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Improving Policy Debates

I agree with much of Eliot Cohen’s criticism of the Munich Security Conference. I like his creative phrases, but the SAIS professor is too harsh, too macho and too much in love with his own words:

At events like the Munich Conference, it is no coincidence that the word “networking” has largely replaced the word “debate” among global elites. Most of the faces in attendance you could see at other, similar gatherings, like the World Economic Forum in Davos. You could sense the same frenetic socializing among those more eager to be seen than to make a point, more likely to ponderously recite conventional wisdom than to doggedly defend a point of view. When the Polish prime minister declared that Jews were also perpetrators of the Holocaust, there were mere tut-tuts in response. It is a far cry from the Wehrkunde founded by Kleist. His successor is a bland former German diplomat who greets everyone—free citizen or dictator’s henchman—as a long-time friend of the conference, to be cherished for that reason alone, rather than for what he or she says or believes.

Yes, most politicians and think tankers focus on presenting their government’s positions, personal networking, analysis and commenting rather than proposing ideas to achieve international/regional compromises for solving security problems etc. Not just at this conference. I have criticized that many times as well. But negotiations for the country’s benefit also take place at the Munich Security Conference. In bilaterals, which Cohen obviously can’t attend.

Re the “bland” host of the MSC: I remember how Richard Holbrooke spoke highly of Ischinger’s support in ending the war in Bosnia. He’s considered one of Germany’s best diplomats. Maybe Ischinger should call less speakers “a friend of the conference” and maybe the audience could have criticized the Polish PM stronger, but it’s still a diplomatic international conference, specialized in polite but frank conversation between frenemies and even enemies. That’s needed in today’s world and there’s no other high-level conference like it.

It’s not a platform for righteous Western liberal-interventionists and neocons to criticize the “dictator’s henchmen”. There are plenty of think tank conferences that do so.

Cohen’s lack of understanding of the MSC’s post-cold war purpose is clear, when he writes “What was once a gathering of western national security experts, attended by a few scores of military people, civil servants, scholars, and journalists, has mutated into a policy happening attended by a global mob.”

Seriously, Professor? “Global mob”? Okay, let’s bring out the big guns:

Cohen is one of the leading US neocons who were so sure of themselves and the righteousness of their conviction that invading Iraq would lead to a better Middle East and a more secure West. After this disaster, today’s political leaders and the strategic community may be a little bit forgiven for being careful and less sure about what to do.

I am okay with Cohen’s criticism of today’s culture “that has replaced intellectual brilliance with a Henry Ford-style industrialization of the life of the mind”, but this is far too macho: “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.” And I say so as someone who has to resist the strong urge to make politically incorrect macho comments every time I hear able-bodied men make loud noises wheeling their small suitcases behind them rather than carrying them as “real” men did in the past. I remember how the late Fouad Ajami, another great professor at SAIS, made fun of these “Masters of the Universe” he met commuting from NYC to DC each week.

As John Kerry told Bush junior in the first presidential debate in 2004 "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and you can be wrong," adding, "Certainty sometimes gets you into trouble." Also, I highly recommend reading Jan Techau’s praise of wobbliness.

While wobbliness and some lack of conviction and certainty is understandable and okay, I am concerned that most of today’s Western parliamentarians and government officials focus on fundraising, party politics, domestic issues and are overwhelmed (intellectually and/or time-wise) by the world’s strategic complexities. Thus, they, the press and the public need concrete and specific policy recommendations for the resolution (or at least containment) of international problems. Think Tanks should do more in this regard, their original mission.

It’s not enough when so many think tankers spend so much of their public statements describing the West as tired, lacking self-confidence and having lost its oomph and then call on more defense spending and taking on more international responsibility. That’s just advocacy, not the original mission of think tanks.

I believe, Europe’s politicians, press and public will have confidence, mojo and oomph, and will spend more money on defense and will support their governments taking on more responsibility for the liberal international order once think tanks have convinced them that these resources and risks will produce better results than in the recent past. In other words: Think tanks need concrete plans to demonstrate that more assertive foreign and defense policies will solve problems.

Granted, that’s very difficult, indeed. But, hey, some think tankers criticize their governments and fellow citizens for low ambitions for the world stage. They might want to consider increasing their own ambitions...


Still, Cohen’s article in The Atlantic is a great read and the organizers and moderators of the Munich Security Conference should aim for improvements as I wrote three days ago. Some of those are difficult, others are easy, like discouraging visual aids.

What’s your take on the MSC and similar conferences and on Cohen’s criticism? Is he creative or too much in love with his own words?

  • “[The Munich Security Conference’s] ever-growing sense of self-importance—masks its failure as an institution.”
  • “The algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance”
  • “Troubadours and court jesters for the people’s representatives”
  • “A mood of confused impotence”
  • “the hotel takes on the moist warmth and stale air of an aging high school gym.”
  • “Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, rather than appearing, as he usually does, like a man ready to rip a kitten’s head off to please his master in the Kremlin, merely stared with dead eyes as he delivered a ritual denunciation of European neo-Nazis.”

I studied at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in 1999/2000 and attended the first session of Eliot Cohen’s seminar on military strategy. He taught us that plans need to be specific. As an example he described how we in the Rome building would need to plan in much detail an attack of the Nitze building. That was fun, but did not indicate much substance. (Like so much at IR policy schools; it’s the downside of the good generalists’ approach, still better than the British PPE.) I then chose a different seminar; we had great choices at SAIS. Still, I cherish Cohen’s call for detailed policy suggestions and try to do so myself even on Twitter. What’s frustrating is that such constructive efforts are less popular than my not so constructive complaining and pithy criticisms.

=> All professional experts and other interested/informed citizens participating in elite and not-so-elite conferences, townhalls and also on social media can improve the quality of public debates by presenting and discussing specific policy recommendations in detail rather than focusing on endless analyses and commenting for the sake of personal networking and impressing their “tribe”.

That would be a real marketplace of ideas and improve the world. Not just fix conferences like the Munich Security Conference. Alas, that’s not happening enough.


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