The 2020 Munich Security Conference showed how the ties that bind global players together are being weaponised in a new great power competition.  

It is rare that an international conference perfectly captures the mood of the moment, but that is what this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) achieved with its concept of “Westlessness”.

This strange Germanic neologism denotes the state of anomie that has afflicted the geopolitical debate for several years. By forcing leaders to face up to the breakdown of their historical outlook, Wolfgang Ischinger and his team may have, over the course of a long weekend, encouraged German and other European leaders to escape their embrace of a status quo that no longer exists – and to begin to map a path towards a new idea of world order. Within such an order, a more sovereign Europe would become a better partner to a more socially equal United States on global problems, and the technological giants that have disrupted our economies, societies, and political systems would be regulated in the public interest.

This year’s MSC brought together many of the disruptors of the old order. Mark Zuckerberg talked about the way that Facebook’s digital empire has upended politics and unsettled established political parties. The Chinese foreign minister exuded confidence in spearheading the generational shift from a unipolar world to a bipolar one. Mike Pompeo talked about the American fightback through all available means – from trade and technology to diplomacy and efforts to undermine international institutions. Each of the thematic discussions – from climate change and the regulation of the digital world to the situation in regions such as the Middle East, (north) Africa, the Balkans, and eastern Europe – was coloured by the geopolitical posturing of these central actors. In each area, one could see how the ties that bind different players together – from trade and migration to energy and the internet – are being weaponised in a new great power competition.

But, though the topics were bracing, the conference tried hard to stop Westlessness from morphing into hopelessness. Alongside representatives of the Trump administration, Nancy Pelosi led a large congressional delegation with a message that another transatlantic future is possible. The programme of the conference was underpinned by a clear teleology. After presenting all the conflicts and changes in the world, it ended with what the organisers hoped could be a solution: the emergence of Europe as a geopolitical actor.

The stage was set by Emmanuel Macron’s defence of European sovereignty. More surprising, perhaps, was an attempt to show how Germany could return to its traditional role as a motor for European unity, with a panel that contained some pretenders to the leadership of the country: Green leader Anna-Lena Baerbock and the minister president of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet. And one of the most active voices on the fringe was that of the newly declared candidate for the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union, ECFR co-chair Norbert Röttgen, who combined calls for tough action on 5G with a vision for a stronger Europe.

The dramaturgy of the event was brave, as it went into some of the most painful debates afflicting Germany. No other country has benefited as much from the alliance with the US, the integration of Europe, or globalisation. The erosion and transformation of each of these pillars have left the German political class feeling fundamentally deracinated. The first instinct has been one of denial: trying to preserve the world of yesterday rather than developing a politics of the future. But the organisers of the event have tried to chart a path out of Westlessness and towards a redefinition of German and European interests.

The conference tried hard to stop Westlessness from morphing into hopelessness.

I found the Germans’ changed view of themselves particularly interesting. While Joachim Gauck spoke of “the best Germany we have ever had” at the 2014 MSC, Frank Walter Steinmeier said in 2020 that “the evil spirits of the past – ethnocentric thinking, racism, anti-Semitism – [are] re-emerging in our country in a new guise”. Within six years, Germany has changed on the inside. This is intriguing because Gauck was implicitly promising that we Germans should have more trust in ourselves and, therefore, should do more internationally without the fear of ending up on the wrong side of history. Steinmeier no longer felt able to make such a promise as unconditionally after recent events in Thuringia. But, by making a speech like this, he was encouraging Germans to become the best versions of ourselves.

For ECFR, this was a particularly exciting conference. We organised with Alexander Soros of the Open Society Foundations a dinner with a new generation of leaders – led by Mark Rutte and Röttgen on the European side, and by Chris Murphy, Elissa Slotkin, and Jake Sullivan on the US side – to map out a new transatlantic relationship based on the challenges of the future rather than nostalgia for the cold war. We also organised a lunch on European strategic sovereignty with ministers and top officials from ten European countries, as well as EU institutions in Brussels. And an ECFR delegation led by Javier Solana and Carl Bildt met with Javad Zarif to discuss insecurity in the Middle East – a topic that Ellie Geranmayeh was working on throughout the weekend.

Live from the #MSC2020

Many of ECFR’s fellows took part in important discussions about the future of our world. Janka Oertel chaired an event on China and multilateralism, bringing some of the thinking inside the conference to the citizens of Munich Ulrike Franke spoke about the role of Germany in Europe and in the world; and Jana Puglierin about European defence. It was Jana who declared that, after three days, the big challenge facing all participants was one of sleeplessness rather than Westlessness – but, once its effects wear off, I think the world will seem a better place for MSC 2020. By forcing participants to look in a clear-eyed way at the breakdown of the post-cold war order, the organisers of MSC 2020 have made it possible to have a real debate about the kind of world that could succeed it.

Read more on: European Power, Transatlantic relationship

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.