The annual Munich Security Conference (MSC), a gathering of top Western foreign and defence officials, takes place in the southern German city in its name, but its leadership sits in Berlin. The nondescript office on Friedrichstrasse is just a stone’s throw from the former line of the Berlin Wall. The train station up the street was once a labyrinthine border crossing between east and west. Hundreds of jubilant East Berliners poured through here on the night of 9 November 1989 when the checkpoints were opened.
There is a certain melancholy poetry in the fact that it was here, so close to the spiritual home of Western triumph three decades before, that the West’s demise in our own time was perhaps most resonantly proclaimed. Launched at an event around the corner from Friedrichstrasse in February 2020, the MSC’s annual report declared a new age of “Westlessness”. “It is hard to escape the impression,” went the analysis, “that the West is in retreat, in decline, and under constant attack – both from within and without.”
The term caught the mood and sparked a discussion across North Atlantic policy elites and the pages of international broadsheets. It would also resonate again and again over the course of the year as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Though it originated in China, the virus exposed how fragile, poorly coordinated and sclerotic Western states could be and showed East Asia – and particularly the rising superpower – at its dynamic and capable best. With the subsequent 12 months culminating in the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC in January 2021 – a sort of grotesque parody of the liberal democratic revolutions of 1989 – any doubts about the reality of Westlessness were laid to rest.
But then what? Through the gloom, the contours of a turning point are just about visible. This year’s MSC report bore the tentatively optimistic title “Beyond Westlessness” and cited the dawn of Joe Biden’s presidency as “a chance to reinvigorate the West” and summon up “the necessary ideational, material and institutional resources for a revitalisation”. Speaking at the subsequent (virtual) conference, the US president declared: “I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back.” But beyond the change of tenant in the White House, the report also framed the pandemic as a potentially constructive wake-up call for the West.
A major test of this claim will come next week. Between 11 and 13 June, the leaders of the G7 group of rich democracies (hosted by the UK) will gather at Carbis Bay in Cornwall for their first in-person summit since the start of the pandemic. If the MSC functions as a brain-trust for the West, then the G7 is at least notionally something similar to a steering committee. The leaders of the US, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy and Canada represent the major powers of the postwar Western alliance. This will also be Biden’s first foreign trip as president and will be followed by a Nato summit in Brussels on 14 June and a meeting between Biden and President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on 16 June.
Is the world moving “beyond” Westlessness? Or rather into a new, different phase of it? The next few weeks should bring us nearer to answers to those questions.
It is worth acknowledging that the term “West” can be vague and mean more than one thing. Revealing of the ambiguity is the shorthand “Plato to Nato” given to history-of-Western-thought courses that became central pillars of American undergraduate education during the Cold War. Mildly tongue-in cheek it may be, but the equation of an ancient philosopher and a modern military alliance tells of a West with at least two major dimensions: one concerning cultural heritage and values and the other concerning the hard contigencies of power.
The cultural story begins, as the nod to Plato suggests, with the Greek and Roman philosophical traditions. It wends its way through the rise of Judeo-Christian culture in Europe and from there the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the genesis of the modern state, to which the West’s economic and military dominance of the world in the second half of the second millennium is often substantially attributed. It is from this heritage that the values of liberal democracy, the rule of law and individual rights are drawn.
The story of the Western alliance begins in the ashes of the Second World War and the subsequent front against Soviet communism. That this is distinct from the cultural and values story is shown by the fact that the “Western alliance” has variously included countries that are not liberal or democratic (Portugal, Greece and Turkey all combined dictatorship and Nato membership) and countries that are not culturally Western (Turkey within Nato, other US treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea). The fall of the Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol of the triumph of the West, both as a cultural force and an expression of power, but belies the ways in which the two projects have, at other points, been in tension.
We are living through a transitional moment on both fronts. The West’s half-millennium of pre-eminence is giving way to a new multipolar era in which its values are challenged. But the distinction between Western values and Western power is useful when navigating the most pressing questions about the new age. Will the West remain an inclusive, universalist project – “open to any person or any nation that honours and upholds these values” as the late US senator John McCain put it – or will it define itself more in exclusionary, civilisation terms? Will the Western alliance outlast Western pre-eminence, or turn out to be a short-lived historical anomaly? How resilient is Western self-confidence and cohesion?
[See also: In defence of meritocracy]
The G7 is a product of the Western postwar power project. Beginning as a gathering of finance ministers in response to the 1973 oil crisis, in 1975 it became a gathering of leaders of the six largest Western economies, to which Canada was added the following year and the European Union in 1981.
The group meets annually under a rotating presidency and usually, in recent years, outside of large cities. It has no permanent secretariat and its precise value is debatable; some diplomats disparage it as an only modestly consequential talking shop. The best case for it is probably the absence of obvious alternatives. Whatever its usefulness, however, its summits do form a revealing palimpsest of the West in recent decades.
