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The Free-ish World

· 7 min read
The Free-ish World
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

A review of World in Danger: Germany and Europe in an Uncertain Time by Wolfgang Ischinger, Brookings, 280 pages (November, 2020)

Every winter in Bavaria, the great and the good from Europe and the United States gather to take stock of the threats facing the world. The Munich Security Conference can be a rather surly affair—a mini-Davos for crotchety statesmen and paranoiacs in bespoke suits. But in recent years the heads of state, CEOs, and activists who gathered at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof have had especially good reason to be glum.

The liberal order that arose from the ashes of World War Two is fraying at an alarming rate. This order has been an unprecedented boon to civilization. Since its creation, the spread of democracy, free trade, and liberalized markets has enriched vast swathes of the planet. Hot wars between great powers, meanwhile, all but vanished during what has come to be known as the “long peace.”

Much of this remarkable progress will be at risk should a multipolar world replace the era of American dominance. For some years, a host of revisionist powers with no interest in the prevailing order have begun to challenge it. In Europe’s backyard, Putin’s Russia is on a mission to undo adverse agreements with former Soviet states and press Russia’s interests deep into its “near abroad.” Revising the balance of power in East Asia, Xi’s China is determined to establish new strongholds in the Pacific and reclaim its centrality in the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran keeps working on a nuclear option, and its own bid for regional hegemony threatens the security of Israel and shipping in the oil-rich Gulf.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference and a former German diplomat, is well-placed to understand the caprice and cruelty of the coming world disorder. In World in Danger, Ischinger writes about Germany and Europe in an era when American hegemony is no longer the world-historical force it used to be, and the postwar promise of a Europe “whole, free and at peace” is more imperiled than at any time since the Berlin Wall came down more than three decades ago.

In these novel circumstances, his book is a perfect illustration of the palpable angst pervading the old continent. The eclipse of Pax Americana seems to be a matter of when not if, and this looming transformation has created, in former German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s estimation, a “world out of joint.” Echoing that bleak assessment, Ischinger argues that old strategic questions have returned to the fore in a Europe still in thrall to utopian dreams of permanent peace.

Facing the sudden deterioration of a world order nearly a century in the making, the boldest minds in Europe are beginning to stir from their prolonged slumber and demand a new realism that acknowledges military instruments of power, without which diplomacy will be anemic. In short, Europe is no longer happily ensconced in the immediate post-Cold War era or fixated on the debate over stimulus and austerity that defined its last decade. The stark dilemmas involving the material stability of the eurozone or the political development of the European Union have by no means vanished from view, but they’ve been superseded by larger questions about the very purpose of the European project.

History has well and truly returned, in other words, after the briefest and most tantalizing of disappearances. Ischinger fingers the Trump administration for revealing and aggravating the fragile condition of the “entire liberal world order.” Who could quibble with his contention that, before 2017, “nobody could have known that the new American president, of all people, would be the one to challenge” the economic order of free trade, to say nothing of “the Western canon of values and the principle of collective security anchored in Article 5 of the NATO treaty.” And without a stalwart liberal superpower guarding democracy’s ramparts in Europe and much of the world beyond, this order looks desperately vulnerable.

Such geopolitical convulsions have left much of the West shaken, but have not (at least not yet) imbued it with the will to act in ways that would impress the Kremlin, to say nothing of the Chinese Communist Party. A firm advocate of increased defense capabilities from Berlin to Brussels, Ischinger rues Europe’s postmodern aversion to military power as well as the paucity of strategic thinking that it demonstrates. On this account, World in Danger contributes nothing new; the British diplomat Robert Cooper addressed these chronic European weaknesses with more precision and flair nearly 20 years ago in The Breaking of Nations. But Ischinger does manage to convey these elementary points in hochdeutsche. Given Germany’s slothful political culture that routinely proclaims itself a “power of peace,” that is not nothing.

While many in Europe and America continue to praise Chancellor Merkel for admitting roughly a million migrants between 2015 and 2016, Ischinger demurs. Declaring the continuing catastrophe in Syria “a stain on the history of EU foreign policy,” he contends that “never before have we Europeans been so strongly affected by a conflict beyond our own continent, and never before have we done so little to resolve it.” The decision to welcome so many refugees—a majority of whom were not even Syrian—was poor recompense for the decision to let Syria rot and crash.

