Why the West may be on the march again
The decline of the West became a dominant theme of the Trump era. But the Western alliance’s rejuvenation as a political force will be the key topic of discussion at the premier transatlantic geopolitical event, the Munich Security Forum, on Friday.
Speakers at the conference include world leaders such as US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, plus captains of business such as former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. The key theme is “Beyond Westlessness: Renewing Transatlantic Cooperation, Meeting Global Challenges,” with speakers debating how best to renew the Western alliance in the Biden era.
The fact that this topic has been chosen reflects renewed Western confidence, less than a month after Biden was sworn in as US president. It is a complete reversal of last year’s conference, when the dominant narrative was uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West.
Of course, key questions about the future of the West predated Donald Trump’s election. Moreover, it is not just Trump who highlighted problems with Western alliances, as exemplified by French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion in 2019 that NATO was suffering from “brain death.” But there is no question that Trump’s presidency intensified questions about the future of the West. And among the issues raised at Munich last year were whether the world is becoming less Western, whether the West itself is becoming less Western, and what it would mean for the world if the West increasingly left the international stage to others.
A year on, the rejuvenation of the West as the world’s leading political alliance is far from the unlikely project it might have appeared to some back then. This is especially the case as Biden wants to see the Western community reunified after the trauma of the last half-decade, joining forces against what he perceives as common challenges from nations like Russia and China.
To reset, one necessary step is for all key parties, including the EU, Canada and Japan, to acknowledge that, post-Trump and post-Brexit, 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 some, going back to the full panoply of the old rules-based international order may not be realistic.
Within the Western bloc, key challenges remain. These include the issue of global warming, on which the International Panel on Climate Change has called for more cooperation. This may, finally, materialize with the US rejoining the Paris agreement on Friday. International trade and wider economic tensions remain elevated too. Aside from unilateral US actions, recent years have seen Japan imposing tariffs on South Korea, while Italy has been at loggerheads with France and the EU over its budget and migration. Meanwhile, Germany has disagreed with its eastern neighbors, including Poland, on issues including the rule of law. Even Canada has shown some signs of giving up on the postwar liberal order, having recognized that the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement system does not function effectively, with a view to pursuing alternative vehicles.
The start of Biden’s presidency 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 would look like. A prerequisite for this goal is concentrating on big strategic questions facing the West. These are multiple and won’t be resolved in a single summit, let alone the rest of 2021.
For one, the EU and the UK need to build on December’s Brexit trade deal to broader areas of cooperation like security and defense, which were absent from that agreement. A second is the need for much of the wider West, from Eastern Europe to the Americas, to more strongly recognize that there are a growing range of security and economic challenges that are better met together. However, one should not try to get too ambitious right away. Promising too much and delivering too little is not the right way to rejuvenate the Western alliance.
Promising too much and delivering too little is not the right way to rejuvenate the Western alliance.
If realism prevails and this becomes a multi-year dialogue under Biden’s presidency, forums such as NATO and the G7, imperfect as they are, can potentially step up to the plate. NATO, for instance, has much continuing relevance as it is made up of countries with a collective population of about 1 billion. It remains one of the world’s most successful military organizations ever, having helped underpin the longest period of sustained peace in the West’s modern history.
Skeptics will say that nothing fundamental will change, in a positive direction at least, anytime soon. Yet this may be too pessimistic.
The West is not only a community of values; it is also a community of interests. When values clash, as they sometimes do, the concentration must be on interests. And at this latest moment of geopolitical and economic uncertainty, 2021 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.