Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
With ups and downs, it is unquestionable that the United States has led the West since the end of World War II. This leading role became stronger after 1989, when the United States declared itself the winner of the Cold War. However, at the same time, the long list of useless wars in the past two decades lost the United States its moral superiority. Now, with President Donald Trump, the emperor is naked and Europe is confronted with deciding what to do next.
The question facing Europe is twofold: who will lead the West, and who will lead within the West. In 1992, the Europeans created the European Union out of the European Community to counterbalance a bigger, reunited Germany. If Europe chooses not to strengthen itself again, it will be Germany—together with France—that will lead the continent for the foreseeable future. And at a global level, unless Europe becomes stronger politically, including on defense, then Europe will lose any chance to lead the West and will be at the mercy of growing powers like China or Russia.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
On the seventieth anniversary of the drafting of the Marshall Plan, which laid the foundation for the liberal international order, the West finds itself at a crossroads. Under the banner of America First, President Donald Trump calls into question the willingness of the United States to uphold and defend core elements of the order it once created. On issues such as trade, climate, and human rights, Washington is no longer in the driver’s seat. While other Western leaders are fortunately stepping up to the plate, this will not be enough to halt the ceding of influence to China and other rising powers that the absence of U.S. leadership perpetuates.
With its impending exit from the EU, Britain is poised to be too weak to lead. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen by many as the defender of the West, is still uncomfortable with assuming such an outright leadership role. The election of Emmanuel Macron as French president brings hope for a rejuvenated Franco-German axis and a stronger, more ambitious EU, but it is too early to tell. Perhaps a coalition of Western democracies in the G20, including the EU, Australia, Canada, India, Japan, and others, can be the best remedy while the world waits to see whether Washington wants to lead again in the spirit of the Marshall Plan.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Centre
Wrong question. The West was a loose and ill-fitting description of those states opposed to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It included Japan and South Korea—hardly the west.
The real question is who can provide global leadership on a range of issues such as trade and climate change. A secondary question is whether the United States’ abdication of global leadership is temporary or permanent.
Given the size of the United States, the world cannot function properly without its participation. But if the country is unwilling to take the lead, then the EU and China, as the world’s two biggest economies, will have to step up to the mark. There are already encouraging signs following the EU-China summit on June 1–2. One would also hope that the UN and the international financial institutions will demonstrate more of a leadership role. Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s attitude at the G7 meeting in Sicily on May 26–27, that group and the G20 are likely to remain paralyzed for the foreseeable future.
This means that the world will move toward ad hoc leadership on particular issues. Not the best, but maybe not a bad solution.
Alexandra Föderl-SchmidEditor in chief and co-publisher of Der Standard
German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated after the remarkable NATO and G7 summits in late May that Europeans needed to take more responsibility for their security. “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” she said in a speech in a Munich beer tent. Merkel declared openly that the time had come for greater emancipation from the United States’ incoherent leadership. The chancellor has responded with her own leadership. Having steadied the European ship after the shock of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, she is telling her fellow Germans that they need to overcome their historically rooted squeamishness about defense.
The answer to increasing transatlantic and cross-Channel uncertainty should be to strengthen the EU, shore up the eurozone, and take the next steps in building a security and defense union. The next phase in European integration will be neither quick nor easy. Merkel and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron are far from full agreement on how to create a more effective European defense capability, how far and under what circumstances to intervene abroad, and how to strengthen the eurozone. But at least Merkel and Macron know that U.S. President Donald Trump is a chance for Europe to reunite and to lead the West.
Toomas Hendrik IlvesBernard and Susan Liautaud visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
With the United States pulling out of the 2015 Paris climate accord and President Donald Trump explicitly leaving out of his speech to the May 25 NATO meeting a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the alliance’s Article 5, the European side of the transatlantic relationship will need to do the heavy lifting in maintaining the post–World War II West.
The question of who will opt to do so—German Chancellor Angela Merkel? French President Emmanuel Macron?—is beside the point. Their leadership will matter, but it is up to the willingness of NATO and the EU governments to follow. Germany and France are poised to renew the Franco-German engine that in the past did so much to push Europe to integrate. This means waiting—first for the French parliamentary election in June and then for the September general election in Germany.
If Macron and Merkel have the chemistry, will, and mandate, one can be optimistic that Europe will engage and shoulder the burden. Russia’s meddling and attempts to disaggregate the EU strengthen European resolve. A sense of optimism pervades after the defeats of populist anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and France and the decline of Alternative for Germany (AFD).
However, without a clear mandate yet to move forward, observers will have to wait until fall to see whether Germany and France are up to the task. If they are not, chances for leadership are slim.
Anna-Liina KauhanenGermany correspondent at Helsingin Sanomat
The threat to the postwar liberal world order is real, and the situation is dramatic. There is a risk that the new U.S. isolationism will divide the West.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s confrontational foreign policy and questioning of the rules-based international order give ample evidence of why German Chancellor Angela Merkel doubts the reliability of the United States as an ally. However, independent of how Trump acts and what policies he advocates, it is important for the West to stay united. It is a difficult task, and in maintaining unity, Merkel’s role is pivotal.
