This year’s Munich Security Conference was held amid an atmosphere of deepening global geopolitical conflicts. This meeting carries vital importance for those who will be assessing global politics in the first quarter of the 21st century for decades to come, in terms of its dilemmas, and the actors who stood and did not stand together on certain issues. Rather than creating positive solutions aiming to solve problems, the conference demonstrated the depth of current global problems and further pointed at the possible future tensions that are likely to happen. When we look at it from this perspective, it would not be fair to say that the conference was futile.
The biggest contribution of the event to international relations is, without doubt, the circulation of the concept of “Westlessness,” which was brought to the agenda as a result of the Munich Security Report 2020, prepared right before the conference. It is not easy to thoroughly define this concept. For now, we can make do with “the isolation of the West,” and we can say that the essence of this concept alludes to deep disagreements within the North Atlantic alliance.
One important issue to be stressed within the framework of Munich Security Report 2020 is a list on page 15 of the document of crisis areas to watch in 2020. For us, the most remarkable aspect of this 10-country list is that Syria is not on it. The simplest explanation is that Syria, with its grave problems and immigration issues, has now become a taboo.
The report not mentioning the Syria crisis shows that the fate of the process has been left up to the deals with the U.S. and Russia, rather than the international community. According to experts working for the Munich Security Conference and in light of International Crisis Group assessments, the following 10 countries need to be watched closely in 2020:
- Burkina Faso
- The U.S., Iran, Israel, Iran Gulf Region
The U.S. and North Korea
In the wake of the conference, Syria failing to make the list in spite of its high level of humanitarian and political crisis is food for thought. Let us now return to the Munich conference and the concept of “Westlessness,” which is expected to have a big impact on international relations from now on.
Wide gap between US, EU weakened ‘Western world’
The concept of “Westlessness” questions the global role of the overbearing political and military structure embodied within the North Atlantic alliance – NATO, as we know today. The first explanation of the meaning of the concept came from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his speech at Munich. According to Steinmeier, the concept, which represents the global fall in Western influence, emerged as a result of two factors, including the direction of U.S. President Trump’s policies after he took office. For Steinmeier, the Trump administration has moved the country further away from its peacemaking and peacekeeping role. This change of approach weakens the image and power of not only the U.S., but also the entire “Western world” on a global scale.
According to Steinmeier, the second factor resulting in the concept of Westlessness is that Europe is drowning in its own domestic problems. In addition, some other global problems seemingly out of the European framework are about to create issues for Europe, but it is safe to say that the old continent is not ready for this challenge. That the Western world, represented mainly by Europe, has lost its capacity to solve problems locally, globally, and especially in regions it once saw as its natural domain are seen as signs of the West’s decline. Steinmeier’s warning while explaining the concept was also quite important. The German president criticized the U.S. pulling out of the agreement aimed at reining in Iran’s nuclear program, saying that we are going through an era where “international agreements are easily breached.” Stating that the UN’s importance declines every day, the German president said destructive dynamics are at hand in global politics. He warned that the infamous “Great Power Competition” is back.
It is useful to mention Steinmeier’s example together with the U.S. “Peace Plan of the Century,” which seeks to overrule UN resolutions on Palestine, sowing further chaos in the region. That the German president said “international agreements are easily breached” reminds us of conditions before the two world wars.
While dealing with the concept of Westlessness, which indicates there is a huge gap between the U.S. and Europe today, we need to ask the question “which West?” as observers from Turkey. What exactly does the “West” or the “Western world” mean? Apparently the U.S. and Europe have two distinctly separate concepts of the West today. Who exactly is the West represented by Europe? Are we allowed to evaluate the U.K. within this West? The U.K.’s complicated relationship with China sends the U.K. into further conflicts of interest. Therefore, having left the EU, does the U.K. constitute a third version of the West? If we bear in mind that the concept of Westlessness emerged in Germany, we can ask the following: Is the idea that the West is in decline and has lost its global power merely a German delusion? Having lost its locomotive power within the EU, is Germany projecting its own loss of power onto the entire Western world?
