By Abhimanini Singh Sawhney, Contributing Writer

With the rise of multipolarity in the international system, concerns have arisen over the perceived weakening of the transatlantic alliance. In reaction to this development, this year’s Munich Security Conference centred on Westlessness and the current state of the transatlantic alliance. “Westlessness” is not merely the world becoming less western, but also the West becoming less western, in both ideology and policy. Lack of consultation and deconfliction amongst allies, “apathy and ambivalence” toward defence, changing trends of global conflict, institutional development, etc. are all indicative of the spread of “Westlessness.”

Several European leaders were critical of America’s approach toward international cooperation, and cast aspersions on the strength of the transatlantic alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron drew attention to the emerging ideological difference between the United States and Europe by saying, “…we don’t have the same ideas … and our ideas are the ones that we must defend.” Macron also spoke of the divergences in the path followed by the United States and Europe when he alluded to different visions of Europe’s role in the future. Given the shared history of cooperation between the two Western powers, this statement reflects the degree to which European leaders have been discomfited by the shift to unilateralism, a key concern for the collective defense infrastructure. This discomfiture was made more evident when German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier disparaged the United States of “rejecting the very concept of the international community” and “making itself great again, but at the expense of neighbours and partners.” These concerns were echoed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. 

Heiko Maas (Right) with the Foreign Ministers of France, United Kingdom, and the United States in 2018

American leadership at the conference refuted Europe’s pessimistic outlook. American Secretary of State Micheal Pompeo stated that “the west is winning,” claiming that “the rumours of the death of the transatlantic alliance are greatly over-exaggerated.” Pompeo cited the upcoming Defence-20 exercises as an example of the continuing vitality and strength of transatlantic cooperation, as the exercises are designed to evaluate the readiness and interoperability of European and American land forces. In reaffirming the American commitment to the Europeans in the wake of the failure of the INF treaty, the exercise also aims at assuaging European fears of a weakening NATO and a crumbling transatlantic consensus, as well as boosting defence spending in Europe above the 2% mark. US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper discussed America’s latest national security strategy, with an emphasis on the US engagement with China and Russia in an era of “declared great power competition.”  Esper stated that “America’s concerns about Beijing’s commercial and military expansion should be their concerns as well.”

The remarks of the two camps indicated differences in perception on  the very fundamentals of Western cooperation and influence that has underpinned the conference and alliance structure as a whole. When European leaders spoke of “Westlessness,” emphasis was laid on the reduction in the commonality of Western values and the lack of cohesion in their vision for the future. The understanding that there are tensions in the transatlantic alliance was unspoken, but mutually agreed upon. 

Esper urged Europeans to adopt American concerns despite knowledge of both the Chinese inroads into the European political and economic space and the subsequent Chinese pressure on Europeans toward 5G purchases. Given the comments made by Esper and the pressure that China has placed on Europe, the rift between the United States and Europe is not shrinking. Instead,  concerns of national interest are now being pitted against the desire for transatlantic cooperation. This comes not long after the US’ withdrawal from the INF treaty, a cornerstone of European security, even as it attempts to engage with and boost European security through the Defence-20 exercise. These contradictions – engagement over security matters following withdrawal, or calls for cooperation following withdrawal from agreements – create friction in the relationship between the two partners. This friction is exacerbated by the different, if not opposing European goals and approaches toward engagement with countries like China, Russia and Iran, policies on refugees and the withdrawal from multilateral agreements due to a renewed inward focus in the United States. These individual issues coalesce to form one major roadblock in continuing transatlantic cooperation.  

Furthermore, the American leaders’ remarks did not address core security concerns of the Europeans. There was no discussion on the divergence of future plans of action on matters of engagement with other nations; especially in a time where the balance of power is shifting toward Asia and the Indo-Pacific; and the place of Europe in this American vision of the future. The centrality of these matters as the cause of the discomfiture faced by the Europeans vis-à-vis the transatlantic alliance cannot be understated, and the lack of their addressal is a serious problem. The failure of the American leadership’s assurance of their continued commitment to Europe can therefore be partly attributed to the contradictions in American actions, the uncertainty amongst European nations about their position with the United States following the pivot to Asia, or the failure to address key, high-priority topics. 

The Munich Security Conference has brought to the surface several emerging fissures in the U.S.-Europe dynamic. This indicates two different sets of concerns and priorities, and a subsequent divergence in goals, agenda setting and plans of action. To remedy this, dialogue on what the perpetuation of Western power truly means – technological, economic and military dominance; or commonality of interests, values and a multilateral system – could very well bridge the rift between the United States and Europe. Statements like “the West is winning” are very welcome, but what “winning” looks like is neither clear nor agreed upon. Though the European and American leadership have long established various systems of communication, a series of discussions on “Westlessness” amongst the upper echelons of policy makers, possibly through a closed-door roundtable, would be tremendously useful. The subsequent clarity on how the United States and Europe fit into each other’s long-term vision for the future would thus contribute greatly to an easing of the tensions of the transatlantic consensus. 

Abhimanini Singh Sawhney is a graduate student, simultaneously pursuing a Masters’ in Public Policy from St. Xaviers’ College, Mumbai and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Studies from the University of Mumbai. She graduated from Jai Hind College, University of Mumbai, with a Bachelors’ Degree in Arts (Political Science and History) in 2019. Her major interests are Strategic Studies, with a focus on European Affairs and Indian Foreign Policy. She has also worked in the fields of law and resource development, and has been published in the Indian Journal of Law and Public Policy. She has formerly worked with Observer Research Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank, with a focus on international affairs. She can be contacted at abhimaninisawhney@gmail.com or abhimanini.sawhney@xaviers.edu.in