Munich As Propaganda Fest

“He simply chuckled,” Crowley wrote of Wang at the conclusion of his report.

Chuckled. I am reminded of that moment last year when Blinken, after formal talks in Moscow, pulled Sergei Lavrov into a private room at the Kremlin and asked Russia’s foreign minister if it was true Moscow’s plan was to reconstruct the Russian Empire. Lavrov stared, turned, and left the room—no reply, no handshake, no farewell, just an abrupt exit, a leaving behind.

Do we have to conclude that Antony Blinken, Washington’s top diplomat, America’s official face to the world, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Biden administration? I would rather not, but Blinken does not appear to inspire much respect among his counterparts when it matters most, as in the cases of China and Russia.

The prospect of a Blinken–Wang encounter in Munich has been cast as edge-of-our-seats stuff since Blinken abruptly canceled a meeting with Wang as the Pentagon set to with the balloon nonsense it is now trying to blur as best it can. Will they or won’t they? Were you especially interested in this question? I wasn’t. It has long been obvious Blinken has nothing useful to say to the Chinese. Dollars to doughnuts, as one of my editors used to say, Blinken was relieved when the Pentagon gave him an excuse to call off his trip to Beijing. And I did not sense he was eager to make up for that in Munich. In the event, when the two diplomats finally met Saturday evening, it was, sure enough, another disaster.

It is not uncommon that important things get said at the Munich Security Conference, an annual fixture among the West’s top political, military, and national security cliques for the past 60 years. The interesting thing is that the truly important things said in Munich, the blockbuster speeches, are often those of non–Western leaders who travel to the Bavarian capital as outside visitors as if to report from the wilds beyond the Atlantic world’s perimeters. Western leaders, it has come to seem, are in the same pickle as Blinken: The imperative is to say something with weight, gravitas, but there is nothing new to say. How many times can you insist on American “leadership”—meaning imperial hegemony—and the superiority of the West above the rest without sounding like a broken Victrola?

So it was in Munich last week. The inevitable theme was the Western powers’ determination to continue their military aid and political support for Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia. Western unity “is stronger than ever,” Blinken asserted. We heard the at-this-point-boring “Whatever it takes, as long as it takes” from Vice–President Kamala Harris. There was this from Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister: “We need to make sure that our citizens and our societies will do whatever it takes, too.”

I’m always energized by fresh, new thinking.

The Kyiv regime was given a wide berth, naturally. President Volodymyr Zelensky, not for the first time, made his David and Goliath comparison, complaining that the West must send more and more and more weaponry and matériel and must send it now now now. Dmitry Kuleba, Kyiv’s foreign minister, spoke at length at something called the Ukraine Lunch. His theme, as The Times’s Erika Solomon paraphrased, was “the end game for Kyiv is fully regaining Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea.” He went on to hint with the subtlety of a professional mooch that Kyiv fully intends to hit the West up for fighter jets, which Washington and the European powers have so far said they will not send.

There is nothing new here. I have long been convinced that Washington is carefully scripting Zelensky and Kuleba on topics such as weapons supplies. If you have found these people stunningly rude in their remarks to Western officials, as I have, it is because they are told to be. Among their functions from the start of the conflict has been to shout incessant demands at the West to give Western officials domestic public-relations cover as they escalate the conflict with the more and more and more Kyiv demands.

Petr Pavel, the Czech Republic’s president, had a very curious response to Kuleba’s lunchtime remarks. “We may end up in a situation where liberating some parts of Ukrainian territory will cost such losses that will be unbearable for Ukrainian society,” Pavel said. He added that those who favor the collapse of the Russian Federation as the true objective of this war had better start thinking about consequences they have not yet considered.

The Czechs, astute readers may recall, have arched their eyebrows ever since the U.S. orchestrated the Kyiv coup in 2014. While everyone else was pretending there were no neo–Nazi crazies in Ukraine, the Czechs were publishing front-page pictures of torch-lit processions featuring burning crosses and hooded militiamen while senior government officials were asking publicly, “What in hell is this? Do we not remember?”

Now the Czech president gives the game away, in my read. If the West were so triumphantly unified as it pours untold billions of dollars worth of armaments into Ukraine, would its leaders have to travel to Munich to bang on about it, one after another saying the same thing? I see a Lady Macbeth complex here: They doth protest too much that they are all together on Ukraine.

If nothing new was said in Munich last week, what was said in the saying of nothing?

I did not read of any official standing up and saying there can be no negotiations toward a diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine conflict. Instead, nearly all those who touched on the topic said talks can begin only after Ukraine has retaken all the territories Russia now occupies, and in the case of the Donbas breakaway republics, now claims as part of the Russian Federation. Kuleba comes out the winner here: He insisted that the end of the war can come only when the Russian president, “whoever it may be,” travels to Kyiv, drops to his knees, and begs forgiveness.

This is not the utterance of a practiced statesman, to put it mildly. But what Kuleba meant is what nearly everyone in Munich meant: Yes, we favor negotiations except that we don’t. There shall be none. Forget the past year’s talk that this war can end only at the mahogany table. It will end on the battlefield, when guns have decided it.

“Things like a ceasefire sound very attractive. Who doesn’t want the guns to stop firing?” Blinken asked at that same Ukraine Lunch. “Except we have to be incredibly wary of the kinds of traps that can be set.” It is Newspeak. We want to stop the fighting but we cannot stop it. Should Russia propose a ceasefire, we cannot trust it because we cannot trust Russia.

