The speeches of the main world leaders in the last editions of the Munich Security Conference have revealed many and profound discrepancies when assessing the world situation. Discrepancies not only between Western representatives and those of other powers, which is still understandable, but also between leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. This trend has been substantiated in the 2020 edition, which has been convened under the disturbing slogan of “Westlessness, de-Westernization.”
In the corresponding report, prepared by Ambassador Ischinger, President of the Conference, the factors and circumstances that lead the organizers to conclude with such a laconic diagnosis are presented as such: the world is less and less Western. It is, according to the report, for causes attributable to Western societies themselves and to external causes.
The recent electoral campaign in the United States has left us disturbing images of a social polarization that will be difficult to reverse by the next Administration. This concern is shared by the new president, Joe Biden, who among his most immediate priorities points out precisely that of correcting a radicalization that has a strong racial component.
In Europe, shaken by the shock of Brexit, it is almost impossible to find a topic of discussion that does not provoke bitter confrontations between its members: energy supply, immigration, Chinese penetration, relations with the United States or with Russia, the perception of risks and threats … Even the very definition of democracy is interpreted differently by some governments of the European Union. These internal problems that occur on both sides of the Atlantic inevitably have an impact on the transatlantic link. In the face of all of which, it seems that the greatest threat facing the Western bloc does not come only from external elements, but also lies in its own lack of internal cohesion. Westlessness in the West.
Hyper globalization has left losers along the way. Also in North America and Europe, whose working classes have seen their jobs transferred to Asian countries where wage costs were much lower. The economic crisis that began in 2008 hit Western economies particularly viciously, giving wings to populist movements, then incipient. The unease that this produces materializes in the rise of radical, nationalist, and populist identity positions, which object to the model from within.
To this loss of Western relevance, the North American decision to renounce the quasi-hegemonic leadership that it exercised, and with great pleasure, just a couple of decades ago, has contributed to a large extent. Endless wars, and without plausible results, have demotivated an American society that does not lack internal order problems in which to invest its efforts and resources: the control of the pandemic and economic recovery will be some of its priorities in the immediate future.
With regard to Europe, its conspicuous absence in the management of the many serious conflicts that surround it cannot be hidden. The Mediterranean basin, understood in its broadest sense as extending to the Sahel in the South, or to the Caucasus in the East, passing through the entire Middle East region, is a scenario in which the script is dictated by third powers or, what is worse, in which member countries of the same Alliance or the same Union, defend conflicting interests. High Representative Josep Borrell complained about this situation when, while still a candidate for the post, he affirmed that our credibility as Europeans would be negligible if we are not capable of solving the problems in our immediate neighborhood.
The European Union and NATO are going through difficult times. Statements by the then US president-elect, Trump, such as that NATO is obsolete, although later nuanced, do little for good understanding between the allies. More recently, rising tensions in the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, the latter supported by France, abound in this perception of internal confrontations. Very different strategic visions coexist in the European Union (countries of the East in relation to those of the South) and competing interests are defended in specific scenarios, such as the war in Libya.
Faced with this panorama of internal divergences, withdrawal, and lack of leadership, it is easy for those from outside who reject the Western proposal and advocate their own principles and values, which do not necessarily coincide with those in force up to now. The absence of Europeans and Americans in key regions of the globe and in the management of armed conflicts is quickly replaced by the arrival of Russia, China, Turkey, or Iran. The Middle East is a good example of the latter.
In the specific case of China, its evolution in recent decades is impressive, both socially and economically. Under Xi’s presidency, two gigantic initiatives “One belt, one road” and “Made in China 2025” have been launched. Informally known as the New Silk Road, it is the Asian giant’s proposal for a “Chinese-style” multilateralism, an alternative to the Western one. A multilateralism that has an impact on breaking down trade barriers, but that ignores everything related to sustainability or people rights. To this should be added its technological, geopolitical, and diplomatic challenge. China is achieving leadership that it was absent from within the United Nations agencies, where it already presides over seven of these agencies, has launched initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Association (RCEP).
The strength of China has been attracting, since the Obama Administration, the maximum attention of the North American Government, which explains the shift of the center of gravity of world geopolitics to the Asia-Pacific region, to the detriment of the centrality that Europe had in long decades of the Cold War. The European Union, for its part, has also experienced a significant shift in its stance on the penetration of the Asian giant. If in 2013 the Union’s Agenda for 2020 identified China as a strategic partner for a multilateral international order, in 2019 the categories of economic competitor and rival were also added systemic. The alarm light was turned on in 2016 with the acquisition by a Chinese company of the German technology Kuka, and with initiatives such as the one known as 17 + 1, in which certain countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, some of them Member States of the Union have signed various cooperation agreements with China.
