My take-aways from 2020 Munich Security Conference

By Fu Ying | | Updated: 2020-02-23 13:06
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Munich Security Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb 14, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

The 56th Munich Security Conference was held on February 14-15, attracting 32 heads of state and government, 77 cabinet ministers among over 1,000 delegates from political, military, academic and business circles. I was invited to participate as a member of its advisory board, and have the following impressions to share.

1, Europe reflects on the West's status and role, seeking to transcend present difficulties and pursue self-renewal

"Westlessness", the title of the annual Munich Security Report released on February 10, discusses from a European perspective whether the "West" as the most important geopolitical center since the end of WWI is in decline. Listing the West's internal imbalances and challenges from the outside world, it laments the fact that the world is increasingly becoming less West, so is the West itself becoming not so west, thus coining the concept of "Westlessness".

Originating amid the Cold War more than five decades ago, the MSC's founding mission was to coordinate western stances. After the Cold War, it broadened its horizons and began to pay attention to broader hotspot issues in international security, and its participants have hence expanded from just trans-Atlantic countries to the Middle East and Asia. In recent years, sensitive to the changing international power structure, the MSC has begun to consider how the West should adjust itself and cope with the new landscape. "Westlessness" as this year's theme has taken the retrospection in the European strategic circles to a new height.

This expression mirrors a prevailing anxiety inside the Western society - worries that the West is losing its dominance in the world order; concerns that the once unified European-American position is being eroded due to the emerging divergences in aspirations and interests; fears that the West-dominated world system may be subject to "revision" by so-called authoritarian forces.

What is the "West"? From the perspective of world history and international politics, the West is a geographical and physical as well as spiritual and institutional existence. Originating from ancient Greece and Rome, the West has gone through stages from city states, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, colonialist expansion, and eventually to the rise of the United States. It has evolved into a civilizational system which has been constantly enriched and strengthened. The main body of modern westerners consists of European nations and their descendants. Their ideologies and cultures have been profoundly influenced by the Christian faith, and their values are defined by the so-called liberal democracy. These put together constitute the sources of the West's political and cultural influence on the world.

At the practical level, in the past three to four centuries, based on maritime and continental expansions and financial hegemony, the West spearheaded military revolution and scientific and technological innovation, and dominated world economic development in the ages of industrialization and even post industrialization. The end of the Cold War saw the US-led West reaching the peak of international power and forcefully pushing for globalization. Then with the rise of emerging forces and reorganization of global industrial chains, the West's comprehensive strength has been diluted. As the US and Europe's global promotion of westernization suffered a series of setbacks, its own internal problems have also been fully exposed, making the halo over the West fade. The Europeans are even more aware that the West is no longer able to claim absolute dominance in shaping the political and economic features of the 21st century world.

Judging from discussions at this MSC session, after four years of reflections, European strategic circles are developing clearer views, and the following two perspectives are part of their contributions to the idea of "Westlessness".

One is the acknowledgement of China's rise with a mixed feeling of recognition and concern. Though European and US economies put together still account for nearly half of the world's total, China now accounts for 17 percent of global GDP and its share has kept rising. Asia as a whole accounts for over a third. So the gravity of world economy and international power will inevitably tilt toward the Asia-Pacific. More and more insightful Europeans have come to the understanding that China's rise is going to be an enduring reality, Europe and the West must make adjustments, and find ways to co-exist peacefully with a China that has a different political system.

The other is the increasing dissatisfaction with the Trump administration's "America First" policy, seeing the protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist inclinations of US conservatives as having deviated from the fundamental percepts that underpin the liberal international order. The Trump administration has shown disregard for Europe's interests, and doesn't bother to consult with Europe on significant issues. This has undercut the foundation of the trans-Atlantic alliance, and caused a further drifting-apart of the two sides. Hence the feeling that Europe needs to formulate its own strategy and "go its own way".

Europe's reflections on the West is multi-dimensional. On the one hand, it sees "systemic crises" taking place, but on the other they also believe the West's "self-consciousness" remains, and will not "end". They feel uncomfortable about the emerging forces' integration into the West-dominated world system and their expanding role inside, but are also open to adjusting rules in order to preserve the integrity of the system and maintain co-existence through coordination. So Europe isn't singing the dirge for the West, but is hoping to conduct pragmatic readjustments at the levels of strategy, values and practice. Europe is watching with worry if the world will slide into fierce competition among the US, China and Russia, and get divided. It attempts to find a new role for itself and seeks to make bigger contributions. Therefore, they stress "transcendence", namely, internally transcending differences in interests and values and improving capacities for collective actions, while externally transcending the dependence on previous paths and developing a more pluralist, balanced, flexible and pragmatic global strategy.

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