The Munich Security Conference last weekend produced many reports of European nerviness about the Trump administration’s commitment to Nato. Mike Pence, the United States vice president, and James Mattis, defence secretary, tried to reassure their transatlantic allies, but a note of conditionality was once again struck, and a continent wary of Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia was left uneasy.
Still more extraordinary was not just Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, calling for a post-West world order, but the former Republican presidential contender John McCain taking part in a discussion that asked whether the West would survive. The very notion of debating such a topic would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
But perhaps it is right that the question be raised, and for it to be accompanied by another: does the West deserve to survive? For it is clear that one part of that collective entity – most of Europe, and a collection of other nations generally settled by or semi-populated by Europeans and their descendants – has long relied far too much on the United States.
Europe in particular has a history of trying to have it both ways. While the US spends 3.6 per cent of GDP on defence, only five Nato countries meet the 2 per cent of GDP threshold all member states are supposed to commit.
At Munich last week, Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was nonchalant about his country’s woeful disregard for this target. (Germany spends only 1.2 per cent of GDP on defence.) “I don’t know where Germany can find billions of euros to boost defence spending if politicians also want to lower taxes,” he said.
Many European countries are also unreliable allies when it comes to American foreign policy. They may have good reason to voice reservations, such as when France stood against the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Still, many Americans clearly resented the lack of support, as the designation of the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and of French fries as “freedom fries” in the House of Representatives cafeteria showed.
Further, despite being eager consumers of American culture, from pop music to clothes, to that lamentable contribution to world cuisine, the fast-food burger, Europeans have long been prey to a certain snobbishness about America, at times extending to such a radical disdain that the US, to some, can never be seen to do good, its motives and its actions always cast as self-centred or malicious.
And yet Europe has continued to rely on America: not just during the decades of the Cold War, but more recently in the Anglo-French led intervention that toppled Colonel Qaddafi when, as the then US defence secretary Robert Gates pointed out, only 11 days into the mission “many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”
His rebuke was well-earned. When it comes to the crunch, Europe always expects the US cavalry to ride to the rescue. Relations with Russia are another case in point. For all that it is still a great power, Russia, shorn of its former Soviet republics and the Eastern Bloc, is a country of only 146 million. The European Union contains over 500 million. But when Mr Putin says “boo”, Europe rushes to clutch America’s skirts.
The new US administration has, however, made clear that its appetite for being the eternal protector of a continent that refuses to fend for itself is limited. Many – especially critics of what they see as American imperialism – will applaud that. But it means that the idea of the West as it exists in Europe will have to be more self-supporting.
In short, Europe will have to start pulling its weight. At this point it will be objected that the definition of the West consists of far more than the security alliance that underpins it. Does it not also mean Shakespeare and Schopenhauer, liberal democracy, a progressive interpretation of human rights, all springing from the soil of centuries of Roman-Judaeo-Christian tradition?
To a point, yes: although reassertive nationalism now competes with late-20th-century multiculturalism and the steadily evolving consensus about tolerance, the role and appropriate prominence of religion and individual versus communal rights is fracturing. Is Hungary under Viktor Orban still part of the West, as we usually understand the term? Would France be with Marine Le Pen as president or Holland with Geert Wilders as prime minister?
The West was once the inheritor of Christendom. Today, it is not entirely sure what it is, with many voices violently clashing over their views of what it should be. It lacks the certainty in its own civilisation that Russia and China, for instance, possess.
Nato was, on the other hand, an alliance nearly all in the West could agree on, with even neutral states such as Switzerland and Ireland co-operating in the Nato Partnership for Peace programme (just as they had also effectively been protected during the Cold War). Now the European West is feeling insecure because America has said it wants its allies to pay their fair share. It is a perfectly reasonable request.
So if the West as we know it is to survive, instead of Europe’s eastern flank being drawn into a new Russian sphere of influence, while other countries retreat into nationalistic xenophobia, the continent has to muster the will to meet its commitments.
If it is too tired or unwilling to defend itself, the US will survive for sure; but the concept of “the West” will have dissolved through the apathy of societies who will have shown they have no courage – and not many convictions either.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia