Carnegie Europe is on the ground at the 2020 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfold and providing insights on today’s threats to international peace and stability.


Michael BarnettProfessor of International Affairs and Political Science at the George Washington University

No. Not if by the West we mean the select group of privileged states that ruled the world mainly for its own benefit, but with some sense that others should benefit, too.

The West’s influence was partially dependent on its material wealth and its moral purpose, both of which are in decline, and so the West has ceased to be the soft power that it once was. The West’s (United States’) form of economic organization no longer appeals, and it has demonstrated little of the moral backbone that once defined it.

Western influence was not only about power over but also about power to, and the West no longer knows what the to is and the rest no longer buy what the West is selling.

Carl BildtCo-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Short answer: No and yes.

No, because we no longer live in the world shaped by the Atlantic powers that shaped the so-called postwar world. The rise of the revisionist powers, as well as the rise of the rest, is creating new dynamics of global power. In this respect, there is no way back to the “old world of the West.”

Yes, because the democracies of the Western world can do much better than they are at the moment. The Anglo-Saxon powers that in different ways created and upheld the old Western order are today in disarray or in retreat—with Britain retreating from Europe and the United States retreating from the world.

Perhaps a “new West” can further down the line be shaped by a Europe that is more confident in itself and has learnt the art of combining power and values in a world that will require common rules and common action to meet common challenges. Such a Europe must reach out to powers like India and Japan, to name just two, and engage in building global alliances beyond the immediate issues of security.

Such a “new West” must obviously include a United States that has found a new balance in its policies for a new era.

Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil Director and Senior Economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation

The West still holds its preponderant influence in the world, albeit less convincingly so than just two decades ago.

The vast majority of the world’s migrants choose the West over alternative destinations. That is because the West—and not Russia or China—has authored blueprints for best practices in political stability, economic efficiency, and protection of rights. Leadership to manage global public goods, such as sound climate, maritime safety, financial stability, or peacekeeping comes almost exclusively from Western countries.

That said, some parts of the West no longer aspire to holding onto the tried and tested ways. The drift from proven success paths in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, or South Africa is notable. The reasons behind the deviations are myriad. However, what matters is whether these countries manage to return to normalcy or slip away from upholding the core values. By contrast, rejection of Western norms lies at the heart of polities subjected to political or military capture—in Iran, Russia, and China.

In the end, “Westlessness”—the theme of the 2020 Munich Security Conference—will also depend on the resilience of non-Western practices. So far, their track record is not encouraging for them. Overall, the death of the West’s influence is exaggerated.

Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee

It depends on the historical reference point. If it’s the West’s influence as it was in 1913, the answer is no. If it’s 1991, I will say hardly. If it’s 2000, maybe.

But in order to stand up for Western influence, we need leadership, capabilities, and a common understanding of the core elements of the West in a globalized, digitalized twenty-first century.

First, we need to stop moralizing over internal political differences and the result of free elections—be it the Brexit referendum or the election of U.S. President Donald Trump—and just acknowledge that free elections are a fundamental Western value. If we also add rule of law and individual rights with freedom of speech at its core, we have a minimum definition of the “West” most Westerners can agree upon.

Second, to protect these core elements against authoritarian forces of all kinds, relevant military capabilities, trade policies, and civilian resilience are essential.

Finally, Europe needs leadership. As we are moving toward a qualitatively new bipolar system—a U.S.-China standoff—Europeans will have to deal with their internal divergences, a Middle East in turmoil, and an assertive Russia largely by themselves.

This will require resolve, money, and courage from all European democracies, small and big, EU members and non-members, preferably inside a reformed NATO.

Heather A. ConleySenior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

For me, the meaning of the “West” is an aspirational framework where rules, norms, laws, and values protect and respect the dignity of the individual. This is the source of the West’s influence, attractiveness, and power.

Western political elites lost sight of their responsibilities to address the needs of citizens and prioritized the preservation of their own political power. The elites’ lack of response gave space for all manner of demagogues to claim the mantle that only they truly represent the voice of “the people” and anyone who stands in their way are the people’s enemy.

These demagogues are only interested in their own power for their corrupt ends. But from this dark place, the West has already begun to restore itself. The global aspirations of a digital new generation demand a greater respect for and dignity of the individual that responds to their needs—be that on climate change, access to affordable housing, a society free from corruption, or improved health care. Politics are being upended across the Atlantic community as political experimentation unexpectedly introduces both the young and untested as well as radical and fascist voices.

The West’s influence continues to reverberate around the globe as political awakenings and demands for the dignity of the individual grow across Africa, the Middle East, as well as in Hong Kong and in Russia. It is the political elite that roams the halls of the Munich Security Conference that is losing its influence, not the true West.

Paul HaenleDirector of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The erosion of Western influence is, to an extent, expected given shifting global power dynamics, which include the rise of China, rapid development of India, and resurgence of Russia.

As other powers grow in strength, it is natural for there to be a greater dispersion of power and influence, and the West is unlikely to regain, any time soon, the major influence it wielded in the post–World War II era.

However, Western countries can take steps to prevent the unnecessary loss of influence. This is especially true in Washington, where Trump, through his “America First” approach, has discarded foreign policy principles central to the success of the United States and Europe in establishing the post-1945 world order. Trump’s zero-sum view of the world and related isolationist policies are, by and large, short-sighted and self-defeating. His contempt of multilateralism diminishes America’s ability to work with like-minded powers in the West to strengthen the international order, precisely at the moment it needs a major update and revitalization.

Ironically, as the Trump administration laments the rise of “revisionist powers” like China and Russia that undermine Western values, it is implementing policies of its own that limit, not amplify, American soft power and influence. As I have previously argued, many in Beijing have now come to the conclusion that, given the damage Trump is doing to America’s position in the world, four more years of him would be a strategic opportunity for China.