Ischinger recounts the sorry record of European states (Merkel’s was scarcely an exception) on the Syrian uprising. Most governments vociferously and “pompously” called for Bashar Assad’s ouster, Ischinger notes, but failed “entirely” to muster “the strategic resolve to pursue this goal.” As a result, the unfathomably repressive regime in Damascus has emerged from Syria’s failed revolution in a position of renewed strength, and is presently reclaiming its status in the order of nations. Ischinger blushes with shame at Europe’s inability even “to threaten the use of military force” for humanitarian or strategic purposes in the world. “We prefer to leave that to others,” he complains, “but to no good.”

Alas, there is no reason to believe this state of affairs will change anytime soon. One of the problems with the European approach to power is practical: grossly insufficient defense outlays. The paltry percentages of national budgets earmarked for defense across the continent make credible projections of power impossible. This became painfully evident in 2011, when French and British warplanes ran out of bombs after a few dozen sorties in Libya, leaving the mission’s fate in American hands.

The more profound problem underlying Europe’s strategic dependence, however, is conceptual. Even Ischinger struggles to grasp it fully, since his grand proposal to ameliorate the Syrian ordeal was not a credible exercise of power to establish, say, a no-fly zone over Syrian territory, but “a contact group” between world powers to foster “negotiations” that might have resolved the conflict. Such a group, he writes, would have sought “dialogue with the Russian Federation, the United States, and the Arab countries.” Left unmentioned here is Assad’s chief ally, the Iranian theocracy, which has tirelessly maintained its blood-stained client in power for over a decade of war, untroubled by the prospect of punitive measures from civilized powers.

Ischinger also betrays a profound misunderstanding of what the world order is, and what it isn’t. In classic European fashion, he repeatedly references the “rules-based order,” as if any pristine system of international law and regulation had ever really come into existence after Europe and Asia were pacified in World War Two. A liberal order did indeed follow the fratricidal wars in the first half of the 20th century, but on strategic matters it was scarcely built on equitable terms.

Although American statecraft was guided by a complex and expansive definition of self-interest with ample consideration for the welfare of others, it was by no means guaranteed by a balance of power. It was, rather, an order arranged by American hard power in service of an international environment favorable to American interests and American principles.

Some might imagine that the United States has bound itself and others to an order based on rules and restraints, but the record of American activism in the world proves otherwise. Strict rules about the use of force would only present a hindrance when the national security and the maintenance of civilization is at stake, since any kind of order among nations has always been a product not of superior morality but of superior power.

A better guide to the projection of power was Cicero, who asserted the vital importance of security: Res publica suprema lex. In time, this claim would be echoed by the postwar American diplomat Dean Acheson: “The survival of states is not subject to law.” Tempered by a deep suspicion of international institutions, to say nothing of the “entangling alliances” warned against by America’s founders, American statesmen have never hesitated to flout enlightened global “norms” whenever they found it expedient to do so. The US has used force repeatedly in defiance of international laws (the war over Kosovo, for instance, had no UN authorization, and the raids to kill jihadist bandits like Osama bin Laden and Omar al Baghdadi had no international sanction).

Failing to understand the profound duties of global power, Ischinger can hardly grasp this point. If the liberal order was not the product of natural forces and respect for the law but rather the creation of American hegemony, it has a number of troubling implications in our era that World in Danger cannot discern and does not fully describe. The most arresting consideration is that the willful decline of American power—and the inability or unwillingness of Europe to arm itself and shoulder the burden—spells the inexorable decline of the American order.

The dangers in the international system today have made some in Europe take a hard look at what the return of great power rivalry means to their hearths and homes, and to those of the world beyond. As American security guarantees have fallen under challenge and become more tenuous worldwide, it is not simply Afghan security forces or Taiwanese diplomats that have begun to tremble. In Europe, there is growing demand for governments to pool their resources and become a credible voice, and a capable player, on the world stage. But decades of actively dampening its military spirit has left Europe woefully unprepared—morally and materially—for the immense challenges entailed by that enterprise. The imminent menace now faced by Ukraine is a direct result of the unrestrained idealism prevalent on the European continent in the postwar era.

Even as astute and alarmed an observer as Ischinger seems hard-pressed to recognize the full gravity of this situation. Though he rightly senses that division and weakness prevail throughout the West today—and that this will continue to be ruthlessly exploited by the enemies of the liberal order—Europe in its current state will not be able to supply mortar to the disintegrating free world, let alone fill the growing vacancy of global leadership.

Ischinger perfectly understands why this is so. Across the continent, he concludes, “debate on these fundamental foreign policy questions of our time is avoided rather than sought.” Readers of World in Danger will find a fresh reason to consider the critical questions that so many on both sides of the Atlantic have avoided for too long. The most perceptive answers, alas, will have to be found elsewhere.

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