The summit in Bonn in 1985 almost collapsed over a trade dispute, a reminder that for all the worries about the alliance today there was no idyllic golden age. Declarations from the summits in Paris in 1989, Houston in 1990 and London in 1991 chart the dawning engagement with the topic of climate change. The 1991 meeting was also significant for the invitation extended to Mikhail Gorbachev; then in 1997 the G7 was expanded to a G8, giving Russia a permanent seat.
Summits in the 2000s demonstrated the darkening of the horizon: the G8 in Genoa in 2001 was marked by large anti-globalisation protests; in Alberta in 2002 it took place in the long shadow of the 9/11 attacks, with a major focus on weapons of mass destruction. The gathering in Georgia in 2004 saw large anti-war protests and a transatlantic rift over the Iraq War; the following year’s summit in Gleneagles was interrupted by the London bombings.
The sense of the West’s moment passing began towards the end of the decade, as the new G20 (the G8 states plus 12 mostly non-Western powers) overshadowed it in the financial crisis. The 2009 G8 meeting – chaotically hosted in the ruins of an earthquake-struck Italian town by the buffoonish Silvio Berlusconi – provided a foretaste of the populism and waning state capacity that would help define the coming decade.
Ahead of the Camp David summit in 2012 the geopolitics guru Ian Bremmer coined the phrase “G-Zero world” to describe the group’s growing ineffectualness in an “each nation for itself” age. His diagnosis was borne out at the summits in 2013, which exposed the Obama-era rifts in Western responses to the Syria crisis, and 2014, when Putin’s intervention in Ukraine saw him expelled and the G8 revert to a G7. Writing that year, Henry Kissinger identified “not simply a multipolarity of power but a world of increasingly contradictory realities”, and warned of a slide towards global disorder.
All of which is a reminder that the West was showing major cracks even before the election of Donald Trump in 2016. At the G7 in Japan in the May of that year, leaders urged British voters to reject Brexit – a call that proved futile. But Trump’s arrival did mark an acceleration towards the G-Zero world, as he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, imposed new trade tariffs, sidelined Nato and its allies and defied the Western consensus on climate change. Diplomats still have chilling memories of the 2018 G7 summit in Quebec, where Trump harangued his counterparts to readmit Putin and disavowed the summit’s declaration by Twitter shortly after leaving. A Caravaggio-esque photo published by the German government of other Western leaders – Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe – grimly imploring an impassive Trump captured the new leaderless West perfectly.
Last year’s summit, due to take place at Camp David, was cancelled as the pandemic roiled Western societies. It was a fitting symbol of Westlessness in a year in which many of the strains of the past two decades seemed to come together.
The year 2020 represented a new nadir for Western values. The pandemic coincided with – and in places such as Brazil propelled – a deterioration in the quality of democracy both within the West and globally. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which has dropped every year since 2015, plummeted to its lowest level since its creation in 2006.
Global chaos and rule-breaking, from Yemen and Lebanon to Syria and Russia, prompted David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, to lament the dawn of an “age of impunity”. China recovered quickly from the pandemic and used its fast-rising relative power to build further its influence in arenas such as Africa, central Asia and Latin America, while the dysfunctions of Western societies – from the racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement to the political polarisation demonstrated in the US election – were laid bare.
For the West as a hard power project, too, 2020 was objectively a dismal year. The differential economic experiences of the pandemic mean the date at which China is likely to overtake the US economy has advanced five years closer, to 2028.
In 2000, the G7’s share of global GDP was 65 per cent of the world total. It fell to a new low of 45 per cent last year. More than that, the pandemic demonstrated the weaknesses of Western state capacity. “The East’s success with coronavirus is not a lucky accident,” write the journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their recent book The Wake-Up Call. “It is the result of a change that has been several decades in the making. Asia had the technology… infrastructure… [and] social trust.”
Increasingly convinced of the West’s decadence and terminal decline, China’s leaders have abandoned some of their past caution. The country’s “wolf warrior” diplomats decry Western leaders on Twitter while its officials tighten their grip on Hong Kong. China’s battleships and submarines pose an increasingly threatening presence to neighbours in the South China Sea and East China Sea (especially Taiwan). For G7 leaders contemplating a future “beyond Westlessness” the hope that things can get better is inevitably tempered by the obvious reality that they can also get much worse.
Biden seems committed to undoing the damage of the Trump era: out with the chaotic, transactional, values-free approach to foreign policy of his predecessor and in with something more predictable, focused and principled. “Aides say Biden believes [China] is a key test by which historians will judge his presidency,” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported in April. “China informs his approach to most major topics… whether he is discussing foreign policy or electric bus batteries.” The president has spoken of rebuilding the family of democracies, repairing relations with Europe and creating a new alliance to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. The instinctive coddling of autocrats such as Putin is gone. And there is a new emphasis on healing America’s domestic divides, not least with Biden’s ambitious $3trn recovery programme.
Hence the optimism ahead of the gathering in Cornwall. US and UK government sources have briefed that the G7 will demonstrate that “the West ain’t over just yet”. Lars-Hendrik Röller, Angela Merkel’s G7 sherpa, enthuses that “this is the year where multilateralism is back”. The optics are bound to be propitious: with a group of seven mainstream liberal democrats occupying clear common ground, there will be no place for the scowls and awkward body language of the Trump era. Boris Johnson, though held in suspicion in other Western capitals for his role in Brexit and chumminess with Trump, may well (for all his wider failings as a statesman) make a suitably cheery master of ceremonies in the Cornish seaside sunshine.