To have a fighting chance of maintaining strong influence in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington must start by reversing those Trump administration policies that result in strengthening the position of America’s competitors while weakening its own.

Brigid LaffanDirector of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute

The strategy of “America First” has fractured the West and eroded U.S. global leadership at a time when Chinese power is growing throughout Asia and beyond. U.S.-China relations have become increasingly competitive as these two great powers vie for power and influence. There is a lot at stake for Europe and the like-minded states that once thrived in the postwar liberal order.

Europe has had a wake-up call and has responded by beginning to speak the language of power. There is an extensive discussion of technological sovereignty and strategic autonomy. The challenge now is to translate this into influence and action.

Unless Europe remains a global player, it will become a global playground. To avoid this, Europeans must be united and use their full policy toolkit to close the technological gap that has opened up with the United States and China. Europe has to take seriously the need to protect its strategic infrastructure, particularly connectivity. In addition, it has to assess how to best position itself with like-minded states in different spheres of the multilateral system.

This will require a Europe that moves from a defensive stance to one where it invests in its own strength.

Nora MüllerExecutive Director of International Affairs at Körber-Stiftung

As we are entering the 2020s, uncontested Western predominance has arguably become a thing of the past. This is in part due to fundamental geopolitical trends such as the shifting of the world’s economic and political center of gravity toward the Asia-Pacific and the rise of China.

However, this is not the whole story. Internal divisions, centrifugal forces, and an eroding values base afflict the West. While only dyed-in-the-wool nostalgics consider a return to a Western-led global order possible (and desirable), resuscitating the West by curing its internal ills is not beyond reach.

From a Berlin point of view, strengthening the West should start on its doorstep, in Europe, first and foremost by bringing the Franco-German relationship back on track and by keeping the UK as close as possible. Beyond the old continent, Europe and the United States must find a way to return to cooperation at a strategic level.

These are tall orders. But if we are serious about preventing “Westlessness” from becoming a diagnosis rather than just a warning, it will be on all of “us Westerners” to ensure that the 2020s go down in history as the decade of Western resilience rather than as the “Westless Twenties.”

Shimon SteinSenior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies

The “West” that we came to know from the post–World War II years until the end of the Cold War and shortly thereafter no longer exists, and the question of whether it can regain its influence is therefore a mute one.

And not only because of the fact that the global power equation has tilted away from the “West” (or is in the process of tilting), but also because we no longer speak of a “West” that is united behind principles and policies—such as values, a rules-based order, multilateralism, and common threats. There is no one reason for these developments.

However, there is no doubt that the United States under Trump, for whom “America First” is what drives the U.S. national interest while all else is of secondary importance, has sped up the process of the fragmentation of the “West.” As to the future, at best, we can hope that on certain issues vital to “Western” states, we could see the formation of coalitions of the willing.

The rest is only a dream about the glorious past, like what the UK under Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now engaged in.

Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center

The West as a civilization is certainly not going away. It still has a lot to offer, particularly in the realm of science technology. It also remains very rich and continues to rule global economics and finance.

The West as a democratic political model, however, is losing attraction. The intense political, social, and ideological crisis—virtually a cold civil war—in the United States, the debilitating Brexit havoc in the UK, and the widespread disillusionment with political elites within the EU countries reduce the number of those in the world who would now want to emulate Western political systems.

The West as a geopolitical construct is a child of the Cold War. It has matured, survived its end, and continued for over two decades on the strength of inertia. However, the growth of nationalism, above all in the United States, transforms its former liberal pattern of governance.

The United States, facing serious competition from China, Russia, and others, is now boldly using its immense power to reassert its unilateral command position within the West. If America were a racing car leading the fleet of other Western vehicles, its bumper sticker would now read: “Ask no longer what the USA can do for you, ask what you can do for the USA.”

Milan VaishnavDirector of the South Asia Program and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In my view, the West can slow down the pace of its relative decline, but it will be hard-pressed to reverse it.

The economic center of gravity has long been shifting from the West toward the East, as the dramatic rise of China and the impressive, though less dramatic, rise of India amply demonstrate. In the case of India, in particular, we see a much more nationalist, assertive, and confident power, which seeks to work with the West, but on its own terms.

Whether it is about allowing Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G trials, purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia over American objections, or combating U.S. trade protectionism by erecting domestic barriers of its own, India feels that the West needs it as much as the other way around. We can expect this assertiveness to grow as the balance of power continues to shift eastward.

Maha YahyaDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center

In short, yes. But only by acknowledging that it can no longer dominate the rest. And by admitting to the growing economic and political power of a resurgent Asia as well as the disruptive capacities of technology.

That wealth and productivity are shifting East is in evidence everywhere we look. Emerging markets for example now produce more than half of the world’s GDP. With the digital age, the world is undergoing a dramatic transformation, making it more complex, more challenging, and also more insecure. Growing populism in Western societies and their seeming shift inward is in part the result of the profound and uneven impact of these changes.

As the world becomes more unpredictable, Western countries must work to strengthen global governance, and they can only do so in concert.

First, they need to narrow their differences in how to address global challenges such as growing instability in the Middle East and how to work with a rising China and a more militarized Russia.

Second, they need to accept the principles of equitable burden sharing when it comes to global issues like the growing number of refugees and displaced and economic migrants or the impacts of climate change. These can take place by upgrading multilateral institutions, including the UN General Assembly.

Innovation will also play a key role in sustaining the influence of the West. To attract the brightest minds, it must begin by reaffirming the fundamental principles within which invention and creativity thrive: freedom, equality, and the rule of law. It must also work to reduce widening economic inequalities, which are fueling greater discontent within Western societies and across the globe.

Photo credit: MSC/Kuhlmann