German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivering the opening address at the Munich Security Conference, Munich, Germany, February 14, 2020
The annual Munich Security Conference last week (February 14-16) turned out to be an iconic event, drawing comparison with the one held in the same Bavarian city on February 10, 2007 where in a prophetic speech Russian President Vladimir Putin had criticised the world order characterised by the United States’ global hegemony and its “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.”
If Putin’s Munich speech was prescient about an incoming new Cold War and the surge of tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, thirteen years later, at the event last week, we witnessed that the trans-Atlantic ties that evolved through the two world wars in the last century and blossomed into a full-fledged alliance system have reached a crossroads.
Deep cracks have appeared in the trans-Atlantic relationship. In an extraordinary opening address, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an éminence grise in European diplomacy, accused Washington of “rejecting the idea of an international community.”
Steinmeier acknowledged that there is no return to the halcyon days of close trans-Atlantic partnership, as Europe and the US are drifting away from each other. He warned, “If the European project fails, the lessons of German history will be called into question.”
Having said that, Steinmeier did not advocate that Europe could go it alone, either. Rather, “only a Europe that can and wants to protect itself credibly will be able to keep the US in the alliance.”
But he regretted that “Europe is already no longer as vital to the US as it used to be… We must guard against the illusion that the United States’ dwindling interest in Europe is solely down to the current administration… For we know that this shift began a while ago, and it will continue even after this administration.”
The theme of European independence — Europe becoming a sovereign, strategic and political power — was also the leitmotif of a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron who brought a rare dynamism into the European debate, fighting spiritedly for a common European foreign and security policy. The German policymakers have signalled broad agreement with Macron’s idea that Europe must take charge of its own destiny.
In contrast, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had earlier insisted that the talk about the demise of the West is “grossly exaggerated”, and, in fact, “the West is winning. We are collectively winning. We are doing it together.”
Meanwhile, two sub-plots that kept appearing in the discussions were, one, the continued relevance of multilateralism in the international system and, two, deep anxiety over the current global security environment.
Steinmeier framed the concerns sharply, saying, “The idea of international community is not outmoded,” adding that “withdrawing into our national shells leads us into a dead end, into a dark age.”
All in all, these sharp exchanges between the Europeans and some of the American delegation confirmed, more than ever, the weakness and disunity of the West. A report in the Politico with Munich dateline noted, “The two sides aren’t just far apart on the big questions facing the West (threats from Russia, Iran, China), they’re in parallel universes.”
One major issue that divided Munich was China. Neither Pompeo nor Defense Secretary Mark Esper left any doubt that Washington considers China to be a nefarious force in the world, representing a significant long-term threat. But that view is not shared by many countries in the EU. The underlying question is, what posture the Western alliance should take toward China, which is a fundamental one with far-reaching consequences. Europe is deeply worried about the consequences that spurning Beijing would have on trade and investment.
It became apparent at the conference that there was no acceptance of Pompeo’s plea that China is the new enemy. His cautioning against the involvement of the Chinese tech company Huawei in the upcoming 5G rollout met with stony silence by European allies. The policy toward China could emerge as the biggest transatlantic divide.
Can the West regain its influence? The crux of the matter is that with the decline in material wealth and the decay of moral values, the capacity to influence has shrunk. And the West’s form of economic organisation is no longer appealing as it once was. Also, with the rise of China, rapid development of India and the resurgence of Russia, a new dynamics of global power is taking shape.
As these and other emerging powers grow in strength, a dispersion of power and influence is bound to accelerate, and the West is unlikely to regain the preponderant influence it wielded in the post-World War 2 era.
This drain of influence might slow down if only a “new West” led by Europe that combined power and values reached out to powers such as India or Japan to build global alliances. But a major lacuna lies in the US’ contempt of multilateralism and a rules-based order.
Equally, Washington’s push for trade-offs to advance its unilateral confrontations — be it with Russia and China or Iran and Venezuela — fail to strike a chord with its top western partners, the majority of whom are averse to any form of confrontation, least of all with Beijing.
“We cannot be the United States’ ‘junior partner,” said Macron, citing recent failures in the West’s policy of defiance. Clearly, internal divisions afflict the West and it is hard to see how they can be overcome.
At best, coalitions of the willing may appear within and among the western states on specific issues. But even then, the West can at best slow down its relative decline but nowhere near reverse it.
The heart of the matter is that the economic centre of gravity in the world order and the ensuing global power equation is inexorably shifting away from the West, while on the other hand, there is no longer a “West” that is united behind principles, values and policies.