As the US-led world order continues to fall apart, second-tier powers are trying to salvage what they can. But in Germany and France, at least, voters don’t really want the US to be part of the process.
The annual Munich Security Report, which provides the starting point for discussion at the annual security forum in the German city, is often a good indication of the Western security community’s current mood. The 2019 report, titled “The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?” is somewhat less anxious in tone than the 2018 version, which raised the specter of a large-scale conflict. That danger appears to have devolved into a competition as the US takes on a long-term challenge from China and a more immediate one from Russia.
The way the US is handling these tests, though, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its long-time allies. Its effort to rally them around the liberal Western values “would be far more credible if President Trump and his administration did not display an irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe” while showing “disdain for international institutions and agreements,” the report says. According to the authors, European policymakers hoped the “adults in the room” in Donald Trump’s White House would steer the president in the right direction. But the allies have grown disillusioned, focusing instead on attempts to shore up the liberal world order by taking on more of a global role.
The lack of a security and economic infrastructure that doesn’t include the US makes it difficult for the second-tier powers -- Germany, France, the UK, Japan -- to pursue any kind of independent policy. The result is a balancing act between a US that acts like a competitor with a tendency toward bullying and security architecture that depends on the US being an ally.
For the public in countries whose leaders walk this thin line, however, preserving the transatlantic partnership doesn’t appear particularly important. The report’s poll data, especially from France and Germany, are perhaps its most striking feature.
In all the second-tier powers except Japan, pluralities consider the US a major threat, and even in Japan the American threat appears to worry more people than the Russian one. That perception appears to be linked to Trump’s policies: According to Pew Research data cited in the Munich report, in the UK, Canada, Germany and France people trust Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs more than they do Trump. Even more damningly, more French and Germans say they trust Russian President Vladimir Putin more than Trump.
I wouldn’t, however, write off the concern about a US threat simply as a reaction to Trump that will go away once he’s left the White House. Other polling data in the Munich report contain an important finding: While large majorities in France and Germany want their countries to pursue a more active foreign policy and take on a bigger role in solving crises, 59 percent of Germans and 42 percent of French would like them to do so as neutral countries. In both France and Germany, only minorities approve of military interventions outside their borders.
It’s difficult to see how a change of power in Washington could undermine this pacifism and strong support for neutrality. Large numbers of people in countries of critical importance to the Western alliance simply don’t want to take sides in the new iteration of superpower competition.
Of course, all the usual caveats about polls, the phrasing of questions and the influence of the daily news flow on specific opinions should apply. But Western leaders trying to salvage the transatlantic alliance without becoming Trump’s pawns should still take the data seriously. Even if many of their voters’ apparent belief that neutrality isn’t just desirable but possible is only an illusion, they may well back politicians who reinforce it. In many cases, those will be populists and nationalists who insist that Germany and France could survive and thrive without following a leader.
The apparent mood shift requires a coherent “Option B”; intellectuals used to the old paradigm of US dominance need to give serious thought to different scenarios for the second-tier powers as potential guarantors of sanity while the bigger players face off.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion‘s Europe columnist. -- Ed.