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World leaders tackle uncertainty at the heart of global order

On its opening day, the Munich Security Conference has raised unsettling questions about the future of Europe, Washington's role in the world and the demise of international relations.

Watch video 01:43

Munich Security Conference: Day One

With no simple answers, heads of state, military generals and lawmakers offered a cacophony of responses to the limbo that manifested in the past year, in part due to the election of US President Donald Trump, or Britain's decision to leave the European bloc. 

The overarching question, however, concerned the US role as the chief stakeholder of liberal values and global order, and whether the new administration would continue the country's legacy at the international level.

"Is President Trump going to continue a tradition of half a century of being supportive of the project of European integration, or is he going to continue to advocate EU member countries to follow the Brexit example?" MSC Chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger told DW.

Watch video 00:39

Munich Security Conference Chairman Ischinger challenges Trump on EU

"If he did that, it would amount to a kind of non-military declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the United States. Is that what the US wants? Is that how he wishes to make America great again," the former German diplomat added.

On defense, US Defense Secretary James Mattis attempted to calm anxieties across the NATO alliance, reiterating Washington's pledge that it was fully committed to its member states' security. But there was a catch: increased defense spending.

Despite Mattis' assurances that NATO formed the "bedrock" of transatlantic security, his words were met with patience, but also reticence from other officials.

"For us, it is important to know who will set the tone in the new US government. We heard Jim Mattis, and that was reassuring. Tomorrow, Mike Pence speaks, and I'm curious what he'll say," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told DW.

"It is important we see over time that these are reliable people who shape the security policy of the US government," she added.

Watch video 00:40

Ursula von der Leyen: 'The world needs a responsibly minded America'

A fragmented vision for the EU

Between the prospect of the UK's departure to the rise of populism, European officials debated how to tackle the challenges that threatened to upend the bloc.

With the rise of disinformation campaigns seeking to sway the electoral processes of Western democracies, officials have sought to criminalize the creation and distribution of so-called "fake news."

"I am deeply convinced there are movements in my country that want to destroy the West," said Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, in an apparent reference to the rise of right-wing politician Geert Wilders.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble took it further, saying many of the challenges facing the EU have arisen from a lack of understanding the basic principles of the bloc.

"Our biggest problem is that people across Europe don't really trust European institutions," Schäuble said. "They need to know why we need European integration."

However, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans offered a vision for the EU's future based on the common values shared across the blocs, instead of the utility of its "instruments."

"Our destiny is based on our values, not on the common market, or our currency," Timmermans said.

China's win-win solution

At the end of a long day of heartened discussions and apocalyptic visions of a world without order, it was Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's statement that demanded silence from the audience.

Everyone listened as Beijing doubled-down on global order at a time of fragility and vulnerability.

But the question of China's territorial stakes in the South China Sea eluded the moment, and remains to be seen whether other countries will raise concerns of freedom of movement and maritime sovereignty.

'Unapologetic'

At a moment of doubt over the US' future at the global level and talks of a "post-Western age," US Senator John McCain's speech, if anything, rose to the task of assuring Western nations that their values would not ebb in the face of uncertainty.

"Even now, when the temptation to despair is greatest, I refuse to accept the end of the West. I refuse to accept the demise of our world order," McCain stressed.

"I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries. I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West, and I believe we must always, always stand up for it – for if we do not, who will" he said.

 

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