Merkel is not the one leading the West: the central role of the United States remains unquestioned. Despite Trump, the United States has not rejected modern democracy. Nevertheless, Merkel’s clear commitment to democratic values and institutions and global cooperation makes her the moral leader in the West. Should there be a time when U.S. isolation in the West intensifies and two Western camps—American and European—emerge, Merkel will stand up as the leader of the latter. For that role, Merkel needs to win Germany’s September federal election, which she most likely will do.
John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP
No one and everyone. National interest will increasingly be based on constantly changing political and commercial alliances tied together by digital networks that players can join or leave at random. Increasingly, strategy will be fine-tuned by software built into machines at the factory. Artificial intelligence systems will absorb even political decisionmaking. The new elite will be the knowledge wizards who are adept at gleaning value from galactic amounts of data. Power will flow to nations that can best exploit the room for maneuver in global supply chains. Diplomacy will focus on expanding influence across time and space within information and logistics networks. Ditto for the military.
Western values are likely to offer the best available propellant for the digital world. Why? Because they do best at creating value. One major problem is that we are still lacking the vocabulary to explain the choices that will arise in the digital future. Creating a narrative that defines Western values as the best road to digitization is a project that falls in the same league as the Apollo moon landings or tearing down the Berlin Wall. It is likely to be the major political and philosophical task of the twenty-first century.
John KotsopoulosSenior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria
U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrogation of global leadership not only leaves a void in the West but also leaves it morally weakened. How, after all, can the West preach to the rest of the world when its own house is in such disorder?
Yet, if one accepts that the West represents a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and pluralism, several actors remain capable of filling the U.S. void. In particular, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel stands as an exemplary proponent of the liberal West, especially after her country’s unprecedented admission of migrants and willingness to stand up to populism.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also made the right signals, welcoming Syrian refugees and beginning a reconciliation process with his country’s indigenous community. The latter effort resonates in places such as South Africa, where the West is often deemed insensitive to the plight of those displaced by the historic incursions of European settlers.
Although too soon to fully evaluate, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has made important early gestures too, conceding that his country’s record of colonialism was a crime against humanity.
Finally, there is the European Union: for years written off as sclerotic, it is now unexpectedly poised to reclaim leadership of a moral West.
Miriam LexmannDirector of the EU Office of the International Republican Institute
Amid today’s information revolution, with robots replacing people and with social media discourse (offering instant solutions and promising an easy fix to any problem) replacing party-political structures, societies have moved from predictable Newtonian physics to a quantum reality that deals in probabilities rather than certainties. The West faces a looming totality of relativism, in which nothing is considered true and only power is decisive. Growing fear, anger, and socioeconomic pressures make societies vulnerable to internal and external hostile actors, who seek to decrease trust in democratic institutions and public support for close transatlantic ties.
In this new reality, the vital question is not “Who will lead the West?” but “What will lead the West?”—that is, what value system will bring the West out of its internal cold war. The true leader of the West that embodies these values—be it a person, a country, or one of the two transatlantic hemispheres—must reelevate liberty and responsibility to the center of Western interest and come up with a plan to bring down the new iron curtains between communities and inside hearts and minds. Only then can the West epitomize a genuine community of free countries that will again aspire to uphold the liberal world order.
Nora MüllerHead of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation
With U.S. President Donald Trump vowing to focus on “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Washington is abdicating its role as guarantor of the liberal world order (at least for the four years to come), and the title of leader of the West is up for grabs. Many see Germany’s Angela Merkel as the natural successor, the prospective chancellor of the free world. But is she really?
There is no doubt that Berlin has chosen to play a more proactive role on the global stage in recent years, upgrading its traditional culture of restraint into a culture of responsibility. But leading the West is too big a bite to chew for Germany. The country’s economic output in 2015 amounted to merely 18.6 percent of that of the United States. Washington spent $611.2 billion on defense in 2016, while Berlin spent $41.1 billion.
Against this backdrop, it does not come as a surprise that leading political figures in Berlin have been anxious to dispel the narrative of the chancellor of the free world. Germany can use its leadership role in Europe to push for enhanced European defense capabilities. It can forge new alliances to move forward on free trade, climate change, and other global challenges. But it cannot replace the United States as the indispensable nation.
Costanza MusuAssociate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa
As U.S. leadership of the West seems to be sucked away by a black hole of isolationism, angry solipsism, and threatening scandals, all Western countries that share similar values and have an interest in maintaining the post–World War II institutional order are called on to rethink their own leadership roles.
In Europe, it is time for the ideals that form the bedrock of the European integration project to be reaffirmed with even more conviction. The EU can survive the U.S. retreat, but it needs to take on a leadership role in several areas, including collective defense, free trade, and climate protection. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put it, “I’m opposed to [the EU] behaving like vassals of the Americans.”
Equally important is the leadership coming from large EU member states, in particular Germany and France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged in the past year as a leader both steady and passionate about the defense of fundamental values, as her choices in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis have shown. She is now joined by a French president who doesn’t shy away from underlining the need to continue on the path of Western solidarity now seemingly deserted by Washington.
