(CN) — In a speech at an annual gathering in Munich where world leaders and foreign policy experts chew on the state of the world, a tone-deaf Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to dispel European misgivings over the trustworthiness of American leadership and dismiss notions that the power of the West is in decline.
But his bullish speech about American and Western success was met silence with at many points and deepened a sense that the U.S. and Europe see the world in starkly different ways.
Pompeo took to the stage of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday and launched into a speech that directly contradicted the main topic of discussion for this year’s gathering: what to do about a decline of the West’s power and influence in world affairs, a concept the organizers called “Westlessness.”
The setting was, as it has been since the conference began in the 1960s, the five-star Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany. The conference is billed as a “family reunion” where Western leaders can talk frankly about the problems facing the world. Foreign policy leaders from around the world attend too, including from China, Russia and the Middle East.
The day before Pompeo’s speech, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier portrayed a different reality than Pompeo’s. In his speech, the German president warned that the international legal framework to foster peace, created largely by Western powers after World War II, is coming apart. He said international institutions, laws and agreements are being dangerously violated and ignored.
Steinmeier cited Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and China’s actions in the South China Sea, where it is bolstering its military presence allegedly in violation of international law. He also pointed his finger at the U.S.
“Under its current administration, our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community,” Steinmeier said. “Every country, it believes, should look after itself and put its own interests before all others. As if everyone thinking of himself meant that everyone is being considered. ‘Great again’ — even at the expense of neighbors and partners.”
Steinmeier warned that the growing conflict between great powers and rising nationalism is creating “an increasingly destructive dynamic in international politics” and that “its tracks can be followed right to the unending wars with huge loss of life in the Middle East and Libya.”
He warned of a new arms race and said that breakdown in cooperation would leave the world unable to tackle climate change.
“The institutions and authorities which help us to overcome our different traditions, interests and priorities and to translate them into viable compromises are being deliberately weakened,” he said. “The trust that needs years and decades to grow is being put at risk and eroded.
“At a time like this, withdrawing into our national shells leads us into a dead end, into a dark age,” the German president warned. “Only the concept of a global order offers the opportunity to formulate persuasive answers to the challenges of the Anthropocene. That is why we must continue our efforts to create a supranational legal order. It would be dangerous for all of us, big and small, to abandon this ambition or to shrug it off as an idealistic fantasy.”
Then on Saturday, Pompeo dismissed the idea that the West was in decline and attacked other Western leaders for calling into question “America’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance and America’s leadership in the world.”
He took aim at Steinmeier for claiming that the U.S. rejects the “international community.” He also rebutted a 2017 speech by Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s foreign minister, who said the U.S. had come to “question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership.”
He dismissed another speech by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who said the multilateral order was in the midst of “perhaps its gravest crisis since the emergence — its emergence after the Second World War.”
Pompeo replied: “I’m here this morning to tell you the facts. Those statements simply do not affect in any significant way or reflect reality. I am happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly overexaggerated.
“The West is winning. We are collectively winning. We’re doing it together.”
He said the Western model is the most successful “that’s been tried in the history of civilization.”
“It’s why so many people risk a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Greece and Italy, but you don’t see the world’s vulnerable people risking their lives to skip illegally en masse to countries like Iran or to Cuba. It’s why people clamor to study in Cambridge, and not Caracas. It’s why they compete to start businesses in Silicon Valley, but not in St. Petersburg.”
He said countries such as South Korea and Vietnam that follow the Western model are growing richer. He cited the health of the U.S. economy as more evidence that the “West is winning.”
He said what the U.S. was doing to confront China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Islamist terrorists was proof of American leadership and strength.
But his speech will do little to reassure Europeans who are agonizing over their position in a world ever more defined by rivalry between the military superpowers of the United States, China and Russia. Europeans increasingly feel abandoned by the U.S. under President Trump. To the fury of European leaders, Trump has dropped out of several key international agreements, most significantly the Paris climate change agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and efforts to curb nuclear weapons.
In response, European Union leaders now are openly advocating its own go-it-alone approach on the world stage and talking about becoming more independent militarily and politically. French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated that position during the weekend conference.
“If we have no freedom to act then we have no credibility in foreign policy and we can’t be a junior partner to the United States of America,” Macron said.
He added: “When I look at the world as it is being shaped, and that is the theme of your conference this year, there is indeed a weakening of the West.”
Macron said world affairs in the future will be “increasingly pushed by other agendas, other values” than those of the West.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)