MUNICH — In the glistening halls of the Bayerischer Hof hotel, home to the annual Munich Security Conference, phalanxes of bodyguards still guide the powerful and the influential, mainly male, to meetings conceived to favor dialogue and peace. But war is not far away in Europe, and there is no escaping the impression that the world has fractured.
The consensus in Munich seems to be that an age of intense and treacherous great power rivalry is looming. The West is united by the war in Ukraine but faces a bellicose Russia, a confrontational China and a global south often dismissive of perceived Western hypocrisy and not always persuaded by the West’s moral indignation over the invasion of Ukraine ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Conversations, on the stage and at the bar, focus overwhelmingly on Ukraine. The war’s potential duration (long), the resilience of Western unity (considerable), the speed of weapons and ammunition delivery to Ukrainian forces (inadequate) and the mind-set of Mr. Putin (unyielding) are dissected without offering much clarity on the year ahead.
“I suspect that in one year we will be roughly where we are now,” Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, said of the war. “Everyone here from north of the Equator is trying to outdo Churchill, but, if you are not, the war looks less important. The 21st century is not going to hinge on who gets how much of the Donbas region.”
But, of course, Mr. Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine tore up the first principles of the United Nations Charter by violating “the territorial integrity” of an independent state. There is no reason that the Baltic States, for example, should feel secure, other than their NATO membership.
A European war involving a nuclear-armed state has birthed a new era that does not yet have a name.
Kamala Harris, the U.S. vice president, noted that Americans took great pride in nations’ battles for their independence, and vowed there would be no wavering in support for the Ukrainian cause. Still, European anxiety is rising over next year’s U.S. presidential election and the changes in U.S. policy that it may usher in.
Munich has grown less ecumenical, more a meeting of friends, even with a Chinese presence, than a bracing opportunity for dialogue among rivals.
Gone are the Russian ministers and officials whose fiery declarations from the stage animated discussion. Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed here in 2015 that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a response to an uprising for “the right of self-determination,” while Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalist violence” against Jews, and the United States was pursuing “global dominance.”
Gone are the Iranian officials, like the former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose sinuous arguments about the supposed perfidy of the West provoked endless debate.
Fleeting glimpses of a potential American-Iranian reconciliation after more than four decades of confrontation have faded. The Iranian regime is intent once more on the brutal repression of protesters demanding basic freedoms.
China did appear in the person of its top foreign policy official, Wang Yi. But he has so far waved away the possibility of a meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and he mocked America’s shooting-down of a Chinese spy balloon as “absurd and hysterical.”
Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, argued that the perception of Western inconsistency in the invocation of international rules undermined support for the West in the war in Ukraine. A Western realization that in Africa, India, South America and elsewhere views of the war are much more ambiguous about, or even hostile to, the narrative of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked brutality has been one subtheme of the conference.
“The West is more united, but we are more divided from the rest,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian and a professor of European studies at Oxford University, as he stood at the bar where the fate of the world is endlessly debated.