Wolfgang Ischinger, chairperson of the Munich Security Conference. (Credit: OSCE Photstream/Flickr)
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairperson of the Munich Security Conference. (Credit: OSCE Photstream/Flickr)

It is worth remembering that the two major semi-governmental elite gatherings, the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Munich Security Conference, started off as multilateral formats in the West during the Cold War.

Both events entered their prime when after 1990 the ‘First World’, left with the only operational political regulatory system, set out to integrate the remnants of the collapsed Eastern bloc under its authority.

Depending on individual preference, the result could be called American hegemony, one world, or the international community. The recipe was simple enough: Westernised societies, marked by liberalism, individual autonomy, and the rule of law.

Hence the Fukuyama-influenced talk of the ‘end of history’. It was a millenarian worldview: salvation through democracy, freedom, and transparency. Munich and Davos became two of its sacred sites.

But, there was no end of history. There was a marked swing in favour of the Western world, although a quarter of a century later we see the same West declining in appeal to an increasingly sceptical environment, let alone being able to enforce its authority across the globe.

The one world concept, fictitious from the start, is giving way to a multipolar reality. Rituals like those in Davos and Munich, celebrating shared commitments and common beliefs, are losing their effectiveness. Their success story was the unifying narrative, the mobilising message.

But once the world understands that glossy one-world slogans won’t mend the real conflicts on the ground, it can do without gatherings of top-earners and big egos in alpine surroundings.

We should keep in mind that the evolving multipolar world is nothing new. It is the return of a status quo ante in the state of politics – prior to the global domination by European empires in the 19th Century, prior to the bipolarity of the 20th Century, and prior to the fleeting unipolar world order of the 1990s.

Nevertheless, after two centuries of utopian ideologies – enlightenment, progress, communism, socialism, and neoliberal capitalism – the rebirth of multipolarity will come as quite a shock. And Westerners will be hit hardest.

At present, all politics, communication, conferences, agreements, etc., is still exclusively tuned to Western traditions, terms, habits, and expectations. Under the evolving circumstances, there will be much more to get used to than just a decrease in clout.

Starting in the 17th Century, while European monarchs, generals, scientists, and industrialists set out to run the world, European thinkers produced political philosophies that were equally grounded in ethics and universal in their claims.

Over time, Western politics annexed the moral high ground. The first victim was realpolitik, described by 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as „the art of the attainable“. It has since gained a reputation for inhumane and amoral ruthlessness. Even tyrants feel obliged; the likes of Hitler and Stalin strove to hide their fiendish schemes behind veils of morality, at least legality.

But moral judgements, so necessary to apply values to real life, have a catch. Their true nature is a matter of dispute. Are they rooted in objective rationality or subjective emotion? The debate is as old as philosophy and shared by all traditions, from China to ancient Greece.

Today’s prevailing Western position, defining moral judgements as rationally deduced and universally valid, isn’t necessarily the only one. With the rise of China, India, and Iran, local intellectuals will eventually revisit indigenous views on ethics, beliefs, and the world. Western civilisation may affect every single human being, yet it is still an open question as to what extent this influence is limited to the material world of technology or extends to values, social order and the self.

At this point, the realms of philosophy and politics meet, exposing a serious Western dilemma. Western tradition claims that its value and order principles possess universal validity. At the same time, it lost the power and superiority to impose its convictions on others.

In a multipolar world, which by definition defies absolutist positions, the pragmatic conclusion would be a return to realpolitik. But for objective reasons, the Western intellectual cannot compromise. He must continue to fight what in his eyes is cultural relativism, as much as the Western politician cannot settle with ‘politics minus morality’. Anything else would betray the very logic their original argument builds on.

The results are already noticeable: a palpable marginalisation, a tangible decrease in authority despite all the economic clout and military strength the West still commands.

Three examples: South Korea, where politicians, regardless of US objections, implement detente policies vis-à-vis the North; the so-called Visegrad countries, which reject the pro-immigration policies propagated by Brussels and senior EU countries, namely Germany; and Turkey’s blunt defiance of the US policy towards Syria’s Kurdish population.

In politics, as in human behaviour in general, principles compete with pragmatism. In the case of North Korea, the US applies sanctions and toughness. Its policies are based on the same strict principles which in the 20th Century assured the survival of the so-called Free World.

The price of a principle-based policy lies in the resources and the commitment to hang in for the long haul. Judging the United States in its present state, eaten away by self-doubt and public debt, who can tell how many future generations of American soldiers will sacrifice their lives on foreign soil? It is only natural that South Korea should develop alternative approaches.

Is the West living up to the challenge? The debate around the recent Munich Security Conference hardly encourages this view. Western politicians are overwhelmed by the complexity of the new era. By and large, they perceive the looming changes as threats, not as opportunities.

Instead of assessing new situations free of bias, preoccupation and prejudice, old and proven instincts take over. The best example is Russia, which like China is busily expanding its rule in the international arena. Rather than engaging Moscow in concrete political processes, Western leaders apply the mindset of the Cold War: distrust, accusation, dismissal.

Nobody cares about the potential for mutually beneficial co-existence – let alone cooperation in order to mobilise trans-European resources against future challenges.

As is often said, generals fight their past wars, never the future ones. Because it reminds a whole generation of a victorious episode, the dissent between Russia and the West is being blown out of proportion, the good old days being re-enacted, right to the point where a superficial observer would hardly assume any difference between the Cold War of the past and today’s cold conflict.

The images of threat and enemy allow for another convenient side effect, which is the externalisation of internal conflicts and contradictions.

Russia, through its hacking, trolling, manipulating, dissemination of fake news and whatever else, is identified as the root cause of all sorts of frictions, divisions, and disappointments in Western society, be it the right-wing populist movements in Europe or the alt-right in the US, be it Euroscepticism or hate speech on social media.

Again, the superficial observer might conclude that it is only Russia that keeps Western society from being a paradise of harmony and consent.

Now, a hybrid war has been underway for years, with both sides engaging in all sorts of activities, from the cyber to the covert (for reference, see the alleged US support for various ‘colour revolutions’).

The novelty, though, is that the democratic West openly levels the same accusations which used to be the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Namely, that the evil forces of foreign powers actively foster and disseminate political discontent.

For years, Russia has been accusing the West of attempting regime change or supporting ‘subversive’ NGOs like the US-backed National Endowment for Democracy or George Soros’ Open Society network. Now it’s Europe and America’s turn.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.