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Westlessness: the decline of the West

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It would seem only natural that following the continuous rise of the West throughout history, there would sooner or later be a decline. Such concept may be expressed with the term Westlessness, which has been a core topic debated in the annual Munich Security Conference, that took place in February 2020.

With a history that spans for more than 50 years, the conference was conceived as a meeting place where Western policy could be discussed under the shadow of the Cold War, but it soon welcomed many participants from different countries. This year, the debate brought to Munich leaders from all over the world, such as the French President, the US Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister of Russia. The central issue on the table was whether the world and the West itself are becoming less Western. Westlessness is a term coined to describe the newly emerging disorientation about the enduring purpose of the West and its relevance (or lack thereof) in international issues, especially those connected to security.

The question of what the West represents has been debated for a long time. However, one could identify the West with its support for liberal democracy, human rights, a market-based economy, free trade and international cooperation, as well as with its core ideas of reason and universal law deriving from Enlightenment.

Westlessness can be recognized today in the failure of Western ideals both within the West itself, with the return of illiberal democracies and nationalistic trends, and with respect to the rest of the world, where, ever since the Cold War, the Western objective has been to export liberalism, while nowadays it almost seems as if Western powers have stopped fighting for worldwide peace. This is exemplified first and foremost in the fact that both the US and Europe are mostly unwilling to directly intervene in foreign conflicts, preferring to send indirect aids such as training missions or defensive weapons. In remaining indifferent to the reported atrocities in the Syrian combat, the West showed that it no longer feels any humanitarian duty to help. However, the fact that the West wishes to limit its interventions in such conflicts is not completely unexpected given the failures of its recent endeavours. These include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of the past two decades, where no sustainable peace has been obtained and moreover the unstable situation left in Libya, where the only legacy of Europe’s intervention has been more violence.  

The growing irrelevance of the West on the international scene is amplified when compared to the proactiveness of countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, that are expanding their influence and furthering their interests in conflict zones, aided by Western general reluctance to be involved. Tangible evidence of this can be found in the first joint naval exercise held by China, Iran, and Russia in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman, widely interpreted as a message to the US and the world.

Europe seems to be even more inward-looking than the US. In European countries any recent proposals of a military nature have been met by a lack of political consensus and seem to exist more with the aim of fuelling internal political debate rather than that of reaching a realistic peaceful solution elsewhere. Even supposing that the flame of expanding western culture and ideals has been permanently extinguished, Europe, due to its geographic proximity, is itself affected by conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East and could therefore be better off intervening simply for its own self-interest. 

As might be expected there was no absence of contrasting views among participants of the Conference, who attacked the very concept of Westlessness. These included the EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who expressed faith in European values and their lasting influence on the rest of the world and the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who expressed her dissent pointing out that Europe was still a favoured destination for immigration. It might thus be reasonable to conclude that it is precisely the lack of agreement on the West’s current role in the global framework among western leaders that inhibits its ability to remain relevant in the global scene. 

Dal cartaceo di marzo 2020

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