We no longer live in a geopolitical era in which nations and states share the same values or interests. The sharply critical reaction to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speech in Munich is just the latest proof of that.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (pictured) received a hostile reception at the Munich Security Conference this year. Photo: TASS

Many were surprised by the reception Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov received at the Munich Security Conference. Some were outraged that he was treated with so little respect, while others felt that his words about Russia, Ukraine and the West deserved even less. However, focusing on that aspect of the situation alone misses an important point about the nature of such meetings, why they arose over the last two decades and why they may become increasingly infrequent as a means of conducting diplomacy in the future.

To get a perspective on what has happened and what is likely to happen next, it is useful to recall the words of the American writer Henry David Thoreau almost two hundred years ago concerning the construction of a telegraph line between Maine and Texas. He noted that everyone was in “a great haste” to build it, but he said, it may be that “the two states have nothing important to communicate.”

Three developments over the last two decades have generated ever more meetings like the Munich Security Conference at which Lavrov spoke and received such a hostile reception. First, international jet travel has made it possible for almost anyone to go anywhere at any time for brief meetings. World leaders and even opinion makers now think nothing of flying off to one or another destination for such sessions. Indeed, they often view these as an important part of their jobs. 

Second, the rise of the Internet has led to a “flattening” of international relations. No longer are conversations about what is happening between and among states limited to their leaders or their diplomats. All kinds of people – academics, think tank heads, editors, writers, and others without a defined role in that area in the past – see themselves as full-fledged participants and expect others to treat them that way as well. For this reason as well as the first, foreign policy has ceased to be the reserve of diplomats and senior political leaders  it has become something in which many more voices are expressed and heard.

And third, with the end of the Cold War, many expected that all the major players, including Russia, shared the same values and even quite similar interests and consequently thought that it would be possible to talk about almost anything because the parameters of any discussion had been set by that new concord. This made it possible for bodies like the UN Security Council to make vastly more decisions than they had in the past and encouraged people to think that meetings like the Munich Security Conference could take place within the same community of values and interests.

As Foreign Minister Lavrov pointed out, Vladimir Putin earlier warned the West that he and his country do not share all the same values and certainly do not have the same interests, but his remarks were largely ignored or explained away as pandering to domestic constituencies, the way in which Western commentators inevitably explain statements that foreign leaders and especially Russian ones make that they do not approve of. That meant that the West was shocked when Putin acted as he has in Ukraine, and the reaction to Lavrov was an expression of that shock.

The expectations many in the West had for a community of interests in which Russia was a part and the expectations many in Moscow still have that the West must modify its values and interests to take Russia into an account mean that meetings like the Munich Security Conference are unlikely to be the placid affairs they have been in the past if Russia and other “revisionist” states take part. But the fact that these expectations have been dashed may also mean that Russia and others like it won’t be invited in the future, something that would restore calm but also reduce the importance of this kind of forum.

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