Today more than ever, a Berlin-Brussels-Paris troika, core, and engine of European integration can project European leadership on the world stage.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
In just over three years, the mechanisms for policy coordination among industrialized countries have changed drastically. In March 2014, Russia was expelled from the G8 because of its annexation of Crimea. In June 2016, the UK decided to leave the EU after forty-three years. In January 2017, President Donald Trump started departing from traditional U.S. support for international cooperation mechanisms such as NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In addition, NATO remains under pressure from Russia and could soon see one of its members, Turkey, depart substantially from the alliance’s common missile defense project.
As a result, international cooperation is weakened, while an alternative driving force has yet to emerge.
In the short term, three political trends seem predictable. First, Trump will keep withdrawing from the traditional role of U.S. leadership. Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to show hostility vis-à-vis NATO and the EU and will try to use Turkey as an ally against NATO. Third, British Prime Minister Theresa May will struggle with the Brexit negotiations for the two or three years to come.
In such an uncertain environment, Western leadership will inevitably rely on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, allied with willing leaders in the EU and abroad, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
If the West is defined broadly as the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, and a few more countries, as shaped by the end of World War II and the Cold War, then the answer is absolute: nobody will lead the West, because there is no West to lead.
Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump sealed the deal on a divorce that had been brewing for a while. Since the Russian bear was tamed in 1989, the United States and the EU have parted ways. The Iraq War, spurred by former U.S. president George W. Bush, was supported mainly by then British prime minister Tony Blair, whose reputation was shattered. Europeans loved former U.S. president Barack Obama because they hated Bush, but there was no real common political initiative.
The West seems obsolete, as Trump famously said of NATO, shamed like a greedy, colonial ghost banned from intellectual salons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are savvy politicians, yet it is difficult to imagine them as Frederick the Great or Napoleon reborn, leading the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin is confirmed as the world’s most successful troll, yet real power lies in China, with President Xi Jinping.
The West used to mean many other things, apart from power and guns: democracy, tolerance, rights, progress, development—but these values seem passé in the twenty-first century.
James RogersDirector of the Global Britain Program at the Henry Jackson Society
It is true that the president of the United States has been traditionally described as the leader of the free world, particularly during the Cold War. In recent decades, however, the title has slowly fallen out of favor. More recently, the detractors of U.S. President Donald Trump have argued that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the free world’s leader. But this is highly problematic, as Germany is in no position strategically or militarily to underpin Western security, even less so than France or the UK.
In any case, insofar as the West is a network of like-minded states, does there even need to be a leader? Countries opt in to the West if they are democratic and want to work with similar nations. This is why the West is so strong: it is not coerced directly by any single country; rather, it is a security community, containing countries with shared values and interests, even if some—like the United States and the UK—have assumed a disproportionate burden in protecting everyone else.
Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute
The West is a pretty solid group of deeply interconnected countries in which leadership is present on many levels and in many fields. Self-governance is one of the most important features of the West and one of its biggest comparative advantages.
Society, politics, and the economy are not organized top-down as in autocracies and dictatorships; they don’t respond to orders from the highest level. Instead, they enjoy a high degree of freedom and act according to their own logics. The West is based on liberal democracy, which is a bottom-up system.
Because Western self-government is working pretty well, the West is much stronger than many assume. Top leadership is very important, especially in times of crisis and when it comes to security. But the media focus on top leadership and its deficiencies often obscures the fact that below the level of presidents and chancellors, there is a myriad of self-sufficient and self-governing systems that keep the economy, society, and politics going.
In other words, there is an almost infinite number of leaders who will continue to lead the West, moving it forward even when some of the top leaders are not fully up to the task.
Shimon SteinSenior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University
The short answer is that no single Western state—or, for that matter, the EU as a group—could lead the so-called West. The implication of this is that the West will most likely be left without a leader for at least as long as U.S. President Donald Trump stays in office, assuming that he does not reset his fundamental assumptions about the U.S. role in world politics.
As important as the question of leadership is, the more concerning and immediate question for Western leaders keen on upholding the liberal order for which the West has successfully stood for more than seven decades is what steps they should take together to defend that achievement. The fate of this order is now at stake due—among other things—to U.S. policies, which are undermining that order. In the absence of an uncontested leader, it is incumbent on like-minded countries in the West that have an interest in preserving that order to unite around that goal.
Stephen SzaboNonresident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University
There is no clear candidate for this role. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is incapable of leading given its zero-sum nationalist approach, which has already split the West. Within what remains, there is no one nation capable of picking up the role played by a continental country with the world’s largest GDP and a population of over 300 million.
The West is succumbing to a loss of dynamism and self-confidence. Some in Europe are now tempted to begin balancing the United States with China, but China hardly shares what have come to be thought of as Western values. While great segments of the U.S. public reject Trump’s policies, the United States is unlikely to resume its leadership role even after Trump given the degree of polarization, fragmentation, and dysfunction in the political system.
The last standing hope is the EU, but it has been fatally weakened by divisions and the rise of authoritarianism among a number of its members. The West had a great run. Its only hope is that the Rest are just as divided and beset with problems as the West.