Russia, unlike the great Asian power, is not in a position to propose, let alone impose, its own model of global governance. But he can, in word and deed, object to the Western proposal. President Putin was very clear in declaring the liberal idea obsolete. He did so in an interview with the Financial Times in June 2019, on the occasion of the G20 summit in Osaka16. In its immediate environment, Russia has been able to make the most of its growing military capabilities, in addition to an intelligent policy of support for local actors, to regain a leading role in the extensive geographical arc that runs from the Caucasus (remember that it was Russia that finally imposed a ceasefire agreement in Nagorno Karabakh), passing through the Middle East and into the Mediterranean to the shores of Libya. A growing presence to which the rest of the African continent is not alien.
Without reaching the relevance of the Chinese and Russians, other actors also have their own agenda outside the liberal scheme. Turkey feels called to recover the old Ottoman presence in the distant lands of Central Asia (with the exception of East Turkestan, today Xinjiang, so as not to disturb the Chinese dragon), a region where Turkic language and culture peoples settle. It has actively intervened in the Caucasus, supporting Azerbaijan; and in Syria, to contain the Kurdish peshmergas. In the Mediterranean, after finding the existence of considerable natural gas reserves, it maintains serious friction with neighboring coastal countries, and is also leading the evolution of the Libyan war with its support for one of the opposing parties. All this causes misgivings and tensions between allies and neighbors.
Lastly, jihadist terrorism constitutes a persistent threat, in full reorganization and strengthening after the setbacks suffered in the Middle East, as the attacks on European soil remind us periodically. Although it is fair to recognize that these are only a tiny part of the total attacks perpetrated by these terrorist groups in Africa, the Middle East or Afghanistan.
The arrival of the new US Administration is seen by many as the longed-for opportunity to change course, to regain a certain North American leadership in the world and to foster a scenery of new commercial, technological and security collaborative relationships between, at the least, liberal democracies. Certainly, there will be some of that.
Both when he was only a candidate, and once the new president was confirmed, Biden has repeated on numerous occasions that he wants to walk the path of a revived multilateralism, heal the open wounds with the allies and return to lead, although in a different way, the world. In front of America first! America’s back! But it is one thing to say it and another, very different, to see to what extent it will be able to carry out this global commitment.
Many hopes, perhaps too many, are pinned on the new American president. Biden does not miss an opportunity to affirm that his country has a vocation for leadership. The United States is very welcome to design, together with allies, a renewed form of leadership. A shared leadership with the like-minded, which is perceived as a responsibility assumed by all, not as an imposition. The West has to make itself heard with a strong voice, but only one voice. What is clear is that, with all its internal problems and despite its shortcomings, the West deserves to survive the siege it is being subjected to. From the outside… and from the inside.
- Munich Security Conference, “Munich Security Report 2020: Westlessness,” Munich Security Conference (Munich: February 2020), https://securityconference.org/assets/user_upload/MunichSecurityReport2020.pdf
- EFE Agency (08NOV20): One day after his victory was declared, the team of the president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, revealed this Sunday his plans for the transition of power, with the pandemic, economic recovery, Racial inequality, and the climate crisis at the top of their priorities, see Susan Samhan, “ Biden trabaja desde ya en la transición con la pandemia como prioridad,” Agencia EFE (Washington,DC: November 8, 2020), https://www.efe.com/efe/usa/america/biden-trabaja-desde-ya-en-la-transicion-con-pandemia-como-prioridad/50000103-4389188
- Borrell: “we will not be credible in our ambition to be a geopolitical actor, if we are not able to solve the problems of our immediate neighborhood”, see The Objective, “Borrell fija en los Balcanes y Rusia sus ´prioridades´ como jefe de la diplomacia europea,” The Objective (España: October 7, 2019), https://theobjective.com/borrell-fija-en-los-balcanes-y-rusia-sus-prioridades-como-jefe-de-la-diplomacia-europea/
- Roberto Garcia, “La ONU, con impronta china: ¿y la universalidad?,” Infobae (Argentine: May 14, 2020), https://www.infobae.com/america/opinion/2020/05/14/la-onu-con-impronta-china-y-la-universalidad/
- European Union External Action Service, “EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation,” European Union External Action Service (Brussels: 2020) https://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/china/docs/eu-china_2020_strategic_agenda_en.pdf
- European Commission, EU-China: A strategic Outlook, (Strasbourg: March12, 2019), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf
- Europa Press, “La firma china Midea se hace con casi el 95% del fabricante de robots Kuka,” El Economista (Spain: August 8, 2016), https://www.eleconomista.es/empresas-finanzas/noticias/7754335/08/16/La-firma-china-Midea-se-hace-con-casi-el-95-del-fabricante-de-robots-Kuka.html
- Águeda Parra, “La Ruta de la Seda Digital: la gran globalización china,” Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (Spain: April 24, 2020), http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_opinion/2020/DIEEEO38_2020AGUPAR_sedadigital.pdf
This article has been thanks to the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies.
A longer version of this text can be viewed at http://www.ieee.es