“Westlessness” is the theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), which opens Friday, February 14, in the Bavarian capital.
The event brings together world leaders and an array of defense and foreign ministers and security experts at a time when the Western transatlantic relationship, the bedrock of the post-1945 order, is under immense strain.
“The world is becoming less Western,” states the MSC’s annual report. “But more importantly, the West itself may become less Western, too. This is what we call ‘Westlessness’,” it adds.
There is little good news in this report, which highlights so many of the problems besetting the West and the rest of the world.
The Middle East remains in turmoil as civilians continue to be killed or forced to flee. The Sahel, one of France’s major strategic concerns, is fast becoming a security challenge and threat to the region and to Europe.
Countries in Latin America are drifting away from democracy. India’s huge democracy is being tested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial citizenship laws.
As for the West itself, it is no exaggeration to argue that it’s under immense stress, because what it stands for—a liberal international order based on rules—is being undermined by the American president, Donald Trump. The Europeans and the rest of the “West” seem unable to respond in a way for the West to regain its confidence.
Confidence in Europe and others across the West is in short supply. It shouldn’t be, for several reasons.
First, the West as an idea, as a way of life, as a way of ordering politics continues to be an attraction, indeed, a magnet for those living under authoritarian or semi-democratic systems. The West’s precious institutions anchored on the rule of law, on human rights, on individual freedoms are the values that continue to carry influence across the world.
Yes, they are being challenged by China, Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and fundamentalist movements. But if the West has become so weak, according to the doomsayers, why do so many individuals and activists not living in the West still want to become part of the West or want the West to help them? Remember those heady days after 1989 when Central and Eastern Europeans yearned to join the “West”?
Second, the West is not a phenomenon based on a geographical area, even though it is often perceived precisely as that. Instead, the attraction of the West is the attraction of universal human rights.
When the West’s critics accuse Western governments of interference or of imposing their values, it’s the West’s contagion that they fear and want to contain. That contagion is universal human rights and freedom. The West is synonymous with universal rights.
And about the role of the citizen. This is where the West, particularly Europe, has a crucial role to play in engaging its citizens and nurturing its values. Yet among Europe’s established political parties there is a systemic malaise. That malaise is complacency. It is a complacency that has taken democracy and values for granted. It’s as if these don’t need to be defended.
But just as those values are being challenged by China and Russia through their economic power, cybersecurity attacks, or pervasive and disruptive behavior on social media, they are also being challenged from within democracies themselves.
The complacency of Western governments to explain and protect its institutions and values and address today’s major social issues is creating a backlash—on the one hand by populists who fuel anti-establishment sentiment and argue the West’s liberal values are too intrusive, and on the other by civil society movements that want a more inclusive, direct democracy. Both phenomena are a reaction to the West’s complacency.
If the West (and Europe) wants to remain attractive, it has to adapt to the changing demands of its citizens. It didn’t have to do that after 1945 or indeed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The West assumed it was in the driving seat. In the winning lane. It still is, regardless of what’s taking place in China, Russia, India, and across the Atlantic.
But to maintain its attraction, Western leaders need to overcome complacency. That means acting confidently to defend their own political system and, especially, defend those in the world struggling for universal human rights.
It means not writing off the West but defending it.