MUNICH – The West is failing and conflict with China is inevitable. Or is it? To judge from the hand-wringing at the high-powered Munich Security Conference last weekend, the only consensus about Western power right now is that there is no consensus.
Munich is an interesting event. In a small but ridiculously ornate Bavarian hotel, world leaders trailed by delegations and security details as big as their personalities squeeze past former global figures and sycophants, ambassadors and legislators, bureaucrats of today and yesterday, opposition-party officials patiently lying in wait, academics and scholars, a very skeptical global press, and a smattering of wide-eyed young professionals.
Everyone talks. The whole affair feels like a scene of whispering courtesans in Dangerous Liaisons, if it happened inside a crowded London tube station at rush hour. All that’s missing are the wigs.
Instead of dalliances, the two issues that hung over every hallway conversation were: What to do about China? And what to do about ourselves, the West?
They whispered about the conference theme — “Westlessness” — which asks, “Is the world becoming less Western?”
Then they whispered about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. His tough-talking speech, titled “The West is Winning,” meant to rebut the whiny intelligentsia who doubt America’s and Trump’s global leadership, and to rally the room against the invited onlookers from China, Russia, and Iran. It didn’t exactly work.
“Let’s be straight up,” Pompeo said. “The United States is out there fighting alongside you for sovereignty and freedom. We should have confidence in our alliances and our friends. The free West has a far brighter future than illiberal alternatives. We’re winning – and we’re doing it together.”
Pompeo said the word “winning” eight times in his speech. It’s one of Trump’s favorite words, but if you have to say it eight times – well, one observer in the transatlantic, smart-suited crowd muttered to me afterward that America’s top diplomat sounded more like an abusive husband emotionally harassing his battered wife, if the wife were Europe.
They next whispered about how quickly Pompeo’s rah-rah message was undercut by Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s own remarks. The rise of China, Esper declared, was in fact “the Pentagon’s top concern” and one that should “wake up” Europeans and draw them to America’s side.
“Under President Xi’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction – more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture,” Esper said. “I continue to stress to my friends in Europe – and just this past week again at the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels – that America’s concerns about Beijing’s commercial and military expansion should be their concerns as well.”
Several former U.S. officials remarked to me afterward that Esper’s speech exposed the seriousness of the administration’s worry about Western disunity, as the defense secretary went from issue to issue, on China’s military buildup, the South China Sea, the belt-and-road initiative, 5G, human rights, free speech, free press, intellectual property theft, and so on.
After Esper spoke came the belle of the ball: French President Emmanuel Macron, who delivered the conference’s best performance, and another pro-European rallying cry.
“When I look at the world as it is,” Macron told conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger in a lengthy live interview, “there is indeed a weakening of the West.” NATO and transatlantic unity is well and good, he said, but he called for more “European freedom of action,” in areas like defense (including with nuclear weapons) and the need to revive European strategic and political independence. He spoke of European-only solutions to Eurocentric problems of the region.
“Today in our countries, people are doubting Europe, sometimes even the idea of democracy — the extremes are rising — and our ability to respond together. So, what is the outlook for Europe over the next 20 to 30 years? That is what is at stake,” he said, in French.
“We cannot be a junior partner of the United States of America,” he added. “If the Europeans have an already common strategy, they can then claim to have a strategy with the Americans.”
After the speeches, one German television reporter commented on air, “I think Mike Pompeo is pretty much the only one you would get the quote here from that ‘the West is winning’ internationally.”
So, what’s to make of the moment? We already knew European and U.S. leaders are talking about China more than ever. We already knew the European view of China is much different than Washington’s. What Munich exposed was just how early we are in this age, as Esper put it, of “awakening” to China.
Right or wrong, the treatment of Chinese telecom giant Huawei is Washington’s litmus test for whether other countries are serious about the China threat. European and U.S. security leaders can’t agree whether Huawei’s alleged backdoors and spyware are an acceptable nuisance of the modern networked world, or whether the company is a serious security threat that steals Western technology and will leak the West’s most sensitive secrets right into China’s military and intelligence services.
Some attendees argued about the argument, suggesting that Washington may already have lost the Huawei battle. Germany recently balked at the Trump administration’s pleas to ban Huawei’s 5G gear. Yet others said even the U.K. remains split on whether to proceed w Huawei. Clearly, the Americans don’t believe China has won, or else they wouldn’t still be making their case.
One softer voice who made her own compelling argument against China was U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She also rejected Pompeo’s chest-thumping about the West, yet stood firmly with the senior Trump administration officials, offering a different tone and approach. For her, the issue is not just about security, intelligence sharing, or a technological purity competition.
“Nations cannot cede our telecommunication infrastructure to China for financial expediency,” Pelosi said. “Such an ill-conceived concession will only embolden Xi as he undermines democratic values, human rights, economic independence and national security.”
Pelosi called on Europe and the United States to work together and find an international technological solution – any solution, as long as it’s not from China.
“This is so predictable, I don’t know why it’s not self-evident to everyone that you do not want to give that power to an entity created by the People’s Liberation Army,” she said.
The information highway is essential to democracy, Pelosi argued. In an interesting exchange, several audience members (including the vice president of France’s Senate, and Latvia’s vice prime minister and defense minister) asked her about the rise of angry nationalist and populist voices in the West, fragmenting democracies from within. So Pelosi brought even that topic back to the question of using Chinese 5G.
“It also goes back to 5G because if you are talking about more or less democracy, while the internet has democratized communications in some ways for better, in some ways not so,” she said. “If you are expanding that communications and you are doing so in a way that is slanted to autocracy, then you are standing in the way of more democracy. These things are not unrelated.”
Later in the evening, American and Chinese views went head-to-head in a private dinner. Former Secretary of State John Kerry stood next to China’s former foreign minister Fu Ying and delivered a stump speech worthy of his 2004 presidential campaign. He warned that Western scholars, commentators, and media were pushing the United States and China toward inevitable conflict that, he said, would be as “stupid” and devastating as World War I. Then he pointedly called China belligerent and unfair, its Uighur policy “racist,” and their South China Sea islands easy targets that would be destroyed 10 minutes into any conflict with the United States.
“I say to my friends from China: ‘We have to be really smart and really careful.’”
Kerry, who as secretary of State was privy to the deepest secrets of modern communication technology, also warned against Huawei’s 5G.
“There are such things as back doors. There are such things as trap doors. They exist,” he said.
Kerry said he wants 5G developed as quickly and affordably as possible, but asked, “Why don’t we actually talk about how we can do that? How we can guarantee the accountability and the transparency and the mutuality, so that all of us are assured no one is trying to gain an advantage?”
Nobody around the long table offered an answer before the dessert course, but Kerry made his point.
“I have always believed there is no need for China and the United States to lead the world to a new Cold War,” he said.
He may not have to worry. The Cold War had only two sides. In Munich, the sides were too many to count.