Collapse of the Global Elite?
Elliot Cohen laments the lack of steel in the spine of the statesmen, diplomats, soldiers, and thinkers of the current generation.
Elliot Cohen contends we are “Witnessing the Collapse of the Global Elite.” His jumping-off point is a Munich Security Conference in which an ailing John McCain is not leading the American delegation for the first time in years and where H.R. McMaster and other top US officials say the right words but few believe they matter with Donald J. Trump at the helm.
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.
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.
Partly, I think, this is a function of “elite” having long since become a bad word. Foreign policy was once a thing done by experts to whom the masses deferred; that hasn’t been the case in quite some time. It’s also a function of larger trends that have shaped politics in the West in recent decades—the rise first of 24/7/365 news networks and soon by partisan and social media. The upshot of all that is that we no longer have campaign season, followed by a honeymoon and getting down to the business of governance and compromise. It’s all campaigning, all the time now.
More importantly, as Cohen acknowledges, the Werkunde consensus was not the historical norm. It was forged because the fecklessness of an earlier generation allowed Adolf Hitler to invade and occupy several neighboring states before taking action. World War II forced reluctant allies to work together for a common purpose. The incredibly high cost in blood and treasure of that war—and the impending and then actual Cold War with the Soviets—essentially forced North American and Western European leaders to continue cooperating.
That project ended with the Cold War. NATO leaders struggled valiantly to substitute another. Initially, we had the Yugoslav wars and the immediate challenge of what to do with about the collapse of the Soviet empire. But building a “Europe, whole, free, and at peace” was always an ephemeral goal and the commonality was mostly observed in the breach. Still, cold warriors like George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl were in place to lead.
The 9/11 attacks yielded NATO’s first invocation of Article 5, the vow that an attack on one member of the Alliance would be treated as an attack on all. But that was squandered by Bush the Younger who, not unreasonably after the trials of the Kosovo campaign, believed the support of under-funded European militaries wasn’t worth the cost of added bureaucracy and endless whinging. In hindsight, though, that was incredibly short-sighted.
The US remains a global superpower that, even under Trump, had declared in its security and military strategies that Russia and China are its top priorities. But the European allies aren’t Pacific powers and there’s not much consensus in Donald Rumsfeld’s Old Europe about what to do about Russia. Until Putin and company move out of the “gray zone” of provocation short of war, that is likely to remain the case.