While seeking an answer to this last question, it is useful to think about the ruling German CDU’s alliance with the extreme right-wing AfD party in Thuringia, and the ensuing crisis. This crisis resulted in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom Angela Merkel saw as her successor, announcing she would not seek the chancellorship in 2021. However, the crisis does not seem to end here. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell said they would “reorganize right-wing politics in Germany” in May 2018, even before he presented his letter of credentials. We see that this projection came true in recent years. Consequently, this situation shows that Berlin is trying to define itself and the entire Western world on a new axis. The current complicated situation of France on a domestic and international scale under President Emanuel Macron also demonstrates that the issue is far too heavy for the current Western realpolitik to bear.
One answer for the concept of Westlessness, originating in Munich and detailed by Steinmeier, came from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on day two of the conference. Pompeo said that ideas about the decline of the West, alluded to by Steinmeier and Macron, do not reflect reality. In his speech, he said: “The West is winning, freedom and democracy are winning, we are all winning together.” He called claims that the transatlantic alliance is dead “grossly over-exaggerated,” complaining that the U.S.’ European partners are failing to capitalize on this alleged win. According to him, the three sources of anxiety for the Western world are Russia, Iran, and China, which laid bare the conflicts among the parties once again. Saying that the European countries should not be collaborating with Chinese Huawei in 5G technology, he said tech brands controlled by Beijing are Trojan horses, nothing more. Pompeo accused Russia of pitting Western allies against one another through disinformation operations, adding that Iran also disrupts stability in the Middle East through cyber-attacks.
Three Seas Initiative
The “Three Seas Initiative,” mentioned by Pompeo in Munich, is one of the issues Turkey needs to deal with in the short run. Threatening Turkey and Germany with sanctions due to Turk Stream and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, the U.S. is working to disrupt Russia’s energy collaborations in Europe. The “Three Seas Initiative,” covering the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea along with 12 EU countries, was first brought up in 2015. That 11 of these 12 countries are NATO members makes this initiative even more important in terms of Trump’s expectations (These 12 countries are Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia). Pompeo said the U.S. is set to make a billion-dollar infrastructure investment to help these countries stop being dependent on Russia for oil and natural gas. This means a new “Marshall Energy Plan” is going forward.
Washington is ready to take concrete steps to keep continental Europe away from China in tech, and from Russia in energy. Macron’s statement that “Europe needs its own strategies if it wants become a strategic political power” has little resonance at this point. Besides, it is clear that Washington will not take Macron seriously in his claim that sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea are no longer effective and that there is a need to reshuffle strategic dialogue with Moscow. NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg’s call for unity, “I do not believe in a lonely Europe. I also do not believe in a lonely U.S. Europe and the U.S. can only exist together,” is nothing more than wishful thinking if we consider the fact that the parties’ economic interests have drastically changed course.
Consequently, the Munich Security Conference transformed into a platform in which the U.S. repeated its threats on issues that have to do with Russia, Iran and China – just like at London’s NATO summit last November. The conference will be remembered for its messages along with numerous bilateral meetings between parties. It is useful to stress one of these meetings, which covered major conflict areas such as Syria, Libya, and Ukraine. The first day of the conference, Feb. 15, saw a meeting between Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This remarkable meeting took place in a meeting room allocated for Lavrov’s use at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, which hosted the conference. What makes this meeting interesting is that the U.S. press was left ignorant of the meeting and were not allowed to follow it, while the Russian press was in the know. The American press got hold of this meeting through a Facebook post by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. She supported her statement with a photo of Pompeo leaving Lavrov’s meeting room. According to Russian sources, the two parties decided not to give statements about the meeting at the request of the U.S. They also agreed not to take pictures of Pompeo and Lavrov shaking hands. When the media learned about the meeting, U.S. diplomatic sources tried to persuade them that this was only an informal meeting, nothing more. The content of the meeting remains a mystery. There is reason to believe that Steinmeier’s definitions of the concept of Westlessness and his remarks on international agreements being easily breached makes much more sense when we think of these nondescript, mysterious negotiations.
The Munich conference paved the way for a debate of the Western world and Europe’s existential problems, but it left no space for problems created by Europe to be discussed. Issues such as mass migration in the Mediterranean, social uprisings in North Africa, climate security, and the rise of the extreme right in Europe mentioned in the Munich Security Report 2020 published on the eve of the conference were not thoroughly discussed, so got little play in the press. To understand the possible impact of the concept of Westlessness on Turkish-NATO and Turkish-EU relations, and the impact of “Three Seas Initiative” on Turkey’s role in international energy market, we need to keep a close eye on these issues and in these regions in the near future.