world order
Wolfgang Ischinger, Head of the Munich Security Conference, responding to international press delegations. (Credit: Munich Security Conference/Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, original cropped). (via: bit.ly)

The transience of the contemporary period, characterised by the evolution of the multipolar world order, differs fundamentally from both the now bygone yet long-lived bipolar era and the short interim of the unipolar world.

Elements of the bipolar order are still with us, like the nuclear stalemate. But the transitory period of a newly emerging global order is multi-layered, more complicated, and riddled with local wars, terrorism, and conflicts that would have been inconceivable in the preceding eras.

The present era is characterised by the confrontation between – perhaps even a cohabitation – the outgoing and emerging world orders. The unipolar world under the hegemonic assertiveness of the United States is gradually giving way to a multipolar order. This process is being – whether knowingly or unintentionally – accelerated by the present administration in Washington.

Pointedly, Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the highly renowned Munich Security Conference (MSC), titled its 55th anniversary ‘The great puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces?’ In his introductory notes, he stated that “The whole liberal world order appears to be falling apart”. He went on: “An era is ending, and the rough outlines of a new political age are only beginning to emerge.”

Ischinger’s tune was echoed by nearly all expert speakers and heads of governments. There was no hope or reassurance that the old order would survive or being restored.

The reshuffling of the world order is leading to new threats, challenges, and rivalries among its leading actors. Leadership is missing and there are no signs on the horizon of the pieces being put together again towards a peaceful transformation based on consensus and trust. The long domination of Western values enshrined in the institutionalised, liberal international project cannot prevail in the absence of Western power and leadership. Consequently, Western power seems to be fading away as it loses the battle again authoritarian models.

The MSC covered a wide spectrum of issues that are momentarily challenging the international system. However, at the centre of all the debates were the interrelated concerns focusing on the future of Europe, the relationship between Europe and the US, and questions of how to deal with territorial conflicts in the Middle East and in Ukraine.

Interestingly, the West’s relationship with Russia was not a priority and the state of relations between the West and China was seen through the prism of US-China trade competition. Of course, the archetypal accusation brought forward by the usual states was that the disunity of the West is being exploited by Russia and China, which are aiming to drive a wedge amidst the transatlantic community.

Debate focused on the state of the international system. Will the multilateral rule-based system of economic and political relations survive the onslaught of nationalism and protectionism or will it give way to renewed unilateralism? Is the US still a reliable and trustworthy source of security for Europe? Can Europe and the EU cope with its internal divisions, ward off nationalist threats and external challenges, and be seen as an internationally respected and influential geopolitical actor? In other words, can the present crisis of the West – which is apparently unravelling amidst splits in the transatlantic community – eventually lead to more European self-assertiveness?

Within this broader context, the rift between the Trump Administration and the German government escalated. The range of dissent includes accusations concerning Germany’s energy policy. The US harshly opposes the construction of Nord Stream 2, arguing that a pipeline like this will make Germany more dependent on Russia. Besides this, Washington is threatening additional taxes (25%) on German industrial exports, mainly cars.

The recent cancellation of the INF Treaty was strongly opposed by most EU Member States (with the exceptions of Poland and the Baltic states), fearing European exposure to a new nuclear arms race. In addition, Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran has not been welcomed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, or other Western EU states. Repeated American reprimands that Germany should increase its military spending to 2% of GDP have produced negative reactions across Germany’s political spectrum. The demand is accepted in principle, but only if the implementation can be stretched over a longer period.

In a highly unusual manner combining satire with tough political language, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked the US for its regression to unilateral actions. She demanded an open dialogue based on diplomatic means for solving problems and recreating trust in the transatlantic community. For the first time in the history of the MSC, her speech was hailed with a standing ovation. In contrast, US Vice President Mike Pence – who spoke after Merkel and repeated a litany of Trump Administration accusations – was met with stony silence.

What was clear at the MSC was that Europeans no longer believe they can influence the Trump Administration to steer it off its disruptive course. No changes are expected for the next two years, as long as Trump sees traditional allies as economic competitors and continues to use unreasonably arrogant methods to impose his often unpredictable views on US partners.

In a paradoxical twist, it could be that Trump’s unprecedented behaviour on behalf of the US, as the former hegemon, is precisely the wake-up call Europe needs in order to prudently seek greater self-assertiveness, end its immobilisation, and attain a position as a distinctive geopolitical force among the concert of great powers. This cannot be achieved by regression to nationalist policies. Solutions to the pressing problems that haunt the international scene can only be solved as Merkel stated: “Only by all of us, and we have to work together”

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Peter W. Schulze

Professor, Political Science Department, Georg-August University of Gőttingen, Co-founder of the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute,

Peter W. Schulze is a German academic and political scientist with a focus on international relations and Russia, the CIS, the Cold War and contemporary power constellations in the international state system. He is a member of the German-Russian Forum (Germany), the International Institute of Liberal Politics (Austria), the Institute of European Law (Germany), NABU, and is co-founder of the Schlangenbader Gespraeche on political security in Europe. He has published widely on domestic aspects of transformation processes in Eastern Europe. Peter W Schulze joined the German Air Force for two years to help fund his university studies, first in Contemporary History, Political Sciences and Geography at the Free University of Berlin (FUB), and later in Political Sciences and International Relations, receiving a diploma from FUB in Political Sciences. He took up a teaching position at the Otto Suhr Institute (Political Science Department) on Soviet Studies, Theory of International Relations and Comparative Aspects of Transformation Processes in European societies. His thesis on industrialisation, institutional changes and the creation of technical cadres/intelligence during the first three 5-year-plans of the Soviet Union, 1929 to 1938, was published in 1975. His subsequent research looked at the impact of socio-political movements on FRD’s New Deal in the 1930s. Schulze joined the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s research team on American Affairs in 1982, creating an analytical framework to study Reagan era US politics and provide political decision makers and social democratic deputies in the German parliament a more analytical insight into the phenomena connected with the rise of the NEW Right. In 1984 he opened and chaired a research and communication initiative at the University of California, in Berkeley, focused on US policies towards the Soviet Union, the third World and the European integration process. He led a similar initiative in London in 1987/8 to facilitate the relationship and collaboration between the German SPD and the British Labour Party, which he led until 1992, when he was appointed director of the FES Moscow Office - a post he held until 2003. From 2003 to the present day he has been involved in academic research and acting as a consultant to deputies and experts at the German Bundestag.