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Vance Asks Tough Questions at Munich Security Conference

Posted on Thursday, February 22, 2024
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by Walter Samuel
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AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel

putin - munich security conference

In 1929, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, reflecting on the rise of Stalin, Mussolini, and, though he didn’t know it yet, Hitler, observed, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Gramsci’s words could aptly describe the climate in which world leaders gathered recently for the Munich Security Conference, an event that made a few headlines worth noting.

Gramsci was perceptive enough to see something many contemporary conservatives and liberals were oblivious to: that the First World War had killed the 19th century world, and it could not be restored. The populace recognized the futility of their traditional “leaders,” and while leaders blamed the voters for abandoning them for populists, it was the political class who, by sticking to outdated visions of a world long gone, had abdicated responsibility.

The Munich Security Conference is an intrinsic part of the post-Cold War Western order. It was here, in 2007, where Vladimir Putin made his famous speech warning that unlimited NATO expansion would lead to a break with Moscow. It was where, in 2021, Joe Biden, quite falsely it turned out, declared, “America is back!”

The attendees at the 2024 conference seemed to recognize, at least subconsciously, that the “old world was dying.” But rather than confront this reality and plan for the future, they instead turned the gathering into a collective therapy session wrapped in denial.

Denmark pledged to transfer ammunition to Ukraine, while Kamala Harris insisted that America would never abandon its commitment to Ukraine. Harris echoed the concern of foreign leaders that failing to have the U.S. House appropriate an additional $100 billion in funding represented the greatest threat to the global order, as if its passage would drive Hamas from Gaza, allow Kyiv to seize Crimea, eliminate the Houthis, and cause Xi Jinping to abandon his threats to take Taiwan. The old world was not dying, she seemed to say. It could be saved for a measly $100 billion now being held up selfishly by Donald Trump.

This exercise in collective self-delusion descended into farce as one Western leader after another accused Vladimir Putin of the murder of Alexei Navalny and issued empty promises of retribution, an exercise made macabre by the presence of Navalny’s widow during the proceedings.

For over an hour, this was no longer a security conference, but a political rally. The real audience was not a widow who well knew the emptiness of the promises to inflict retribution on Putin from those who had failed to rescue her husband. The real audience was, rather, constituencies at home.

The entire thing must have carried with it the horrifying realization that if Putin had authorized the murder, the reason may well have been to remind the attendees that he no longer feared or even needed them.

Even if Kamala Harris had arrived with the $100 billion in hand, it would not have given those present any real leverage to punish Vladimir Putin for Navalny’s death. Nor would it have provided a clear path to routing the Houthis out of Yemen where they sit astride critical shipping routes, or, as last summer showed, a way for the Ukrainian military to retake the Crimea or even Donbass.

In a sense, the leaders in Munich were aware of this. Unlike in past years, they did not seriously attempt to disguise their impotence, only its cause and terminal state. The limitations those leaders faced were ones of capability, not of will, but by pretending that it was merely a matter of will, that Donald Trump was merely preventing the appropriation of money which would make their problems go away, they could pretend that the condition of their old world was not terminal.

There were a few figures who tried to introduce some reality into the proceedings. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio traveled to Munich to present his perspective as well as to give voice to opponents of endless handouts to foreign nations while America struggles to handle its own problems, most prominently a historically bad border crisis.

Vance pointed out there was a contradiction “between the idea that Putin poses an existential threat to Europe, compared again against the fact that we’re trying to convince our allies to spend 2 percent of GDP.” If the former was true, why weren’t European governments acting like it?

While condemning the murder of Navalny, whom he called a “brave man,” Vance also highlighted the emptiness of the rhetorical condemnations when it came to whether or not to negotiate with Putin, pointing out that “just because he’s a bad guy does not mean we can’t engage in basic diplomacy and prioritizing America’s interests.”

Vance was undoubtedly correct in his criticisms, especially whether those present were even asking the correct questions. The operative question that should be asked is not whether the United States and NATO wanted to aid Ukraine in retaking territory from Russia, or even overthrowing Vladimir Putin, but whether it could or should, with both being closely linked.

