The pessimistic tone of the latest Munich Security Conference may shatter any remaining political idealism and force Russian and Western policy-makers to design a more stable European order.

John F Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State , left, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Minister for Foreign Affairs, talk on the sidelines of the second day of the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on Feb. 13. Photo: AP

Voices at the latest Munich Security Conference sounded even more concerned than a year ago about the stability of the world’s security architecture. Back in 2015, world leaders were merely sensing the unfolding troubles. 2016 revealed their protracted nature and alarming immediacy. The latest gathering in Munich must have convinced political optimists, if there were any still remaining, that they were on the verge of losing out to obstinate advocates of a Cold War mentality.

Yet, the pessimistic language of the Munich conference does play an important role: it shatters the idealism of policy-makers in Washington, Brussels and Moscow and forces them to face the reality they had long been neglecting. For as long as the post-Cold War generation could remember, idealist attitudes dominated mainstream discourse on politics. Capitalism became the only way to arrange economies, democracy the only way to organize politically. Countries were assumed to be developing in a foreseeable and linear way.

Starting in the 1990s, former Communists across Russia and the former Soviet Union expressed their desire to join and integrate into a globalized world dominated by liberal ideals. Unfortunately, even before this harmonious international society started emerging on the horizon, something went wrong.

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Participants of the Munich conference may blame the Kremlin or the White House, but the true causes of the present international turmoil are more complex than they appear. The prevailing idealism in international politics is where one should look for the origins of the current troubles.

The impact of political idealism

Political idealism had a notable effect on how policy-makers in Europe and across the Atlantic conceived and practiced international security ever since the end of the Cold War. Origins of foreign policies were sought in states’ internal organization, the language of human security replaced the vocabulary of realpolitik, and grand visualizations of a more secure and inclusive world eclipsed unfolding geopolitical realities.

Arguably, one of the most unfortunate manifestations of idealist security thinking is a tendency to refer to states’ internal organization to explain their foreign policy. Gaining prominence in the last years of the Cold War, the democratic peace theory – the logic that democratic states don’t wage war - triggered unprecedented revisions in the practice of international security.

In 1973 the U.S. government established the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and announced promotion of freedom and democracy to be central for the country’s foreign policy.

However, it soon became apparent that the noble aspiration to promote universal values caused protests from other international powers, primarily the Soviet Union. Over the following decades, the Soviet Union (and then Russia) and the U.S. clashed continuously over democratization and human rights policies.

A wave of controversial color revolutions threatened to undermine the position of Moscow in the post-Soviet space and thus, reinforced Russian politicians’ dislike for "democratization." Quarrelling over the issue, both Russian and American policy-makers seemed to overestimate the significance of a country’s internal structure (or its political leadership) over its foreign policy in the long run.

Russia itself stands as a vivid example of how geopolitical factors bend the will of the country’s political leadership. Counter to first Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s desire to assimilate Russia into the Western world, the course came to a sudden halt in only a few years. In spite of Yeltsin’s presumed desire to extricate Russia from the former Soviet Union and integrate with the states of Western Europe, the country ultimately readjusted its foreign policy course.

A more recent symbolic attempt of Washington to “reset” relations with Russia during the tenure of a presumably more liberal President Dmitry Medvedev yielded so little results precisely because unattended geopolitical factors had effectively offset the noble initiative.

It would be naïve to completely dismiss the influence of policy-makers on a country’s foreign policy. There are factors that may increase or diminish the leverage that political leaders have over their country’s foreign policy.

But over a longer time span, the relevance of this particular factor subsides to the margins. An opposite idealistic delusion made the U.S. and Russia waste resources on something they ultimately cannot control, triggering reciprocal hostilities along the way.

Another unfortunate manifestation of idealism in international politics was an inclination of policy-makers, especially in the West, to speak about international security in categories of desirable global arrangements rather than of limited, feasible policies.

The multiplicity of United Nations programs and projects to make the world a more secure place is one of many manifestations of this idealistic mindset. Gradually, problems of social, economic, humanitarian, cultural, and environmental character migrated from pages of theoretical journals into UN offices to shape the global security agenda.

In 1994, the UN Development Program (UNDP) issued a Human Development Report in an attempt to shift the focus of national leaders from military-political security challenges to poverty, disease, hunger, unemployment, crime and environmental hazards.

Idealism vs. realpolitik

Soon, the language of human security replaced the vocabulary of realpolitik. Speeches of the Western policy-makers at former Munich conferences highlight the attention their states pay to global humanitarian security challenges. Unfortunately, a tendency to look for non-military causes of security crises came at the expense of the alternative, realist analysis.

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In his 2014 Munich speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that the U.S. administration saw aspirations of young people as a driving force behind the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The following years revealed with a shocking clarity how this partially delusive perception led to a series of harmful political miscalculations in the Middle East.

It would not be entirely fair to argue that the true origins of geopolitical crises escaped the attention of Western policy-makers altogether. Political leaders could not have possibly ignored such issues as missile defense, nuclear proliferation, interstate conflicts, etc. But the principal damage that these manifestations of idealism inflicted on European security was a pervasive sense of illusionary invulnerability to traditional military threats that many in Europe maintained for decades.

As Ivan Tsvetkov, a professor of St. Petersburg State University, recently observed, war on the European continent was an unimaginable prospect until only recently. Policy-makers even substituted the term “war” with gentle euphemisms. A war just could not have happened in Europe and yet the Ukraine crisis caught some shooting at others and others showing readiness to appeal to arms if necessary.

Old remedies are not useless

Although the idealist period in European politics did not rule out geopolitical considerations completely, it made concealed security factors drift away from the focus of policy-makers. The urgency of humanitarian crises all over the world made it unreasonable to waste resources on trying to shape seemingly abstract geopolitical dynamics in Europe, a remnant of the Cold War. However, the animosity of the latest Munich conference made it clear that old remedies are not as useless in the modern world as they may seem.

Prominent English scholar and diplomat Edward H. Carr once compared political idealists to medieval alchemists in their noble but futile attempts to improve conditions of humanity while ignoring that war cannot be averted by a mere belief in peace, just as metal cannot magically turn into gold upon the mere will of the alchemist.

Read the Q&A with Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council: "Munich Security Conference: Ukraine still top-of-mind for Russia"

In the precarious climate of modern idealism, the latest Munich conference is an essential wake up call for policy-makers and public in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. It signifies that European stability may not be as invincible as it appears.

But it also has the potential to unite Russian and Western policy-makers. Hopefully, the acrimonious language of Munich will catalyze their mutual efforts to work on designing a more tranquil and stable European order.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.