Why ‘Westlessness’ is a worry for the world

Why ‘Westlessness’ is a worry for the world

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Munich Security Conference (MSC) chairman Wolfgang Ischinger presents the Munich Security Report for 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Reuters)

Some 500 political and business leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, Mike Pompeo and Mark Zuckerberg, are expected to attend this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, which runs from Friday to Sunday. One of the key themes of this year’s event is so-called “Westlessness,” reflecting uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West, despite the fact that it could yet be rejuvenated as a political force.

Key questions about the future of the West predate the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as president, of course, but they have been intensified by them. Among the issues that will be raised at Munich are whether the world is becoming less “Western,” whether the West itself is becoming less Western, and what it means for the world if the West increasingly leaves the international stage to others. This broad-ranging discussion relates to the phenomenon of Westlessness, which will be defined at Munich as a “widespread feeling of uneasiness and restlessness in the face of increasing uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West. Many security challenges seem to have become inseparable from what some describe as the decay of the Western project.”

These are very important topics for Munich to focus on amid a growing sense, among many, that a common understanding has been lost of what it even means to be part of the West. One of the key goals of the conference will, therefore, not just be to explore these issues, but also start to address a key strategic challenge for transatlantic partners of whether the West can come up with a joint strategy for what might be a new era of great power competition.

Implausible as it may sound to some, the rejuvenation of the West as the world’s leading political alliance is far from the unlikely project that it might currently appear. 

To reset, the first necessary step is for all key parties, including the EU, Canada and Japan, to acknowledge that it may not be possible for the old liberal order to be brought back lock, stock and barrel. Desirable as that may still be for many, it is abundantly clear that going back to the full panoply of the old rules-based international order might not be realistic.

Within the Western bloc, challenges are rife. This includes the issue of climate change, where the UN has called for more cooperation, which has not materialized amid Trump’s determination to pull out of the Paris agreement later this year. Moreover, despite the recently agreed US-China phase one trade deal, international trade and wider economic tensions are high. Aside from US actions, Japan has imposed tariffs on South Korea and Italy is at loggerheads with France and Brussels over its budget and migration.

Meanwhile, Germany disagrees with its eastern neighbors over the rule of law and energy security. Even Canada is showing some signs of giving up on the postwar liberal order, with it having recognized that the World Trade Organization dispute settlement system is not functioning effectively. Ottawa is actively pursuing an alternative vehicle as a result.

The start of a new decade is a good time to face these facts. And it is the right moment to start exploring what a new Western-led approach to global governance might look like.

A prerequisite for achieving this goal is concentrating on the big strategic questions facing the West. These are multiple and won’t be resolved in a single summit or series of conferences this year.

For one, the EU and the UK need to agree on how to manage a disorderly Brexit if reaching a trade deal proves to be impossible. A second issue is the need for Germany and the US, with bilateral relations having gone into the deep freeze under Trump and Angela Merkel, to agree that there are a range of security and economic challenges that are better met together. Third, France and Italy must try to make up their differences. Making the euro zone safe for the next economic crisis requires deep cooperation between them and Germany too.

But that is only a start. Other issues include the future of the international trade system, which is creaking under the strain of recent sanctions imposed across the globe. But one should not try to do too much in the current context. Promising too much and delivering too little is not the right way to rejuvenate the Western alliance.

This is the right moment to start exploring what a new Western-led approach to global governance might look like.

Andrew Hammond

If realism prevails and this becomes a multiyear dialogue, forums such as NATO and the G7, imperfect as they remain, could step up to the plate. NATO, for instance, has much continuing relevance thanks to its membership of countries with a collective population of about 1 billion. It remains one of the world’s most successful ever military organizations, helping underpin the longest period of sustained peace in the West’s modern history.

Skeptics will say that nothing big will change, in a positive direction at least, as long as Trump is US president. Problematic as many of Trump’s policy positions are, the West is not only a community of values — it is also a community of interests. When values clash, we must concentrate on interests. And at this moment of geopolitical and economic uncertainty, 2020 can be the moment to start resetting the foundations for a renewed West.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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