Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2017 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfolded and providing insights on today’s most urgent international issues. Check out our live coverage here.
The Munich Security Conference, which kicks off today in the Bavarian capital, pulls no punches with its new report. Called Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?, the report is published to coincide with this annual event that brings together world leaders, diplomats, and defense and security experts. The title of the report is enough to convey, if not confirm, the sorry state of the West. The international order and liberal democracy are in crisis.
The new U.S. administration, Britain’s decision in June 2016 to leave the EU, and terrorism have exacerbated the vulnerability of the West at a time when it should be united and confident. European and American politicians are sparring with each other. With few exceptions—German Chancellor Angela Merkel for one—leaders on neither side of the Atlantic hold the moral high ground when it comes to defending the post-1945 structures that were designed to promote and protect values, stability, and democracy.
Europe is particularly vulnerable, and not just because it lacks the means to defend itself. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is unleashing an anti-Americanism in Europe that if not checked could erode the transatlantic relationship and further expose Europe’s weaknesses.
Leaders of populist movements in France, the Netherlands, and other countries have praised Trump’s election as a vindication of their antiglobalization, protectionist, and anti-Islam policies. At the same time, leaders of mainstream parties have rounded on the Trump administration. Bashing America has become fashionable. There is almost a certain glee or even schadenfreude about what is happening in the United States.
Yet this criticism from Europeans of the United States is misplaced and hypocritical because it is selective and inconsistent. Where is the criticism from Germany’s Social Democrats, from Hungarian and Austrian leaders, or from populist leaders of Russian President Vladimir Putin? Why are the leaders of the EU institutions reluctant to speak out against Russia for its hacking, cybersecurity attacks, misinformation, and opposition to leaders such as Merkel who want to uphold certain values and standards?
Meanwhile, the mainstream media in Europe criticizes the Trump administration for its pro-Russian stance, yet several European leaders could easily team up with the U.S. president on this issue.
This anti-Americanism could increase Europe’s vulnerability. For one thing, it plays into the hands of authoritarian regimes, be they in Russia or in China. They see the West as a competitor. The growing divisions between Europe and the United States weaken this competition.
At stake is whether the West will remain strong and confident enough to project values based on democracy, the rule of law, accountability, tolerance, and trading rules, or whether it will cede influence to political systems that challenge those principles. The West—meaning its community of democracies—is not going to prevail if its leaders do not speak out to defend Western values. Values have little meaning for the vulnerable, the unemployed, or those left behind by globalization.
All the more reason why governments should introduce measures to create buffers or social cushions rather than assume the political and economic elites can continue as before. Western leaders have to explain to their citizens not only the need for security but also the essential importance of protecting and defending Western values—socially, politically, and, if needed, militarily.
But the underlying theme of the MSC report is the West’s lack of preparedness—and its vulnerability. Unfortunately, this is not new, as previous reports have analyzed. What is different this time round is that confidence in the West is fading rapidly.
It’s going to demand courageous leaders to halt the decline of that confidence, or at least propose ways to revitalize the transatlantic relationship. Whatever comes out of this conference in Munich, it is clear that the United States cannot go it alone. As for Europe, it cannot afford to go it alone either, or indulge in America bashing. It’s obvious who the winners would be.