Munich Security Report 2017


The world is facing an illiberal moment. Across the West and beyond, illiberal forces are gaining ground. From within, Western societies are troubled by the emergence of populist movements that oppose critical elements of the liberal-democratic status quo. From outside, Western societies are challenged by illiberal regimes trying to cast doubt on liberal democracy and weaken the international order. And Western states themselves seem both unwilling and unable to effectively tackle the biggest security crises – with Syria as the prime example. 

“We are living in the days where what we call liberal non-democracy, in which we lived for the past 20 years, ends, and we can return to real democracy.”10 

10 NOVEMBER 2016 

The Populist and Anti-Globalist Challenge in the West: The Politics of Fear in a Post-Truth World

The past twelve months have been a resounding rejection of the status quo. In several elections and referenda, political outsiders succeeded, while the establishment was dealt major blows. Populist parties are now part of the government in about a dozen Western democracies. And even in countries where populists only received a small share of the vote, they often exert a defining influence by shifting the debate or pressuring mainstream parties to adopt different policy agendas.1 Economic factors may explain part of the populist rise: incomes for a majority of citizens in industrialized economies have stagnated or fallen between 2007 and 2014.2 However, in the US, for instance, analyses show that it was “not economic hardship but anxiety about the future that predicted whether people voted for Trump.”3 There is also a cultural backlash against so-called “globalism” from which the populist surge draws. The main dividing line in politics runs less and less between left and right but between a liberal cosmopolitan pole and a populist (or even xenophobic authoritarian) one.4 Populist parties reject the cultural modernization in Western societies and revolt against what they perceive as threats to the nation, ranging from immigration and cosmopolitan elites to international institutions. They dismiss pluralism and liberalism, essential elements of liberal democracies.5 

“The whole of the West is turning its back on a failed system of politics.”11 


Populists are experts in the politics of agitation, forming an “axis of fear” across the West that exploits insecurities and grievances of the electorate, often by twisting the facts or even by spreading outright lies that speak to the preconceptions of their supporters. And they may not even be punished by voters for not offering solutions.6 In his farewell speech, German President Joachim Gauck warned of the dangers for Western democracies: “We should remember that if we only accept as fact what we already believe anyway and if half-truths, interpretations, conspiracy theories and rumors count every bit as much as the truth, then the path is clear for demagogues and autocrats.”7 With good reason, the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post truth” the word of the year 2016.8 Beyond all the dangers for democracy, this also has a very clear security dimension: If politicians, for instance, lie about crowd sizes, say demonstrably wrong things about previously held positions and suggest that falsehoods are merely “alternative facts,” can citizens and allies trust them on national security issues?9 Likewise, a “post-truth” culture makes foreign disinformation campaigns more likely and erodes the very foundation of enlightened debate on which liberal democracies depend. 

“We cannot avoid facing up to this challenge. The fact is that liberal democracy and the political and normative project of the West are under fire.”21 

18 JANUARY 2017 

The Illiberal International and Cracks in the Liberal International Order

The rise of the populists has rapidly become a systemic challenge that threatens to undermine the liberal international order the world’s liberal democracies have built and upheld since the end of World War II. The populists watch and learn from each other and increasingly cooperate across borders. Some analysts have already referred to the “Illiberal International,” the “Populist International,” or the “International of nationalists.”14 Together, the populists at home and the illiberal regimes abroad form a formidable challenge to the main elements of the liberal international order: the spread of liberal democracy, economic interdependence based on free trade, and a strong web of international institutions – which researchers see as major factors contributing to a peaceful international order.15 

First, liberal democracy has become increasingly contested. According to Freedom House, 2015 was “the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” i.e., for a decade, there were more countries with net declines than those with net gains each year.16 Maybe unsurprisingly, in stark contrast to his predecessors, President Donald Trump’s inaugural address did not mention words such as democracy, liberty, or human rights. This does not bode well for liberal values around the world. “The global rise of populists poses a dangerous threat to human rights,” Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch warns. “Too many Western political leaders seem to have lost confidence in human rights values, offering only tepid support.”17 

Second, the open international economic order may be unraveling. WTO negotiations have stalled for years, and it seems protectionism may return. Last year, the CETA negotiations between Canada and the European Union came close to failing, and TTIP has almost become a political anathema. Long a champion of free trade, the United States is now on a more protectionist path. In his inaugural address, Trump made a clear case for “America first” after claiming that previous US policy had “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” and “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.” As Trump promised: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”18 Yet, most economists warn of a new mercantilism that would affect precisely those US workers Trump claims to support.19 

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we've defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon. [...] But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future. [...] From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”22 

