Peace & Gossip in Munich

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the 2023 Munich Security Conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the 2023 Munich Security Conference. Photo: Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
February 21, 2023

The official theme at this year’s Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of the who’s who of the trans-Atlantic community’s national security elite—current and former heads of state, foreign ministers and ministers of defense, generals, congressional delegations (CODELs), think tankers, activists, journalists, hangers on—was, you guessed it, “Zeitenwende on Tour.” Zeitenwende, one of those nifty German turns of phrase capable of folding a complex concept into a single word, means “the end of an era,” and it refers to the speech that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave to the Bundestag three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Under his predecessor Angela Merkel, Germany had weaved a thick web of economic cooperation with Russia in the hopes of bringing the country into the Western community and away from its former Cold War antagonism. On February 24, 2022, that era had ended. Germany, after its horrifying crimes in World War II, had developed a healthy allergy for militarism and stubbornly resisted every American president’s efforts to get their country to spend two percent of their military budget on defense, as required by NATO. That era too had ended. Scholz, who in the run-up to the invasion had tried to help Vladimir Putin find a new off-ramp every time the Russian president blew past another one, was now on the side of arming Ukraine. A year after the Zeitenwende speech, Germany was sending Leopard tanks to Kyiv. 

If that old era cooperation, however uneasy and fraught, was over, what had replaced it? The speeches and panels at this year’s conference insisted that it was trans-Atlantic unity and resolve. Speaker after speaker, from Scholz to Emmanuel Macron, Rishi Sunak, and Kamala Harris, pledged their country’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine in its struggle to defeat Russia. Some egged on their allies to do more, like the German defense minister, who said two percent should be not the ceiling but the floor for NATO countries’ military spending. If you listened to the official proceedings, either from the Hotel Bayerischer Hof or via the live stream, you would come away believing that Ukraine was in good hands and that the Western commitment to its victory was ironclad, even if the war dragged on for years, a possibility which the conference’s participants were now openly acknowledging.