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”