Vance raised a number of pertinent questions.

First of all, even assuming Congress could appropriate infinite funds for Ukraine, is there a set of weapons that could allow Ukraine to “win” the war, and can they be produced in sufficient numbers to make a difference?

Second, even assuming they could be produced and delivered, does Ukraine have the trained manpower to utilize them effectively?

Third, what would be the opportunity cost of supplying Ukraine, both in terms of running up the national debt and of the places where the money and weapons could not be used instead, such as the Middle East or Taiwan?

Hanging over all of these questions is the largest of them all, a proverbial elephant in the room: What precisely constitutes a “win” for Ukraine? Would it mean fighting Russia to a standstill until Moscow is forced to sue for peace? The return of all territory taken since 2022? The entire Donbass, including areas occupied since 2014? The Crimea as well? Or even the overthrow of Putin himself?

As Vance implied, these goals not only are very different, but are in open tension with each other, as well as with the moralistic threats of retribution against Putin for Navalny’s death.

Regardless of whether the goal is a ceasefire on current lines or the return of some amount of territory, any agreement requires someone to negotiate within the Kremlin.

Overthrowing Putin would risk either chaos, the ascension of a figure too weak to risk appearing like a Western puppet by negotiating, or perhaps even someone who would be overthrown for doing so only to be replaced by someone repudiating the agreement.

In short, Vance reminded the audience that if the goal is a peace deal with Russia, that means we need to be prepared to negotiate with Putin no matter what he does. If the goal is a crusade to implement regime change in Moscow, well, maybe everyone should take a step back and reevaluate their thought process.

Vance highlighted that belligerent rhetoric was not only disconnected from the reality of any viable policy, but was actively being used as a substitute for the need to formulate an actual policy.

While Vance was correct in his criticisms, and the need to move on from an old world that is dying and whose condition is terminal, a new world cannot be born tabula rasa.

The fact is that Vladimir Putin has maneuvered himself into a strong position, not just in Ukraine, but in his alliances with Iran and China. It is unclear what he would have to gain from working with the United States and turning against either.

The same is true of China, which now has the Biden administration begging Beijing to intervene to restrain Russia in Ukraine or Iran’s proxies in the Middle East, all while both conflicts turn global opinion against Washington. China likely wonders why it should lift a finger to stop either. As for Iran, it has now demonstrated its proxies can blockade Israeli shipping with impunity while dominating its region.

European and Asian leaders should take seriously the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal as a worst-case consequence of their failures to confront the realities of a new world. But those who put “America First” have to realize that this strategy is not a goal but a last resort, to be pursued only if creating a new security structure that serves American interests fails.

America faces a hostile alliance of adversaries whose objectives are to degrade and weaken the United States as much as possible because its strength poses a threat. There is room to discuss how the mistakes of the Bush and Obama administrations contributed to bringing this anti-American coalition into being by waging ideological warfare against anyone they saw as “illiberal.” But the fact is that these so-called illiberal regimes see the U.S. as a threat, and will seek to push back.

Whether Putin feels the need to establish a buffer zone by pushing forward in Ukraine because the Clinton and Obama teams pushed forward against him is irrelevant to the fact that he will keep pushing forward as far as he can now, and it will be decades before a Russian leader believes America is not a threat.

The same is true for Iran and China. As they see America as an ideological, not a military threat, they will seek to exclude American companies, American trade, and American investment from areas they control, meaning that we cannot withdraw from regions politically without also facing economic exclusion. America itself has taught its foes this lesson through three decades of sanctions.

In short, there needs to be an understanding of the distinction between a policy that critically evaluates American interests, putting America First, and an isolationist policy that walks away from a fight out of frustration. Having confronted Russia, Iran, and China, retreating would be a demonstration of weakness and create the worst possible time for a realist pursuit of a settlement.

It will, much like Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, encourage America’s opponents to go on the offensive, especially because they will not know when America may return. They may well pursue America to the Western hemisphere, with the dangerous prospect of Russian or Chinese missiles being placed in Cuba or Venezuela is a threat that should keep Americans up at night.

