The recently concluded G-20 summit in Hamburg once again poses the question of who will lead the Western world. At every point since the end of World War II, the answer to that question was obvious: the United States. But since the beginning of the Obama administration with its isolationist tendencies, and through the election of President Donald Trump and his declarations — which were interpreted as an attempt to shake off U.S. obligations to NATO and other international commitments — the answer now is not as clear-cut.
If not America, then who? Many people would answer: Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seen as a balanced, level-headed leader who has successfully handled the euro crisis and other internal and foreign issues. But it’s not obvious that Merkel herself desires to be the official or even unofficial leader of the free world. One possible reason is that she knows that such a status would require a major build-up of Germany’s military capabilities, and she understands all that would entail in terms of economics and her worldview.
This weekend’s G-20 summit brought to light not only the conflict of interests between the West and China and Russia, but also the different approaches and friction within the Western camp itself, a situation that China and Russia are doing their utmost to exploit. The summation highlighted the very general agreements reached on global trade and the war on terrorism (although not on climate change), and Merkel issued a conciliatory statement of her own in which she said that America had not been isolated at the summit.
But her words carried no answer to the question of who will lead, or which principles and values will lead the Western world forward in the critical years ahead. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some believed that the “end of history” had arrived and the world would sail forward on clear moral waters in the spirit of philosopher Immanuel Kant. But the rise of the Islamist threat and waves of global terrorism, Iran’s and North Korea’s races to a nuclear bomb, Russia’s diplomatic gambits, and, in particular, China’s astonishing growing strength in all fields, including the military, are showing the West that this is not a Kantian world.
Whether it wants to or not, only the U.S. can lead the free world in the face of the current dangers, the ones that Trump himself mentioned in Warsaw last week when he spoke about “dire threats” to Western security and way of life.
In the end, it is not only a question of values, but of who will control the world. Various European leaders can kick around ideas of a “European answer” to current and future threats, resting on Britain’s and France’s nuclear capabilities, but they also know that nothing can replace American power as a main element of deterrence against any potential aggression.
Israel is also an integral part of the Western world. If Israel had its way, there would be no doubt that the U.S. should be at the helm. Not only because no other player can objectively match up to the U.S., and not only because of the alliance of practicalities and values between the two nations, but because the European alternative, even Merkel’s generally supportive and positive image, seems very disheartening given Europe’s well-known official positions on various matters having to do with Israel boycotts, Jerusalem, and the whole Palestinian issue. French President Emmanuel Macron’s negative announcement last week about Israeli settlements and a Palestinian state should be all the proof anyone needs.