What has happened here is the same phenomenon that explains so many of the ills of the last couple of decades: the algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance. A younger John McCain would not have been unique for his qualities of wisdom and character at the earlier iterations of this conference. He would have been met by acute thinkers like Thérèse Delpech of France, staunch public servants like Manfred Wörner, a German defense minister and secretary general of NATO in the 1980s, or politicians like Dennis Healey of Britain. Their successors are cautious functionaries, pallid experts, and colorless politicians who think carefully about domestic audiences before speaking up abroad.
This political entropy seems to be a near-universal phenomenon in the Western world; why this is so is unclear, and probably has many explanations. But the nicely tailored generation represented in Munich this year seemed baffled by the re-entry into history of today’s authoritarians and fanatics. One wonders whether the attendees possess the steel of the earlier generation that took part in World War II, and in the subsequent struggle with Communism. Attempted Russian subversion of democratic elections in the United States and Europe elicited concern from some at the conference, but few were willing to call for a punitive response sufficient to inflict real pain on Moscow. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs happily hobnobbed with Europeans looking to do business on the side.
Perhaps this is the inevitable price of the success of the West in creating societies prosperous beyond the dreams of 100 years ago. Perhaps it is the result of a culture that admires military courage but only from a safe distance, that makes democratic political life such a course of humiliation that few sane people will endure it, that has replaced intellectual brilliance with a Henry Ford-style industrialization of the life of the mind. Whatever it is, it hung over the conference like the February fog rising from the city’s slushy streets. This was not the Munich of Neville Chamberlain, but it was surely a long, long way from that of Ewald von Kleist, too.