Kamala Harris, who is scripted to the fullest extent Kuleba is, was right up there with the Ukrainian FM. After the usual expressions of firm resolve, she went long on Russia’s “playbook of aggression,” its “provocations,” its “disinformation, lies, and propaganda.” She ended this list by taking things further than the standard accusations of Russian war crimes: “Crimes against humanity” is Harris’s term for events that have yet to be investigated (and almost certainly never will be by any kind of impartial agency).

And then this: “As President Joe Biden has made clear, the United States, our NATO Allies, and our partners have been and remain open to serious diplomacy. We have put concrete proposals on the table.”

Really, Madame Vice–President, or however we are supposed to address you. You need a new speechwriter. The mendacity and insincerity are too ridiculously transparent in this presentation. And for the record, no, “we” have not put concrete proposals on the table. We have ignored Moscow’s and have taken concrete proposals off the table—most recently those Naftali Bennett helped negotiate between the two sides, and a year ago next month those negotiated in Istanbul.

The memorable case of a consequential speech delivered in Munich by a non–Western leader remains Vladimir Putin’s in 2007. People still talk and write about this occasion, during which Putin declared Russia’s dedication to a post–Cold War security order, a multipolar global system, and, in forthright terms that startled us all at the time, addressed the brewing problem of NATO’s eastward expansion:

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? No one even remembers them.

I mention Putin’s speech, which is easily located on the internet and remains worth reading, because Wang Yi’s formal remarks in Munich on Saturday were roughly analogous. The circumstances and personalities are of course different, but Wang asked implicitly what Putin asked implicitly: Can we talk about things as they actually are, constructively, with a view to solutions?

Wang was talking to counterparts. The other speakers were talking not to each other but to their citizens at home. Image-makers were in charge in Munich last week.

You will read as much about Wang’s speech as you did about Putin’s 16 years ago—not much. Here, then, are extracts from the Foreign Ministry’s readout. This first is a coded admonition of the West’s conduct and the extent of its responsibility for the Ukraine conflict:

Wang Yi noted that since the Cold War is long gone, NATO, a product of the Cold War, needs to adapt itself to the changing circumstances. If NATO keeps expanding eastward, will this be conducive to peace and stability in Europe, and will this contribute to long-term stability in Europe? This is a question that merits serious consideration by European friends.

As to the war itself, Wang was crystal clear in asserting China’s support for the very agreements Russia backed, the Kyiv regime signed and abrogated, and the Europeans had no intention to enforce. As to the reference to Blinken, Wang knows as well as anyone that the U.S. opposed these agreements and has not since proposed a return to them:

On the Ukrainian issue, China believes that it is imperative to return to the Minsk II agreement, the starting point of this matter, as quickly as possible. The agreement is a binding instrument negotiated by the parties concerned and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, and provides the only viable way out. State Councilor Wang noted that to his knowledge, Russia and the E.U. both support Minsk II, and in his recent telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, the U.S. side also expressed its support. In this context, shouldn’t the relevant parties sit down together for a thorough discussion to work out a roadmap and timetable for the implementation of the agreement?

And finally, an impressively sophisticated understanding of Ukraine’s unusual position, along with Finland’s and Germany’s, on the delicate fault line between East and West:

Ukraine should be a bridge for communication between the East and the West, not a frontier for confrontation between major powers. Regarding the security of Europe, all parties are free to raise their own concerns, and Russia’s reasonable security concerns should be respected and taken seriously. China hopes all parties will pursue dialogue and consultation to find a solution that is truly conducive to safeguarding the security of Europe.

This is statesmanship of a very high order. How interesting, how pitiful, how lots of things other than edifying is it to place Wang Yi’s remarks next to those of the other speakers in Munich. Read Kamala Harris’s speech and then Wang Yi’s. Why not fix a drink first? Recommended.

The remarkable thing about this year’s unremarkable conference in Munich is that the delegates, other than exceptions such as Wang and Petr Pavel, were not actually talking to one another when they went on and on about unity and victory, and weaponry. Why should they? They all said the same thing. As just suggested, this was at bottom a propaganda fest—sheer display to keep the Atlantic world’s populations on board for the whatever-it-takes bit.

A year after Putin spoke in 2007, NATO welcomed the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. Will much more come of Wang’s proposals—concrete proposals indeed, Madame Vice–President? No and yes. The Minsk Protocols look like dead letters to me. On the other hand, a leading non–Western power has made plain its commitment to the principles necessary for a stable world order. If you think of the audience Wang addressed, the import of what he said will land yet more squarely. In effect, he was a messenger from the world as it now emerges speaking those defending a world now passing.

The brief Blinken–Wang Yi encounter was bound to be another calamity, and so it proved.  Blinken warned Wang in stiff terms that China must never again send a surveillance balloon over American territory and, for good measure, must not materially aid the Russian war effort.  This is not diplomacy. It is showmanship. Blinken wasn’t even talking to Wang: He was playing to the China hawks back home. Wang, no surprise, appears not to have taken Blinken the slightest seriously. He replied in so many words that he had no patience with Washington’s “hysterical” response to a stray weather balloon and advised that the Americans ought to stop posturing in their relations with China to satisfy domestic constituencies. Good advice, I would say.

In Munich Saturday evening, the non–West chuckled at the West once again.

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