This weekend’s Munich Security Conference highlighted and demonstrated the diverging views between global leaders on the future of the “west”. The key theme for this year’s conference was “Westlessness” (a play on “restlessness”) and the main talking points appeared to be divergence of key players future views of where they see their respective countries heading. It was a former NATO Secretary General who in the post-World War 2 era stated that the point of NATO was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.” Fast-forward to the views of the west more generally this weekend and the general theme would be “The UK not present; The EU unsure; the Americans committed but on their terms; India, China and Russia all emboldened.”
Despite ongoing concerns about the depth of sincerity of the Trump’s administration to the western alliance, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was at pains to highlight that the size of the American delegation highlighted US commitment to its European Partners. Indeed, other senior US panellists included Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, Defence Secretary, Mark Esper and Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney. One message from all US participants was clear in-light of European countries interest in Huawei when it comes to 5G technologies: Do not let in the Chinese. Esper underscored this by stating that under Xi Jinping, China was "heading in the wrong direction".
There were big differences on the issue of the future direction of the European Union in foreign policy. President Macron, on the issue of Russia underline that he was neither pro nor anti-Russian but pro-European, chiming with previous statements of his to this effect. Macron – whose intervention received the most attention highlighted the need for Europe to be able to have its own capabilities and capacities, a message shared by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, who underscored that the EU had to develop an appetite for power to exert influence and failure to do so would mean the EU having no chance of effectively being a geo-political actor. NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg in a sight rebuff on both Presidents Macron and Trump, noted that he believed in "America and Europe together".
Nevertheless, it was a point made by Dutch PM, Mark Rutte that perhaps best highlighted the problems facing western countries when he noted that western institutions needed strengthening and more funding – a point perhaps lost in the ongoing debate on the EU’s next 7 year multi-annual financial framework: EU member states will try reaching a decision on this on Thursday this week.
The general message coming from German participants was that the west as a whole was being strained and that more needed to be done: Outgoing CDU (the senior coalition partner in Germany’s Government) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who despite her recent political problems, made an appearance, spoke about better co-ordination of German and European defence policies although with Germany likely to be consumed by domestic politics until next year’s federal election, it is unlikely that any major developments will be coming from Germany any time soon. The UK was conspicuous for the lack of high-level participant speakers, raising the obvious questions as to what “Global Britain” is supposed to be about if its senior politicians are not willing to attend conferences of this magnitude.
Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister for over 15 years, Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister and Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, all gave strong interventions, reflecting their own countries confident standing in the world, especially at a time of “westlessness”.
There were differences on the issue of open or close societies on the issue of immigration, with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, taking slightly different views, reflective of their own countries approaches to immigration more generally. IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva gave a reality check on the state of the word economy, noting that further sluggish growth was expected, whilst there was also a defence for international trade, coming notably from Senator Mitt Romney – already at odds with President Trump. A senator closer to the President, in the form of Lindsey Graham underlined that the US might well be against international agreements such as the Paris climate accords, the Trump administration needed to start proposing alternatives as opposed to just obstructing.
Whilst organisers were able to argue that it was the first time in a public forum that the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia were able to discuss the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh , their discussion seemed if anything like two individuals talking at cross-purposes.
Clearly in the next 12 months, many western leaders face big electoral or leadership tests: Municipal elections in France next month, where Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique-En Marche is facing a big test (including in Paris, where he is expected to lose), regional elections in Italy in May, where Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega, formerly in Government and polling in top place in opinion polls, who on Saturday suggested that Italy could leave the EU, if changes didn’t come about; a change of leadership in Germany’s leading party – the CDU – possibly already by the summer and President Trump facing re-election in the United States. As for the UK, the issue of Brexit hardly appeared although will be a key hurdle to overcome when the transition period ends in 10 ½ months’ time and with the UK, already absent at a global level.
So, where does this leave things? Unsurprisingly, an unsure Europe (EU or otherwise), a relatively confident United States and a very confident India, China and Russia. The theme “westlessness” was definitely of relevance but going on the statements of participants the main geographic focus of worry for the coming 12 months (and possibly until next year’s Munich Security Conference) is very much Europe.