US election and the possibilities for change – for better or worse – in US foreign policy next year. The eastern Europeans still seem worried about Russia. The French are worried about European sovereignty and really don’t want Brexit to appear to have succeeded. The Germans are worried about the French. The younger participants were nattering on about “change” and the environment. And judging by my twitter feed, a lot of the attendees seemed most concerned about the gender diversity of the conference.
I had more than enough like-minded reinforcements to sustain my pre-existing sense of intellectual superiority.
With such a smorgasbord of offerings, most people eat the familiar food and leave the conference pleasantly full of the same ideas that they entered with. I learned some stray facts here and there, but mostly I spent enough time with my friends to confirm my existing
prejudices ideas. My well-guarded opinions did suffer the occasional assault, particularly from Trump administration officials intent on celebrating their “victories”. But, in the end, I had more than enough like-minded reinforcements to sustain my pre-existing sense of intellectual superiority and democratic pessimism. The other social classes at the MSC seemed similarly effective at defending their various intellectual fortifications.
In the depths of my despair at having risked getting coronavirus for this pointless exercise, one of my more annoyingly optimistic colleagues paraphrased Samuel Johnson to me, “if you are tired of the Munich Security Conference, you are tired of think-tank life.” I can’t fire her, so I need to understand her point. The MSC is the ne plus ultra of security wonkery, a sort of Cannes film festival for ugly people. It is exciting to see the whole wider community in one place, to ogle at the stars of our little world, and to imagine yourself on the main stage next year after everyone finally recognises your genius.
But, in the end, the think-tank life I am not tired of is one in which our preconceptions are continually challenged and new ideas blossom. The MSC has its purposes, of course – it is a place for leaders to be heard on transatlantic security issues and an opportunity for government officials to meet with each other with extraordinary efficiency. But it does not have a mood that reflects larger trends; it is not a place to generate new ideas, or change minds, or even to learn many new facts. Think-tank life is about more than just keeping your fly zipped.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.