“Today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier so in many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”
– Vaclav Havel
While Vaclav Havel spoke those words in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994, they seem to capture today’s dilemmas as well. At that time, it seemed to be a very counterintuitive perspective, especially in the U.S. After all, Americans had just celebrated the end of the Cold War and were marking a unipolar moment in world history where the U.S. strode across the world stage as the most powerful nation in history. Yet almost a quarter century later we are indeed still caught between the two forces Havel described: limitless possibilities and spreading uncertainty.
Last weekend in Munich was a demonstration of both. The gathering of hundreds of political leaders and experts at the Security Conference was testimony to the possibilities of political, economic, and technological bridge-building on a global scale. Defining challenges and choices to deal with shared threats and opportunities was and is a goal of that conference.
Representatives of international organizations, corporate leaders, and dozens of national government figures assembled to ring alarms bells, proclaim intentions, and even discuss solutions. That was particularly the case with European representatives with regard to the need for “more Europe” in forging a common defense, a common foreign policy, and a common future.
Yet there was also the presence of the forces of possibility and uncertainty. We saw evidence of Havel’s statement that people “cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe,” with the same result he saw nearly three decades ago: “individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others.”
Those perceived “ancient certainties” contain the seeds of suspicions and fear, which undermine the search for common ground. We see this in the rise of a revived nationalist fervor, ethnic tensions, distrust of institutions, and backlash against change.
In Munich we saw old conflicts continue to play out in the Middle East, escalated verbally with threats, charges, and accusations. That dynamic was most vivid in the back-to-back presentations of Israel’s prime minister, the foreign minister of Iran, and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia—all three unwilling to even consider talking to each other.
We even saw leaders of some other countries unwilling to appear next to each other on a stage, presenting diametrically divergent depictions of the world they inhabit. We heard threats of retaliation in the name of self-defense. We heard efforts to revise history and even ignore it. We heard competing and conflicting narratives of the world with fewer references to common denominators and more inner differences.
We also saw the United States less engaged in the Munich Security Conference than in earlier years, measured by the unwillingness of both the defense secretary and the secretary of state to make any public presentations, leaving it primarily to national security advisor H.R. McMaster to publicly present the Trump administration’s views.
There was, in fact, little coming from the U.S. administration on visions of the future and more worries in the audience about the apparent lack of coherence in the unending stream of tweets from the White House. Some members of Congress tried to reassure the audiences in Munich by telling people not to focus too much on those tweets but Trump’s repeated rants—including criticism of McMaster—continued to undermine those efforts.
Taking stock of the many crises around the globe would suggest that we are losing ground in sustaining a peaceful world.
Taking stock of the many crises around the globe would suggest that we are losing ground in sustaining a peaceful world: continued mass killings in Syria; millions of refugees seeking asylum from violence, hunger, and poverty; a resurgence of protectionist policies among nations directed at trade or immigrants; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the dangers of cyber warfare. In that mix is also the weakening of democracies as they struggle with polarized processes of governments unable to reach consensus in solving problems such as climate change or economic disparities, which in turn generates more impatience and anger among voters.
Germany served as one illustration of some of these challenges. Five months after an election which has not yet yielded a new government, the acting defense and foreign ministers were operating in a holding pattern. Both Ursula von der Leyen and Sigmar Gabriel were adamant in their call for a stronger Europe but there remain serious challenges to achieving that, not the least of which is the final vote by the SPD membership on a new coalition.
But there are other gaps between rhetoric and reality.
While von der Leyen argued that “we remain transatlantic but need to become more European,” the capacities of the Bundeswehr were severely criticized in a recent report issued by the Parliamentary Armed Forces Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels. And while Sigmar Gabriel proclaimed that Europe will not be divided by Russia, China, or—added for emphasis—the U.S., there remain deep fissures and bureaucratic obstacles within the EU over a joint path forward—not the least of which are the management of the biggest crisis the EU has ever faced in the form of Brexit and the continuing battle over dealing with the flow of refugees.
Where does this leave us? The paradox which Havel identified a quarter century ago is still with us. We have a vast array of tools at our command to deal with the challenges we face but we are at odds on how to apply them. We can see the possibilities of the sum of our global efforts being greater than its parts, but we are weighed down by zero-sum thinking in national frameworks. Some historians point to the fact that this year marks the centennial of the end of World War I—the war that was to end all wars and open a new chapter to make the world peaceful and safe for democracy. That effort failed for reasons that appear to echo in today’s world what Havel warned us about: “no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world.”
We appear to be in a transitional stage, one that is seriously testing assumptions and institutions that have served as the foundation of the so-called Western liberal democratic order. Added to this is the fact that the traditional role of the United States as a global rule-setter and enforcer in many institutional settings is now in jeopardy as the Trump administration signals inward “America First” thinking. That leaves open the opportunity for other countries to take the cue and become larger forces shaping the global agenda. Indeed, one of the main actors challenging that order—China—is openly proclaiming that its system may be more efficient than its western democratic counterparts.
At the end of the MSC, participants were left with far more questions than answers, more uncertainties, and perhaps less confidence in solutions to challenges ahead. Havel warned us that objective explanations may not be enough to understand our predicaments as that also requires empathy. But at a minimum we need to find common ground in the descriptions of our challenges with the hope of finding prescriptions for their solutions. That much is certain.