The American Interest

Fiddling on the Brink

A standard theme in the literature on the Great War is that hardly anyone expected it at the time.  Europe’s last summer, balmy and idyllic, suddenly brought the guns of August.  This view is not historically accurate—Germany willed the war, and her leaders engineered the July crisis—but for most other actors the catastrophe did come as a surprise.  In the years preceding 1914 the Old Continent was not gripped by an impending sense of doom.  Quite the contrary: The prevailing Stimmung was that of self-confidence and belief in boundless progress.

A century later the world has entered an era of unprecedented insecurity.  The sense of angst was reflected in the official title of this year’s Munich Security Conference: “To the Brink—and Back?”  Several hundred politicians, think-tank analysts, intelligence chiefs, and military officers gathered at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof on February 16-18 for the geostrategists’ equivalent of the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Interesting debates and ideas were promised.  NATO’s former secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen promoted Munich as “the jewel in the crown of the international security conference circuit, guaranteed to make headlines.”

The event proved underwhelming.  National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster listed unprioritized threats and claimed that the evidence...

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