'Westlessness': is the west really in a state of peril?

Patrick Wintour diplomatic editor
Photograph: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The chosen theme of the Munich security conference – once a party for Nato and now a Davos for the world’s diplomats – was “westlessness”. The organisers wanted to capture the fear that the west is now so divided and challenged by the rise of China its whole existence has become imperilled.

It was not a concept that won universal acclaim. Margrethe Vestager, the EU vice-president, hit back in one session: “I never thought about ’westlessness’ before. Are we here discussing our own depression and asking the rest of the world to join in as a sort of collective mindfulness exercise? I don’t really don’t get this.” European values – the rule of law and the integrity of the individual – had spread across the world, she insisted.

Similarly the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, refused to succumb to defeatism, pointing out that when refugees flee their chosen destination is normally Europe.

But there was no denying the mood of angst that prevailed in the conference hall, and the sense that new centres of disruptive decision making were emerging to which the west, and especially Europe, were too slow to adapt.

Related: US urges Britain to take another 'hard look' at letting Huawei into 5G

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said the future of the Middle East was no longer being decided in Geneva and New York, the residencies of the UN, but instead in Astana and Sochi, the cities where Russia, Turkey and Iran meet. The cause he said was the White House decision no longer to play the role of omnipresent policeman. The US departure left what Maas described as “geostrategic gaps”, and these were being filled by countries whose values Europe did not share. All this required Germany to answer Emmanuel Macron’s call for a strategic dialogue, especially on defence.

Special deputy of the UN Stephanie Williams and Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, address the media. Photograph: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

So when Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, proclaimed in his optimistic conference speech “we are winning”, the largely European audience was silent and worried in what sense “we” existed any longer.

For despite the large US presence at the conference – more than 40 congressmen and women from both sides of the political divide travelled across the Atlantic to attend – the predominant administration message to Europe was to fall into line on Iran, Nato defence spending, trade and above all Huawei, described by the US defence secretary, Mark Esper, as the poster boy of Chinese predatory economics. Huawei dominated many debates.

Indeed, veteran MSC watcher Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia group, said: “I have never been to one of these conferences in which Europe and the US had been so divided over an issue of national security.”

Both Esper and Pompeo, he said, saw Europe’s decision to give Huawei access to their 5G networks not as a nuanced commercial decision, but as an existential threat to the western world order.

Esper certainly did not hold back, saying: “Huawei and 5G is a textbook example of the China’s strategy to destabilise and to dominate. Dependence on it can make our partners’ digital systems vulnerable and make it difficult to share information with our partners. It can undermine Nato, the most successful alliance in history.”

According to Esper, it also took the US a few years to understand this threat. “Maybe Europe is a little behind in this.”

When asked by former Estonian president Toomas Ilves what alternatives were available to Europe, Esper simply replied “that is a good question”. The laughter revealed he did not yet have a good answer.

“We definitely have to develop an alternative,” said Esper in acknowledgment. The US does not like picking winners, but Esper revealed he has already given Nokia and Ericsson technicians security clearances to work with the US defence to develop a strong competitor to Huawei.

But in the meantime, Europe, including the UK, finds itself in a mincer between the US and China. The US senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of Donald Trump, singled out the UK for criticism saying it would be burning bridges if it chose Huawei. Politics back home he said was “pretty screwed up”, but Huawei was the one issue on which the president and Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader of Congress agree. Pelosi underlined the bipartisanship saying the decision on 5G networks represented a choice between democracy and autocracy.

Nancy Pelosi with members of the US delegation. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Yet the Chinese will be furious if they feel Europe has succumbed to US bullying. Fu Ying a senior member of China’s top legislature and former diplomat, asked Pelosi “Do you really think the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by a single high tech company?”.

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, complained that Esper and Pompeo say the same thing about China wherever they go and dismissed their remarks as lies: “The root cause of all these problems and issues is that the US does not want to see the rapid development and rejuvenation of China, and still less would they want to accept the success of a socialist country.”

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