This means recognizing that both America under the Biden administration and especially America’s allies are on the defensive, not the offensive. Dreams of overthrowing Putin and putting him on trial for murder are delusions that are dangerous in that they have allowed western leaders to avoid confronting the situation they actually face.

We need to think critically about what can be accomplished, which will involve some money, but also a recognition that without clear goals tied to reality, $100 billion or $300 billion to Ukraine will make no difference.

In turn, the remnants of the old order need to understand that there will be no Bourbon Restoration. If efforts to build a new world order based on realist principles fail, the alternative will not be a return to the Obama-Merkel era.

Rather it will be, as Gramsci warned, a time of monsters. One where Putin feels free to murder his foes with impunity before major international events because he knows only the corpse of a discredited system stands in his way.

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia and holds a Doctorate in International History.

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Casey C Matt
Casey C Matt
1 month ago

Was I the only person that noticed the late Mr Nevalnys wife being in attendance at this European gaggle fest? I mean within hours of the mans passing the leaders of the Euro nations and Nevalnys wife were in hysterical screeching mode regarding the passing of the former barely poll registering political operative from Russia with accusations of murder by the Russian president and even some knowing the method of the so called murder.
Anyone else notice how prepared Mrs Nevalny was and how grief was as foreign to the woman as was humanity on the part of her just departed husbands world views. I mean seriously, are the woke leaders in Europe and indeed among American Democrats actually disturbed by the mans passing? He was an extreme nationalist that on several video taped gatherings referred to “black” migrants from African and Middle Eastern nations, as :Cockroaches, no better than an infected tooth that needs extraction”,
And what was the ‘great promoter of democracy” imprisoned for? Embezzling funds from a charitable agency in Russia and then being granted probation continually violated the terms of the wrist slap probation until he forced the judiciary to imprison him, or rather the jury to imprison him.
And who had anything to gain from the mans death? Not Russia where the man was largely forgotten and never had any significance on the political spectrum pretty much maxxing out at something like 3% support and that was back in 2011. I saw several on the street interviews in Moscow inquiring about Nevalny and the few that recalled who he was expressed no interest at all about the man. He was insignificant. Nevalny did have a purpose for the deep state of the collective west. As one must recall Russia had just taken the ultra fortified city of Avdeevka in a laughable rout and gaining on every sector of every battle line in Ukraine. What better way to throw off the fact that the current Ukraine regime is rotting on the vine than digging up some old has been/never was from over a decade earlier and spread lies about the man across the bought and sold mainstream media.
If the man didnt die of natural causes (and he did have a big list of physical and mental ailments (when his blood was tested after his self described “poisoning and this was done in Germany,not Russia, no poison traces were found but several prescribed medications were including Lithium which is an anti psychotic medication). But if he did d6ie of UN natural causes odds are that our “great” intel agencies were responsible. Think CIA or perhaps the insane and haphazard British Mi6,….the Keystone Cops of the intelligence world.
Propaganda fills the airwaves constantly. Next time you are told that Russia is evil and the enemy of America……ask “what has Russia, even going back to the old USSR days, ever done to America.” Name something………..anything……..please.
We have been force fed lies our entire lives and need to really evaluate who the “bad guy” really is in this clown world.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
1 month ago

Numerous countries including Germany are increasing NATO contributions and sending support to Ukraine. See? Who needs our $95 billion anyways!

Philip Seth Hammersley
Philip Seth Hammersley
1 month ago

WHY are not the “neighbors” of Ukraine not providing their fair share of aid to Ukraine? We are thousands of miles away and Russia is no real threat to us. Why is Biden providing both the Russians and the mullahs billions of dollars by shutting down US oil production? Where are our taxpayer dollars going–for materiel or into somebody’s pockets?

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
1 month ago

Why are U here
are connected to WEF
Whats your goals
Is Nuclear war an Option

anna hubert
anna hubert
1 month ago

Conference in Munich? Is it to prepare us for what’s to come?

Uncle daddy Vance
Uncle daddy Vance
1 month ago

I hear Russia is so great they even make the graces of their soldiers better then americas lol

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