That 1913 feeling

I spent the last four days at the Munich Security Conference, which is the global gathering for all those interested in international relations and matters of war and peace. It takes place in a historic Bavarian hotel whose hallways and coffee lounges are much too narrow for the throngs of diplomats, parlamentarians and statesmen, along with their security goons, and of course the hordes of think-tankers and journalists like me. Everyone jostles and bumps into everyone else. All of which is usually a good thing in world politics.

This year was different, as the old-timers told me. Nobody could remember any instance over the years when a speaker was jeered with derisive laughter. But that’s how the audience reacted to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as he spouted Putin’s propaganda from the stage. Lindsey Graham, an American senator who talked a gun-slinging Fox-Newsy tough talk, called the statements by another Russian on his panel “garbage” and “lies”.

He, like John McCain, another American senator, also harangued Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, as if she were an unruly child. McCain told German television that she clearly does not care that Ukrainians are dying–for if she did, she would offer to sell them weapons. (As though there were no other reasons to oppose sending arms.) Germans don’t like that American tone, just as Americans would not like it in reverse. As if Russia vs the West were not enough, we’re also getting more West vs West.

Merkel, for her part, has not properly slept for a week and won’t for another. With her French colleague, Francois Hollande, she flew to Kiev on Thursday, then to Moscow on Friday. The talks with Putin were evidently as frustrating as ever. On Saturday she came to the Munich conference to address us. Then it was on to Washington, where she is today with Obama. Then on to Canada tomorrow, and then to Minsk on Wednesday. She is killing herself trying to get one especially stubborn and unreasonable man with a dangerous inferiority complex and several other slightly less stubborn men to step back from the brink.

In the hallways and over the lunches I talked it over with the veterans and experts. We went deep into history and jargon (“hybrid warfare”, “escalation dominance”, …). But wonkishness is a thin veneer over gut feelings. And almost everyone there had a bad gut feeling about the whole thing.

The diplomatic currency of talking–of listening to opponents and believing at least part of what they say–is used up. The ghosts of the past are coming unburied. Europe is in incredible danger.