Commentary RESEARCH

Beyond East And West

Aria

2020-02-28 05:03

Zhang Lei
Beijing Review

The 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) was convened on February 14-16 and attracted hordes of senior international decision makers, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Known as the Davos of global security, the MSC has emerged as an important platform for officials and experts to exchange views on international security issues.

The chosen theme of this year's conference was Westlessness, which has three specific aspects: the West is less Western, the world as a whole is less Western and a joint Western strategy is uncertain. According to a security report released on February 10, a multitude of security challenges seem to have become inseparable from what some describe as the decay of the Western project. A series of hotspot global issues were also taken up.

Setting Westlessness as the tone for the meeting was a self-assessment and reflection by some Western leaders on current world developments. But in reality, this theme is a bit of an exaggeration. Even though Western countries are faced with multiple challenges both internally and externally, they still enjoy strong comprehensive strength.

Facing challenges

The Western world has been troubled by a myriad of problems in recent years, mostly represented by the widening rift between Europe and the U.S. in trade, security and other areas. After U.S. President Donald Trump assumed office, his protectionist and isolationist policies in the name of Make America Great Again seriously damaged the transatlantic alliance.

For example, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal posed security concerns for its European allies, which are geographically closer to Iran. The EU, which has always championed free trade, is unhappy about U.S. threats to drop out of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its obstruction of the dispute settlement mechanism. Meanwhile, the U.S. has criticized its European allies on their military expenditure and repeatedly asked them to contribute more to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In addition, the U.S. strengthened cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries in energy and regional security issues in an attempt to divide Europe.

Challenges from inside are also mounting, as the EU now lacks the strategic consensus to improve integration. On one side, the differences between Germany and France, the two most powerful EU countries, are hard to overcome. They hold disparate positions on the Western Balkan countries' accession into the EU, as well as the EU's ties with Russia and NATO. On the other side, there is a deepening disparity between Western European and Central and Eastern European countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban embraced neo-nationalism while rejecting internationalism as the only way to uphold national sovereignty. After the refugee crisis, Central and Eastern European countries, represented by Poland and Hungary, repeated their populist rhetoric, refusing to accept refugees and calling for the reshaping of the European order. Such divergence has driven a wedge in solidarity and slowed EU reform and integration.

Meanwhile, the surge of far-right ideology and political parties is another phenomena that cannot be neglected.

The EU's political pattern has become more fragmented as it faces multiple challenges. The gloomy economy spurred and strengthened the existential sentiment, as far-right parties gained momentum in many EU member states and gained more influence in the EU Parliament. Some of them hoped to introduce strict border controls to respond to the immigration crisis. They also spread intolerance and nationalism in Europe, supporting xenophobia and other oppressive ideologies. As they gained more support, mainstream parties were weakened and mainstream values challenged.

Security outlook

Amid heated major country competition, a debate was sparked on how the EU could play a global leadership role. The EU's capability to safeguard its own security, prosperity and independent diplomacy has met multiple challenges as the world situation evolves, such as China-U.S. trade friction and Brexit.

The new EU Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, is emphasizing geopolitics and aiming to make the EU capable of participating and influencing the global political landscape. It is focused on expanding the EU's competitiveness in the economic sphere and accelerating its defense integration, something Macron has also repeatedly stressed. In 2019, France and Germany signed a new Treaty of Aachen to enhance mutual trust, aiming to preserve each other's core interests under a common security and diplomacy framework, as well as to protect the EU's shared security.

During the MSC, Macron proposed EU reforms to respond to Westlessness, calling on solidarity from members and Germany's participation in accelerating reforms. He also stressed that Europe must find its own answers to climate change, 5G telecommunications standards, artificial intelligence and other areas, adding that ties with Russia must be improved in the long run.

However, there are many uncertainties: whether the EU can realize defense integration, the lack of coordination between Germany and France on strategic issues, some Central and Eastern European countries' discontent with Macron's policies, and a lack of political will and mutual trust among members. Future EU security depends on multiple factors, especially U.S. policy orientation, the distribution of responsibility between the EU and NATO, and whether France and Germany can work in the same direction.

China's voice

Westlessness reflects a perception of the world among some in Europe and the U.S. However, countries must transcend the East-West divergence and the North-South divide and see the world as a community for all, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the conference. He proposed countries go beyond the ideological gap and accommodate historical and cultural differences in order to see the international community as one global family.

The Chinese Government and its people are in the midst of battling the novel coronavirus. It has received enormous support from the international community and progress is being made through rigorous and thorough measures to prevent and control its spread.

This outbreak reminds the world once again that in this period, local issues can easily become global concerns and vice versa. No country can prosper in isolation or meet all challenges on its own, since everyone's interests are closely interconnected.

In the era of globalization, countries face the same challenges, shoulder common responsibilities and have a shared future. This means an effective framework must be set up for multilateral cooperation to jointly tackle the myriad challenges. It also points to the need for committing to multilateral cooperation, whereby international affairs are openly discussed and decided by all involved.

The author is an associate researcher with the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


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2020-02-28 12:45
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