By backing out of the international scene and yet sharpening bilateral tensions, Trump is destabilizing democratic nations. Europe has to react.
The 56th Munich Security Conference that took place from 14th to 16th February had chosen “Westlessness” as its theme, i.e. the world without the West. The result went beyond all expectations. This “Davos of security” produced a striking picture: a world becoming more savage, the West breaking up and a Europe paralyzed in face of the disorderly withdrawal of the USA driven by Donald Trump’s national-populism. The conference naturally turned to the conflict between the USA and China. Mark Esper, Secretary of State for Defense, called for a check on China and a ban on Huawei – “a Trojan horse for Chinese intelligence”. He was supported by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who denounced the “digital autocracy” of Beijing. Esper accused the Chinese of being thieves, which immediately triggered a response from Wang Li, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, who called the Americans liars.
These words seem to have been dug up from the 1950s, but the current de-Westernization of the world is very different from those post-war years. The West no longer has a leader nor any common values, institutions or spirit. The Munich conference threw a harsh light on the disappearance of US leadership; Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, was greeted with a glacial silence when he said “The West is winning” – which amounts to fake news at a time when the West is breaking up and suffering one reversal after another. US reassurance with regard to democracies has become virtual, as highlighted by the NATO crisis – if Donald Trump wins a second mandate, it is far from certain that NATO can survive. Europeans are divided and paralyzed by the UK’s removal from the diplomatic and strategic scene after Brexit, and by disagreement over the whys and wherefores of rearmament. In displaying their disagreements and powerlessness, the democracies are making the same mistakes as they made in the 1930s when up against major deflation and the rise of totalitarian states.
The presence of Emmanuel Macron in Munich and above all his change of tone were the only positive aspect of the conference. In abandoning provocative remarks about NATO being “brain dead”, which had provoked a unanimous outcry from our allies, and not giving moral lessons or talking about pie-in-the-sky dreams of a European army, he finally came down to reality and tried to take account of the concerns of our European partners. And, following on from his speech on deterrence at the École de guerre [the Paris training school for army officers] on 7th February, he proposed to begin discussions on strategy with other Europeans that would include the nuclear element.
Germany’s position is the decisive one. Europe cannot rethink its security without it, for it is the leading economic power and a pivot between eastern and western Europe. No more can Germany rethink its security without the rest of Europe. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier strongly recommended that Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to begin talks should be taken up; Angela Merkel took refuge in absence. In short, on the German side, those who want to invest in security cannot do so and those who can, do not want to. We shall have to wait for the post-Merkel era and hope that this comes as soon as possible.
In his memoirs, Raymond Aron said that “The West no longer knows if it prefers what it contributes or what it destroys.” It is currently locked in a nihilistic moment, marked by the fact that its unity, its principles and its alliances are being destroyed by the USA, which used to be the final guarantor of all of these. This highly dangerous situation could be an opportunity for Europe. The best antidote to the shift to populism in the USA is a strong, independent Europe that regains its footing in the 21st century by giving itself the means to control its own destiny.
(Article published in Le Point, 27th February 2020)