International defence and security experts are concerned about the ongoing political erosion of the West and the uncertainty surrounding its implications for the rest of the world. This was one of the key takeaways from the Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2020 on 14-16 February.

In his welcome address, MSC Chairman, former Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, elaborated the key theme of the conference (‘Westlessness’) and stated the West is going through “an identity crisis.” To the surprise of the high-level audience, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said that he did not agree with the term ‘Westlessness’ and wondered “what this is all about,” adding he is convinced the West “will win, not lose” – the western world will be “a model.” His statement underlined the stark difference between US and European evaluations of current state and future perspectives of the West.

‘Westlessness’ was also the main topic of the Munich Security Report 2020, published by the MSC organisers. In the foreword, Ambassador Ischinger explained the meaning. “Today, the West as we know it is contested both from within and from without. Part of the challenge is that we have lost a common understanding of what it means to be part of the West.” He stated that the ongoing rise of the non-Western world, coupled with the growing number of global challenges and crises would require a concerted Western response. However, at the end of the conference, there was no convincing answer for the most crucial question: What does it mean for the world if the West cannot agree on a common strategy and thus leaves the global stage to other powers?

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a thorough analysis of current challenges around the globe and was quite critical of the US, saying that the current US administration has refuted the idea of an international community. “We are falling back to the classical security dilemma. More distrust, more armament, less security are the inevitable consequences,” he warned, adding that even if all European countries were to spend over 2% of their GDP on defence, they would be unable to stop or reverse the ongoing “erosion of the international order.” He is convinced the Western world cannot compensate for the loss of diplomacy and the building blocks for its security architecture with more tanks, more combat aircraft and more missiles. He also made it clear that the cancellation of the nuclear accord with Iran was “a mistake.” None other than Secretary Pompeo rejected President Steinmeier’s criticism: without explicitly mentioning his name, he asserted these views on the United States do not mesh “with the political reality.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also talked about ‘Westlessness,’ the latter disagreeing with the worries concerning the West, asking “Is there really a great crisis of the West?” He warned the public should not be influenced by media reports suggesting there is a real decline in the West.

French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at MSC for the first time, briefly explained his latest proposal to start a “strategic dialogue” with European nations interested in discussing the role of the French nuclear deterrent in Europe, saying the aim is the development of a “common strategic culture.” When pressed, he declined to reveal further details but clarified that his proposal is not targeted against NATO. Political observers assume that he launched the idea to stimulate a stronger European defence, an assumption broadly in line with his message that Europe needs to become more united. Europe should act faster, because issues like the introduction of 5G communication networks, artificial intelligence and climate change present enormous challenges. He further stated that should France, Germany and Europe fail to act faster in future, they will commit a “historic mistake.”

Reflecting Asia's growing role in the world, the MSC gathered more representatives from the region than ever before, including the Foreign Ministers of China (Wang Yi), Japan (Toshimitsu Motegi) and India (Subrahmanyam Jaishankar). The General Secretary of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, gave an update on the coronavirus issue, warning that it could cause global disease. “The alarm-clocks are ringing, but the world should not react with hysteria,” he observed.

The debates confirmed there are significantly different views on the future of the West, the credibility of US leadership, Russia’s hidden agenda, the rising ambitions of China and the apparently vague intentions of the French President. MSC also demonstrated that security has become a much more complex and complicated issue. It is not only about the classical relationships between the US and Russia, NATO, China or North Korea: new challenges, such as cyber, data, energy or cultural security – even health issues – need to be tackled with a clearly defined strategy, rather than with politically motivated quick-win solutions.

Dr Theodor Benien in Munich for MON

 [Photo in headline] Speaking to about 500 international defence experts, Germany Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated that cancellation of the nuclear accord with Iran was a mistake. (Photo: MSC/Kuhlmann)

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is convinced that the West “will win, not lose.” (Photo: MSC/Hennemuth)

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