20 JANUARY 2017

Finally, the multilateral institutions at the heart of the international order are at risk as well. To some degree, the weakness of key institutions is the result of the increasing influence of non-democratic great powers that have generally benefitted from the liberal international order but do not embrace all its elements. Partly, however, Western countries themselves are to blame for the crisis of this order. They may have pushed too hard to implement some of the normative changes, provoking a backlash against some of the most progressive developments such as the responsibility to protect (R2P) or not making room enough for emerging powers within that order. Today, major innovations of the liberal international order such as the International Criminal Court are losing support.20

Perhaps most importantly, some of its core institutions are increasingly questioned within the Western countries themselves. Since its creation, NATO has been a central pillar of the Western-led order – and the crucial security link connecting the US, Canada, and their European allies. Yet, Donald Trump’s comments about NATO being “obsolete” have caused great uncertainty among America’s allies, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. The European Union is under pressure, too, as it has to deal with Brexit, a populist surge, the refugee crisis, a potential return of the euro crisis, jihadist attacks, and a revisionist Russia. And while the Obama administration referred to Europe as “the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world” and “a catalyst for our global cooperation,”26 Donald Trump, a few days before his inauguration, described the EU as a project intended to counter US influence and suggested he did not really care about its future.27

Post-West or Even Post-Order?

What does this – especially a much more unilateralist, nationalist US foreign policy – mean for the future international order? Will it slowly become a more fragmented order in which regional hegemons define the rules of the game in their spheres? Or will the Western democracies be able to preserve the core norms and institutions of the liberal international order? Do they even want to? Who is going to provide common public goods that benefit their own country, but also others? The development of some of today’s crucial geopolitical hotspots may give us a preview of the emerging disorder and disengagement. 

“The world order that we built, our dearest inheritance, which we tended to and shored up every year here at Munich, is coming apart. It is not inevitable that this happen. It is not occurring because we lack power, or influence, or options to employ. No, this comes down, ultimately, to our judgment and our resolve.”31 

14 FEBRUARY 2016 

In Syria, more than 400,000 people died, and millions had to flee their homes. While the Europeans stood by and the United States was reluctant to fully engage, others filled the vacuum. Most decisively, the Russian government took an active role in the conflict when the Syrian regime appeared to be losing. It claimed that it was fighting against the Islamic State, but primarily waged war on the opposition. According to the human rights groups, hospitals were regularly and deliberately targeted.28 While Western officials have repeatedly argued that “there is no military solution” to the war in Syria, Russia and its allies pursued one – and seem to be successful. Is this the brave new post-Western world? The events in Aleppo also may foreshadow the significance of international law and human rights (or lack thereof) in the future. Should a genocide be perpetrated somewhere in the world in the coming months, would anybody step in? 

In Ukraine, Russia has violated several key principles governing European security. Even so, sanctions might be reduced without any progress on implementing the Minsk Agreements. Should the Trump administration strike a meaningful deal with Moscow, this could signal a new era of great powers determining the fate of smaller ones. As several European leaders warned Trump before his inauguration: “The rules-based international order on which Western security has depended for decades would be weakened. […] A deal with Putin will not bring peace. On the contrary, it makes war more likely.”29 

“If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”32 

10 JANUARY 2017 

Despite its various flaws, the liberal international order has, in the bigger scheme of things, allowed for a remarkable era of peace and economic development. It is, in principle, open to accommodate rising powers and can be adapted to changing circumstances.30 But a fundamental question has emerged: has the post-Cold-War period been merely a liberal interregnum that is giving way to a more illiberal era? Will this new era again be marked by greater tensions and, possibly, even outright conflict between the world’s major powers, not least between China and the US? Is this a post-order world in which the elements of the liberal international order are fading away because no one is there to protect them? The world is about to find out. 


