Skip to content

Munich summit questions 'Westlessness'

Fears of a divided West challenged by China are a challenge and opportunity for multilateralism to show its worth, a three-day summit in Munich concluded.

Fears of a divided West challenged by China present a challenge and opportunity for multilateral institutions to show their importance, the world's diplomats concluded at a three-day summit in Munich that ended on Sunday.

The theme of this year's Munich Security Conference, a Davos-like elite gathering for diplomats to debate international security policy, was "Westlessness," a term meant to connote the risks and uncertainty of a new world potentially dominated by China rather than traditional Western powers.

"Far-reaching power shifts in the world and rapid technological change contribute to a sense of anxiety and restlessness. The world is becoming less Western. But more importantly, the West itself may become less Western, too. This is what we call 'Westlessness,'" the Munich Security Report 2020 posited at the outset.

Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sharply criticized Russia, China and the United States for their nationalist agendas at a time when global politics seems to be increasingly more destructive.

"Russia, whether rightly or wrongly offended and alienated, not only annexed Crimea in total disregard of international law. It turned military force and the violent redrawing of borders on the European continent into political instruments again. The result is uncertainty and unpredictability, confrontation and lost trust," he said in his opening speech to the conference.

"Thanks to its impressive rise, China has become an important actor in the international institutions as well, becoming indispensable for the protection of global public goods," he said. "At the same time, it is selective in accepting international law only where it does not run counter to its own interests. Its actions in the South China Sea are unsettling the neighbors in the region. Its actions against minorities in the country disturb us all."

"And under its current administration," he continued, "our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community. Every country, it believes, should look after itself and put its own interests before all others. As if everyone thinking of himself meant that everyone is being considered. 'Great again' — even at the expense of neighbors and partners."

It was a step beyond last year's conference, at which European and Asian leaders focused on U.S. President Donald Trump’s isolationism and enmity for international organizations and multilateral solutions that put the world at more risk of conflicts and war. This time, they explored more of what could eventually result from a breakdown in transatlantic relations under the Trump administration.


Trump has withdrawn the United States from a series of U.N.-led and other major international organizations and treaties, including the U.N. Human Rights Council, UNESCO, 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied that Trump has been neglecting America's leadership role. “I’m happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated,” Pompeo said. “The West is winning.”

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, however, that the Trump administration's withdrawal from the world stage has created a vacuum of "geo-strategic gaps" that is being filled by nations with different values than Europeans. He said the Middle East's long-running wars and conflicts were being decided in Astana and Sochi, the cities used for diplomatic meetings between Russia, Turkey and Iran, rather than convening United Nations-led peace talks among world powers at New York and Geneva.

"Even among close partners, like those in the European Union or across the Atlantic, as we're finding out there are differences of view. We need to listen to each other. If we don't listen to each other, we have a problem," the conference chair, German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador to the U.S., said in his closing remarks.

Ischinger said there was some reason for optimism in the world, pointing to the example of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia, who met for the first time in Munich to air their grievances at a public debate despite their nations having no formal diplomatic relations. The standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan hinges on the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

U.N. Security Council resolutions have recognized the ethnic Armenian region, where 150,000 people live, as part of Azerbaijan since the 1990s. But local ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia's government put the region under their control since 1994, after a six-year separatist war. Aliyev argued the dispute goes back to the 1805 Treaty of Kurekchay, between Russia and Persia. Pashinyan contended it went back further to the first-century B.C. era of Armenian king Tigranes the Great.

Tech fault lines

The conference also highlighted serious fissures between governments and tech companies. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked countries to avoid the Chinese tech giant Huawei as a mobile industry partner for new infrastructure networks using 5G, or fifth-generation wireless technology.

“China is seeking to export its digital autocracy through its telecommunication giant Huawei,” Pelosi said. “Nations cannot cede our telecommunication infrastructure to China for financial expediency." She said China's leadership "undermines democratic values, human rights, economic independence and national security" at a time when "we must instead move to an internationalization.”

Chinese former diplomat Fu Ying, a senior member of China’s top legislature, asked Pelosi if she thought Western democracy was “so fragile that it could be threatened by a single high tech company." The Trump administration has raised similar concerns about Huawei, the world’s biggest telecommunications equipment maker, and wants other countries to avoid using its networks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged nations to “wake up” to China's strategy of using — and, he said, stealing — emerging technologies like 5G to give its government more control over private lives. Many European nations share those concerns, but they see few alternatives to Chinese technology.

Esper, who often criticizes China, acknowledged that a practical alternative to Huawei's technology has not yet been developed. He put China atop the list of potential U.S. adversaries, even ahead of Russia and "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iran, along with militant extremist groups.

“The Communist Party and its associated organs, including the People’s Liberation Army, are increasingly operating in theaters outside its borders, including Europe, and seeking advantage by any means, and at any cost,” he said. “We want China to behave like a normal country."

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his nation has a "right to development shared by all countries." He dismissed the American officials' remarks as lies and distortions meant to prevent the rapid development and rejuvenation of China and, particularly, the ascendancy of a socialist nation.

"The West also needs to eschew the subconscious belief in the superiority of its civilization and abandon its prejudices and anxieties regarding China," he said in his speech.

"It needs to respect the choices of the Chinese people and accept and welcome the development and rejuvenation of a major country in the East, one with a system different from the West," he said. "For China's development and rejuvenation is an important part of human progress and embodies the colorful diversity brought by multilateralism."

Movement on Libya, Iran and Afghanistan

Nations that had gathered on January 19 in Berlin for a previous summit hosted by Germany and the United Nations met again on the sidelines of the Munich conference, where they recommitted to upholding a much-violated arms embargo in Libya's civil war.

That included the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — along with Italy, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. They launched an international committee to continue the talks chaired by Italy next month in Rome. The United Nations may also soon launch a Libyan political forum for dialogue in Geneva.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the U.S. killing of Iran's Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a January 3 drone strike was a miscalculation that increased support in Iraq for the removal of American troops, which is one of Tehran's goals. Since the killing, thousands of Iraqis have protested against the presence of foreign troops in their country.

Zarif and Maas also met on the sidelines of the Munich conference to discuss the fraying Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which allowed Iran’s economic opening to the West in exchange for curbs on its nuclear ambitions.

Since Trump unilaterally reneged on the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, Iran's economy has been suffering and the government has begun violating the deal's limits to pressure Europe to give it better terms. Zarif said his nation's economy would not entirely collapse.

“President Trump has been convinced that we are about to collapse so he doesn’t want to talk to a collapsing regime,” Zarif said. “I believe President Trump, unfortunately, does not have good advisers."

Maas also rejected the U.S. tactic of imposing "maximum pressure" on Iran. “We are sticking firmly to our course in the Middle East, and that is de-escalation instead of maximum pressure,” he said.

Also meeting on the sidelines of the Munich conference, the United States and the Taliban agreed to a week-long, nationwide truce that could lead to the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and an end to 18 years of war.

Peace negotiations would include Afghans on both sides of the conflict and the Taliban's commitment not to harbor terrorist groups like al Qaida. Trump made a campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from foreign conflicts, while the Taliban has been seeking legitimacy in its rule.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who attended the Munich conference, led the talks with the Taliban. U.S. officials are expected to announce an initial reduction in American troops to 8,600, down from the current level of 12,000, if the deal holds. It could take up to a year and a half to complete the pullout.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters in Washington that "it’s going to take several weeks for this to unfold, but it’s very encouraging that we’re heading down a path to a political solution."