A standard theme in the literature on the Great War is that hardly anyone expected it at the time.  Europe’s last summer, balmy and idyllic, suddenly brought the guns of August.  This view is not historically accurate—Germany willed the war, and her leaders engineered the July crisis—but for most other actors the catastrophe did come as a surprise.  In the years preceding 1914 the Old Continent was not gripped by an impending sense of doom.  Quite the contrary: The prevailing Stimmung was that of self-confidence and belief in boundless progress.

A century later the world has entered an era of unprecedented insecurity.  The sense of angst was reflected in the official title of this year’s Munich Security Conference: “To the Brink—and Back?”  Several hundred politicians, think-tank analysts, intelligence chiefs, and military officers gathered at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof on February 16-18 for the geostrategists’ equivalent of the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Interesting debates and ideas were promised.  NATO’s former secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen promoted Munich as “the jewel in the crown of the international security conference circuit, guaranteed to make headlines.”

The event proved underwhelming.  National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster listed unprioritized threats and claimed that the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was incontrovertible.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was present on the first day but did not speak, prompting speculation about discord in Trump’s team.  CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats were there, too, but said nothing.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron did not turn up.  Theresa May gave a boring speech assuring her European colleagues that post-Brexit Britain will remain closely aligned with them on foreign and security policy.  Benjamin Netanyahu may have intended to stir things up by declaring that Israel would go to war if Iran continues trying to establish a presence in Syria; he even waved a fragment of what he claimed was an Iranian drone shot down over Israel.  Hardly anyone was moved.

Everyone agreed that the fight against jihadism is far from over and that hard work will be needed to achieve victory.  Not one speaker tackled the link between terrorism and immigration, however, or defined “victory.”  Recommendations did not go beyond some bland suggestions for improved operational efficiency, specifically information sharing.  There were the usual calls for a common E.U. security policy, but no proposal on how to devise and conduct such policy in view of the radically different understanding of “security threats”—and even core national interests—between, say, Lithuania and Ireland, or Hungary and Sweden.

A chilling reminder of the main source of global instability came on the last day, when Sen. James Risch (R-ID) said that the U.S. was determined to prevent Kim Jong-un from developing his nuclear arsenal.  There will be no “bloody nose” to send a message to Pyongyang, Risch said:

If this thing starts, it’s going to be probably one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization, but it is going to be very, very brief . . . [with] mass casualties, the likes of which the planet has never seen—it will be of biblical proportions. . . . If the North Korean regime . . . continues down this path . . . the president can do this quickly . . . it is at his fingertips.

This was truly breathtaking—the likely successor to Bob Corker as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declaring, urbi et orbi, that the President of the United States may press the button to annihilate North Korea and thus cause the deaths of tens of millions of people if Kim does not succumb to threats.

Immediately after making his statement, Risch left the conference.  The panel continued as if nothing significant had happened.  There was no stunned silence.  Nobody ventured to suggest alternative options for dealing with North Korea, or to consider the consequences of such a holocaust “of biblical proportions” for global security.  Nobody mentioned what China, or Russia, let alone South Korea, may think of Risch’s warning.

We may be very close to the brink of something dark and utterly awful, but the Western world’s geostrategic crème de la crème do not appear to think so.  Worse still, they may lack the conceptual ability to confront reality.  In the end, conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger made the only statement likely to be remembered a year from now: “When I opened the conference . . . I hoped we could delete the question mark from the motto, but now I am not fully sure we can do that.”

The quality of leadership on display in Munich this year makes the task impossible.