  1. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, "Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash," HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP16-026, Harvard Kennedy School (Cambridge, MA), August 2016,, p. 6. 
  2. Frank Mattern, "In 2017, Winning Back the Debate on Globalization," LinkedIn, 3 January 2017,
  3. Ben Casselman, "Stop Saying Trump's Win Had Nothing to Do With Economics," FiveThirtyEight, 9 January 2017,
  4. See endnote 1, p. 7. Others refer to the so-called GAL-TAN division, i.e. Green/alternative/libertarian and Traditional/authoritarian/nationalist. See Liesbet Hooghe, Gary Marks and Carole J. Wilson, "Does Left/Right Structure Party Positions on European Integration?," Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 35, No. 8, 2002, pp. 965-989. Foa and Mounk have also argued that citizens in the world's consolidated democracies have "become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives." See Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, "The Democratic Disconnect," Journal of Democracy, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2016, p. 7. 
  5. On the notion of "populism," see esp. Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia), 2016. 
  6. As The Economist warned: "When lies make a political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place." The Eco-nomist, "Art of the Lie," 10 September 2016, p. 11. 
  7. Joachim Gauck, "What Should Our Country Be Like?," 18 January 2017, publicationFile
  8. Oxford Dictionaries, "Word of the Year 2016 Is...," word-of-the-year-2016
  9. On the dangers of "alternative facts," see Edward Isaac Dovere and Josh Dawsey, "Could Trump's 'Alternative Facts' Put Lives At Risk?," Politico, 22 January 2017,; Jim Rutenberg, "'Alternative Facts' and the Costs of Trump-branded Reality," The New York Times, 22 January 2017,
  10. See Lucy Pasha-Robinson, "Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán Celebrates Donald Trump Victory as End of 'Liberal Non-Democracy'," The Independent, 12 November 2016, donald-trump-us-election-win-hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-end-liberal-non-democracy-a7413236.html
  11. See William Horobin, Stacy Meichtry and Ruth Bender, "Donald Trump's Win Hailed by Europe's Populists as Proof of Anti-Establishment Momentum," The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2016,
  12. MSC, based on Freedom House, "Freedom in the World: Aggregate Scores,"
  13. World Values Survey, "Wave 3 (1995-1998)" and "Wave 6 (2010-2014)," Based on the illustration by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, "The Signs of Deconsolidation," Journal of Democracy, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2017, p. 7, figure 2. Different from Foa and Mounk's illustration as values for the categories "Don't know" and "No answer" are also included.
  14. See Sławomir Sierakowski, "The Illiberal International," Project Syndicate, 9 September 2016,; Anne Applebaum, "Trump Is a Threat to the West as We Know It, Even If He Loses," The Washington Post, 4 November 2016,; Timothy Garton Ash, "Populists Are out to Divide US. They Must Be Stopped," The Guardian, 11 November 2016,
  15. See Bruce Russett and John O'Neal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, W.W. Norton (New York), 2001.
  16. Freedom House, "Freedom in the World 2016: Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure," Freedom House (Washington, DC), 2016,, p. 3.
  17. Kenneth Roth, "We Are on the Verge of Darkness," Foreign Policy, 12 January 2017,
  18. Donald J. Trump, "The Inaugural Address," 20 January 2017,
  19. See, e.g., Jennifer Rubin, "Trump's Doubly Dumb Trade Policy," The Washington Post, 20 December 2016,; Marcus Noland et al., "Assessing Trade Agendas in the US Presidential Campaign (PIIE Briefing 16-6)," Peterson Institute of International Economics (Washington, DC), September 2016,
  20. After the ICC decided to investigate war crimes in Syria, Russia, who had signed the Rome statute but not ratified it, declared to formally withdraw its signature, calling the ICC "one-sided and inefficient." Before, Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia had already announced their decision to quit because they felt the court unfairly focused on African countries. See Carter Stoddard "Russia to Pull Out of the ICC," Politico, 16 November 2016,; Simon Allison, "African Revolt Threatens International Criminal Court's Legitimacy," Daily Maverick/The Guardian, 27 October 2016,
  21. Joachim Gauck, "What Should Our Country Be Like?," 18 January 2017,
  22. Donald J. Trump, "The Inaugural Address," 20 January 2017,
  23. McKinsey Global Institute, "Digital Globalization: The New Era of Global Flows," March 2016, Based on UNCTAD, IMF Balance of Payments, World Bank.
  24. McKinsey Global Institute, "Poorer Than Their Parents? Flat or Falling Incomes in Advanced Economies," July 2016, Based on INSEE, Bank of Italy, CBS, Statistics Sweden, ONS, CBO. Population-weighted average of 25 countries extrapolated from six country deep dives. For each country the latest year the data was available was used - France (2012), Italy (2014 disposable incomes, 2012 market incomes), the Netherlands (2014), Sweden (2013), United Kingdom (2014), United States (2013). Percent of households in income segments with flat or falling income shown.
  25. Catherine de Vries and Isabell Hoffmann, "Fears Not Values," Bertelsmann Stiftung and eupinions, March 2016,
  26. Joseph R. Biden, "Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to the Munich Security Conference," 2 February 2013,
  27. "Full Transcript of the Interview With Donald Trump," The Times, 16 January 2017,
  28. See Amnesty International, "Syrian and Russian Forces Targeting Hospitals as a Strategy of War," 3 March 2016,; Human Rights Watch, "Russia/Syria: War Crimes in Month of Bombing Aleppo," 1 December 2016,
  29. Traian Băsescu et al., "Letter to President-elect Donald J. Trump From America's Allies," 9 January 2017, Letter_to_Trump.pdf.
  30. See Trine Flockhart et al., "Liberal Order in a Post-Western World," Transatlantic Academy (Washington, DC), 2014,
  31. John McCain, "Remarks by Senator John McCain on Syria at the Munich Security Conference," 14 February 2016, Video available at MSC media library.
  32. Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President in Farewell Address," 10 January 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.
  33. This list is a shortened version of Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan, "The Geopolitical Recession," Eurasia Group, 3 January 2017,