The world has entered a new era marked by zero-sum thinking in which countries seek relative advantage through protectionism, self-interest and rejection of mutually beneficial cooperation, a report from the prestigious Munich Security Conference suggests before its annual meeting at the weekend.
The MSC attracts a host of world leaders and will this year see discussions about the Middle East crisis and the implications of a victory for Donald Trump for transatlantic security.
The report, setting the conference themes, identifies a trend away from global cooperation towards transactional thinking that rules out cooperation beyond narrow, short-term gains. Its publication came days after Trump claimed at a rally on Saturday that he had told Nato allies during his presidency he would “encourage” Russia to attack any member state that failed to meet a defence spending target of 2% of GDP.
Amid consternation from allies, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Trump’s comments undermined “all of our security, including that of the US” and the White House described them as “appalling and unhinged”. The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Monday said: “Nato cannot be an a la carte military alliance … depending on the humour of the president of the US.”
Polling accompanying the report also finds deep western pessimism about the economic outlook and the scale of risks ahead relative to the views of voters in BRICs countries, such as India or China. The Munich Security Index, a survey of 32 perceived risks in 11 major countries, finds European voters are also increasingly worried by migration caused by climate change and war, and by the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.
Germany now has the highest level of concern about mass migration among the countries surveyed, increasing by five index points since last year to take first place among its 32 issues of potential risk.
The risk of radical Islamic terrorism has climbed from 16th place to second in Germany while Italy’s concern about Islamic terrorism has increased by 19 index points since last year (the biggest increase seen on any issue) and climbed from 22nd place to fourth place in Italy’s rankings. France has also seen concern rise sharply.
While Russia was still the top risk for five G7 countries last year, only UK and Japanese citizens still consider it so. German citizens now only see Russia as the seventh greatest concern and Italians see it as the 12th.
Outside the G7, climate change remains the biggest issue.
The growing sensitivity to relative gains vis-a-vis certain countries is also visible in public attitudes, according to the survey. Respondents in the G7 states are much more reluctant for their respective countries to cooperate with China, Russia, and other non-democratic countries than with democracies such as the US or EU members. That is now being reflected in falling foreign direct investment in China, the report says
In the report’s single biggest theme, the authors argue that across economics, defence and trade, countries increasingly define their success relative to others rather than in terms of an order that allows the international community as a whole to thrive. It has also led to a multilateralism only among friends. At their extreme, concerns about relative gains could lead to a vicious cycle in a world shaped by zero-sum beliefs – the conviction that another actor’s gains necessarily entail losses for oneself.
The authors also warn of a revolt from the global south, pointing out that 50% of the respondents in the survey agree that “we live in a world largely shaped by western ideas”
The authors warn: “From the perspective of the share of humanity living in poverty or suffering from protracted conflicts, calls to defend the abstract rules-based order and shoulder the costs that come with it seem tone-deaf.”
According to this view, western emphasis on the “rules based order” is hypocritical and aimed at preserving the status quo of western domination, including over the global south.
They point out that both Russian and China “have been skilfully peddling the narrative that the western countries are promoting the division of the world into blocs and, by regularly interpreting the ‘rules of the rules-based international order to their own advantage, are guilty of practising double-standards.
“If current trends continue, the US and its allies risk losing the blame game in the global court of public opinion, being branded the culprits of the erosion of a cooperative international order and of a lack of effort to ensure more mutually beneficial outcomes.”
This battle of narratives, the authors contend, is being played out across Africa, the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, and features in much of the geopolitical tensions engulfing energy transition, migration, Ukraine and future prosperity.
They warn that tighter budgets, combined with domestic scepticism, already risk undermining public support for Ukraine, whose survival as an independent state rests on the collective assistance of the world’s democracies – just as the global perception of the strength of the community of liberal democracies depends on Ukraine prevailing over Russian revisionism.