On the agenda are the autocratic challenge from Russia and China, climate change, the global vaccine roll-out and trade. A move, spearheaded by Biden, to set a minimum global corporate tax rate to help states reclaim resources lost to tax havens is particularly promising. And while a British proposal to transform the G7 into a “D10” of democracies has been parked, the participation of guests from India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa will reinforce a sense that the West is open to alliance-building again. That will be particularly true if the Nato summit and Biden-Putin meeting also go according to plan.
Yet even if the next weeks go as well as that, to declare the West “back” or its decline stopped or reversed only because of Trump’s departure would be folly. That story pre-dates his presidency and may long outlive it.
Since Biden’s inauguration, the wider threats to Western liberal democracy have grown only more daunting. China has stepped up its threats to Taiwan, Russia has massed troops on Ukraine’s border, Myanmar has experienced a military coup. Democracy in India (supposedly part of Biden’s alliance of values) has further deteriorated, instability has risen in the Sahel and war crimes have been documented in Ethiopia’s Tigray War. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up, Belarus has committed air-piracy to seize a dissident, and – as I wrote in the New Statesman two weeks ago – unrest has intensified in parts of Latin America.
Bremmer, for one, remains sceptical about any restoration of past certainties: “We’re watching the end of the American and, more broadly, West-led international relations,” he maintains: “And we’re generally unprepared for what that means for every aspect of how the world conducts its business.” So canny observers would do well to look beyond the happy shots of leaders strolling on Cornish beaches and instead at the enduring rifts within the Western alliance. The transatlantic relationship, historically the buckle holding the alliance together, remains divided on subjects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Europe’s economic relationship with China and the US security umbrella.
A debate is gathering pace in the foreign policy intelligentsia between those, such as the scholars Hugo Meijer and Stephen G Brooks, who argue that Europe’s divided “strategic cacophony” make ongoing American protection essential to the West’s endurance, and those such as the defensive realist Stephen Walt who urge an end to European “dependence” and a newly equal relationship.
Overshadowing all of these strategic choices are wider realities of Western politics. Trump is gone, but Trumpism is not – and its next incarnation may be more competent than its first. Marine Le Pen will pose a competitive challenge to Macron in next year’s French election. The next Italian government may be dominated by the far right. The notion that Western democracies are permanently on the verge of a 1930s-esque meltdown are overstated, but it is also right to distrust the breezy sense that the FT’s Edward Luce characterised in 2017 as: “History will resume normal business after a brief interruption.”
A useful way to think about the possibilities after the G7 summit is to imagine three scenarios. There is a gloomy one – permanent Westlessness – in which China pulls ahead of the West technologically and economically, the West turns in on itself or even ends up drawn into a military conflict with Beijing, and wider global crises flare without either side providing capable leadership. There is an upbeat one – call it Westfullness – in which the gloom gives way to a reassertion of Western strengths as new post-Covid investments in the green industries renew its economies and societies, while China’s internal strains and a reinvigorated Western alliance enable its power to be balanced.
Finally, there is a middle-ground scenario – which one might term Westishness – in which aspects of the West’s values and power endure but others fragment. In this future, a more “Eurasian” Europe – drawn towards Asia’s growing economic orbit – drifts into a midway position between the US and China. New internal contests to define the West rage: a values-led project or an exclusivist, civilisational one? Global governance evolves into a web of realist forums such as the mooted Concert of Powers model, whereby China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and the EU would together thrash out common ground.
[See also: Why we need a new Concert of Powers]
Recent events give some reason to wonder whether Westishness might not be the most likely of the three. But it is an open question. And recognising that fact might be the best place for the West to start when contemplating its future. There is a fine balance to be struck between ignoring the relative decline of the West and wallowing in it. Amid the despair and self-flagellating proclamations of the post-Western and post-liberal orders, or unhelpfully deterministic language about a “new Cold War”, it would not do to forget that much of this is uncertain – and none of it is preordained.
The question on which the West must concentrate is what might decide the differences between the above scenarios. One factor that merits ongoing attention is how it can remake its productive and technological base to balance the power of a China that has for many years invested more in its own. How it can, as the philosopher Roberto Unger recently wrote on these pages, “recognise the primacy of structural [alternatives]” and escape the “dictatorship of no alternatives”. Another is how the West can renew its confidence in its own values and go out once more on the search for recruits rather than traitors: to keep its doors open to the young and ambitious of the world and propose Western friendship to other countries in the firm belief that this is a valuable offer.
Easier said than done, on both counts, but surely a better bet than self-pity and declinism. Perhaps the West – as a cultural entity, a set of values, an expression of power – is doomed to retreat. But seeing as there is no way of knowing if it is, and given that such a belief might turn out to be self-fulfilling, one may as well assume that there is hope for it yet.
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West