Security was the last thing on display in Munich

The Munich Security Conference, held this past weekend in the Bavarian capital, is to the security community what Davos's World Economic Forum is to the business community.

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The Munich Security Conference, held this past weekend in the Bavarian capital, is to the security community what Davos's World Economic Forum is to the business community. But it is missing a few things. For one, it lacks the buzz and glamour provided by stars like Angelina Jolie and Bono, who roam the corridors of Davos's conference centre armed with feel-good slogans and well-meaning projects that appeal to the rich and powerful.

The stars in Munich are current and former heads of state, defence and foreign ministers and national security advisers; not exactly a fun, easy-going bunch, especially with their retinues of aides and bodyguards. The audience is overwhelmingly grey-haired, plainly dressed white men whose hearts jump at the mention of arms control treaties, security initiatives and conflict management, but who sometimes seem detached from today's fragmented world and certainly don't reflect its complexities.

Just like Davos, however, Munich is not about solving crises. It is about setting agendas, enhancing reputations, bombast and showmanship. A handshake with Henry Kissinger, perhaps the world's best-known unemployed diplomat, is a must. The agenda-setters were a group of elder statesmen backing "Global Zero", an initiative to convince the world's atomic powers to relinquish their nuclear arsenals. They truly are a powerful collection of global figures, from the arch-realist Mr Kissinger to more internationalist types like the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, who led a high-level brainstorming group in Munich. They have the sympathy of the US president Barack Obama, although the leaders of Russia, China, India and other nuclear nations seem utterly uninterested in any initiative that would deprive them of their standing.

Dissenters in Munich were few, but their arguments compelling. It is relatively easy to reduce stockpiles from 50,000 to 10,000 warheads, but much harder to go beyond that because the fewer nuclear warheads there are, the more valuable they become. For a third-rate country like North Korea, nuclear weapons allow it to play in the major league; for middle-tier powers like France and the UK, they are key to their global relevance; and for Israel, they constitute an existential guarantee.

And it is impossible to unlearn nuclear knowledge, making every country with a nuclear past a potential proliferator. An opportunity for the Global Zero vision will be the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference in the spring. Significant successes would be the establishment of multilateral nuclear fuel banks, the imposition of more stringent safeguards and higher costs for violators, and a commitment by nuclear states to declare that nuclear weapons should only deter other nuclear weapons states, not be an instrument used against weaker and non-nuclear nations.

One who came to Germany to enhance his reputation was the Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He is travelling the world hoping to redress his sullied standing after a controversial re-election, mobilise resources and sympathy for his political reconstruction agenda, and rally support for his plan to reach out to the Taliban. Mr Karzai may have been the most fashionable dignitary, but he failed to impress this time around. Promoting the Afghan mission was better done by others, from Nato's secretary general to European defence ministers and US officials. The audience was generally supportive, while the constituencies they represent are anything but so.

Bombast was definitely the forte of the Iranian foreign minister Manouhcher Mottaki. Not originally scheduled to attend, he flew into Munich on the opening night to guaranteed headlines. Days before, his boss, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had made a vague allusion that Iran had no problem with a uranium exchange programme, so officials and journalists hoped that Mr Mottaki would say something that would revive nuclear talks. In reality, he had nothing to offer. He came to gain time and meet the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers as talks of sanctions intensify.

He then timed a press appearance to steal the limelight from the Global Zero discussion. In his talks with the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he made no commitment on key aspects of an exchange: the quantity of uranium to be enriched abroad, the timing of uranium delivery and the location of enrichment. Sure enough, Mr Ahmadinejad announced soon after that Iran would enrich uranium to 20 per cent domestically.

Hoping to counter Mr Mottaki's media blitz, the US congressional delegation led by senators John Kerry and John McCain gave a press conference denouncing Iran's delays and calling for more sanctions, although fewer journalists attended because the senators are not considered decision-makers. The smooth Mr Kerry appeared to roll his eyes when his colleague Joe Lieberman spoke of the "fanatical" regime.

The image that will be remembered, however, is the handshake between Danni Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, and Prince Turki al Faisal, a senior Saudi royal. Mr Ayalon appeared to have bullied Prince Turki who, in line with the traditional Arab position of boycotting Israeli officials, had refused to sit on the same panel. The gesture will probably amount to little tangible. Prince Turki is a strident critic of Israeli policy and of weak US resolve, and Mr Ayalon is possibly the most inflexible and tactless Israeli diplomat.

If the Munich theatrics have done little to make the world a safer place, they told us a lot about how diplomacy is conducted and global power distributed. An undisputed star was the Chinese foreign minister, who delivered a blunt warning to the US over frayed relations. His Russian colleague was as blunt as he was bullish. The Turkish foreign minister radiated confidence. And only a few truly seemed to care about European security.