Europeans observe with great concern how the rivalry between the United States and China is shaping the twenty-first century, and wonder what their role in that great power game is and how to avoid getting caught up in the confrontation between these two giants. What better capital than Lisbon – and what better hospitality than that of Augusto Santos, Portuguese minister of foreign affairs – to discuss the global relevance of Europe? So many centuries spent at the centre of the world have led Europeans to think that they are still in this position. But that is not the case. Open a map and one can see the truth of the claim that Europe is just a small headland of Asia, that it is an anomaly for this small headland to have played such an exceptional role in world history, and that European global hegemony started on a small headland of this small headland.
The first wave of globalisation – and, in fact, the only one humanity has known if we focus on its depth and lasting impact – began between two waterways on the Iberian Peninsula, the Tinto river and the Tagus river. From there departed, with just five years between them, the expeditions that led Christopher Columbus to reach America in 1492 and Vasco da Gama to open the maritime route to India in 1497, thereby connecting two immense continents to Europe’s influence and prosperity.
The importance of these journeys would not have been so profound had they not coincided with China’s decision in 1470 to destroy its fleet, ban oceanic trips, and close itself off in its continental territory, marking the end of a successful naval and commercial experience that had led the Chinese to India’s coasts and the Horn of Africa. Without the withdrawal of China, whose navy was bigger, more powerful, and more experienced than those of its European counterparts – and which had controlled Asia’s seas for the entire fifteenth century – Europe would have been unable to control Asia (imagine just for a moment what the world would be like today if China had discovered and colonised America).
History teaches us that 12 of 16 transitions between great powers ended in conflict
Today, 500 years later, the clock points again to pending Chinese hegemony, Spain and Portugal are back to being a small headland of a small headland, and Europeans listen to a sweeping proposition from John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the great theorists of political realism in international relations. He invites them – during a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Lisbon – to accept the end of their liberal illusions in a place with a very opportune name: the Palacio das Necessidades (Palace of Necessities, the headquarters of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs). While Mearsheimer issues the death certificate for a liberal order that was born with so much hope in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev reflects on how to survive the end of the illusions produced by that liberal optimism and by the author Francis Fukuyama – who never imagined that nostalgia for the past and pessimism about the future would be the dominant feelings among Europeans, as shown by a major survey ECFR conducted in collaboration with YouGov.
So, Europeans – we who thought that the twenty-first century was going to be a happy century – live in the shadow of the so-called Thucydides trap, an idea popularised by Graham Allison to refer to Thucydides’ thoughts about the unavoidability of the Peloponnesian War, in which Athens had no other option than war to stop the rise of Sparta. Thus, the clock could go back not only 500 years but another 2,000 more and situate Europeans in a worrying parallel with a crisis of Hellenic civilisation. This does not mean that the US and China are doomed to conflict, but it does underscore the price of ignoring history – which teaches us that 12 of 16 transitions between great powers ended in conflict, and only four avoided it.
That this rivalry will define the twenty-first century is certain – everything else is uncertain. We do not know whether one great power will impose itself on the other; or whether they will achieve a peaceful coexistence, even if in a new cold war; or whether there will be competition not only in the realms of economics, politics, and technology but also in the military sphere, ending in conflict. As Helle Thorning Schmidt, former Danish prime minister, underlined: in this dynamic of confrontation between Washington and Beijing, Europe must find its own voice. Not an equidistant voice, but one that will allow us to defend the space of freedom and shared prosperity that defines us as Europeans, and that defines the world in which we want to live – a world with strong international institutions and respected norms and agreements that guarantee we can address challenges ranging from poverty and inequality to climate change, and the extension of human rights to all.
What better proof of the need for more Europe than the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal – a deal that Europeans felt particularly proud of, having managed to unite American, Chinese, and Russian political will, and that is now making European companies victims of sanctions that their governments have not approved? As highlighted by Mohamed El Baradei and Nickolay Mladenov – former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and special envoy of the UN secretary-general for the Middle East peace process respectively – after the failure of the Arab uprisings, Europe is today surrounded by a “ring of fire” that extends from Syria to Libya via Yemen, but is absent from the management of these crises.
In the shadow of US President Donald Trump, whose re-election would delay his departure from the White House until 2025, and the foreseeable devastation of the international system that he will leave after him – but also with Russian assertiveness towards Ukraine and our Baltic partners, and the tech and military challenges that China represents – Europeans have a pathetically empty toolbox. Our currency, the euro, is just a means of payment, not a political or diplomatic tool that augments our power; our financial and trade sanctions regime lacks strength; our capacity for innovation is limited; our armies do not have enough resources to gain autonomy from Washington; and our diplomacy lacks the agility and flexibility to prevail in negotiations. Therefore, there is a need for a proposal to activate Europe’s strategic autonomy, such as the one presented by Mark Leonard and Jeremy Shapiro (ECFR’s director and research director respectively), which contains an important battery of recommendations for action.
All this underscores the importance of choosing the right people to lead Europe over the next five years, and the concern about the current direction of the negotiations among European leaders. There is consensus that the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council, and the office of the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, must be occupied by first-rate personalities capable of bringing to the EU the direction it now lacks, of forging the consensus that it needs so much, and of designing and implementing policies that will allow Europe to remain relevant in the world.
Playing that great power game is not easy. Europe is not prepared to do so – psychologically, materially, or institutionally. It was not designed to look outward, to the world, but inward, to pacify itself. But there is no other option but to do so and, as illusory as it may seem, there are options in this. By integrating its capabilities – which are real (and include the euro, its commercial weight, the attractiveness of its market, the European budget, and its regulatory capacity) – through shared strategies and clear principles, it is possible that Europe will remain relevant. To do this, it needs to confront populism, address global threats, and start to think strategically.
This article originally appeared on 30 June in El Mundo.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.