Covid-19 has made a mockery of the world’s great powers. US President Donald Trump promised to “make America great again”, but his administration’s handling of the pandemic has been anything but great. Chinese President Xi Jinping has often spoken of a “Chinese dream”, yet his own response to the crisis has relied on algorithmic authoritarianism. And Europeans who often pay lip service to multilateralism have met the pandemic with closed borders and national solutions, rather than leading a global response.
In fact, in Europe’s case, covid-19 is forcing a deeper reckoning. The post-cold war dream of a rules-based international order with Europe at the centre is in tatters, and the European Union is now being buffeted by both philosophical and geographical shocks. Philosophically, Europeans are confronting the fact that raw power, not rules, is the main factor determining today’s global dynamics. Over the past three years, Europeans have watched their two biggest trading partners transform from champions of globalisation into the leading exponents of “decoupling”.
Because neither America nor China wants a conventional war, both have taken to weaponising regional and global institutions. While the United States has politicised what were once seen as public goods – including the financial system, interbank transfers, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, and the internet – the Chinese are increasingly using state aid and strategic investments to manipulate markets and undercut the West in key areas.
The geographic shock is that global politics is now centred on Asia rather than Europe. During and immediately following the cold war, Europe’s regional order and the Western-led global order seemed to reinforce one another. There was a genuine sense of transatlantic community and shared values, with Europe serving as the front line in the US-Soviet competition. Europe mattered – and successive US presidents were highly attentive to European concerns.
European leaders will have to abandon the notion that geopolitics is a realm of permanent alliances and institutions.
But the Sino-American rivalry has shifted attention away from European issues, and American disengagement in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and the Balkans has created a vacuum that Turkey and Russia are rushing to fill. In the 1990s, Europeans assumed that these other powers could be accommodated within the European regional security order, with NATO and the EU serving as the main pillars. But, particularly during the last decade, the dream of European unipolarity has given way to the realities of multipolarity.
These twin shocks – the abrupt shift from rules to power, and from Europe to Asia – have shaken Europe’s conception of order. No longer are European plans for regional and global arrangements mutually reinforcing. Instead of the European legal order being nested within a broader Western security framework, the two domains are now increasingly in conflict with each other.
Europeans thus find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they still depend on the US to uphold the global security order, and sustaining this arrangement seems to require that Europeans assume more responsibility for their regional defence, as well as align closely with America in its confrontation with China. In the short term, China may well be the glue that holds the transatlantic partnership together, given that Americans and Europeans share many of the same concerns about that country’s state-led economic model and human-rights violations.
But, on the other hand, the global competition between China and the US puts pressure on Europe’s regional order. The US is increasingly absent from the geopolitical theatres that pose the greatest threat to Europe. And, under Trump, America no longer bothers to consult European governments on its foreign policy, even concerning countries – like Iraq – where Europe has deployed troops. Worse, the US has come to regard many of the institutions and rules that were developed for a Europe-centric world as impediments in its confrontation with China.
For example, the Trump administration has essentially made a bonfire out of long-standing multilateral arms-control treaties, on the grounds that these constrain the US while allowing China to do what it wants. In the coming months, European leaders may be forced to choose between upholding such arrangements and preserving the relationship with the US on security (arms control), the economy (trade rules), technology (5G, semiconductors, and so on), and climate negotiations.
The US presidential election on 3 November could be a game changer in the transatlantic relationship. A Trump victory would leave Europe even more on its own. But, even if Trump loses to Joe Biden, allowing for a restored transatlantic bargain, the arrival of a new administration would not alter the long-term shift in US priorities, nor would it loosen the American public’s attachment to national sovereignty.
Last year, when French President Emmanuel Macron issued his controversial warning about NATO’s “brain death”, he was channelling a fear that many European leaders privately hold: that the unipolar, Eurocentric, rules-based order is being replaced by a quadrangle of chaos comprising China, Russia, Turkey, and Trump’s America. In preparing for this possibility, European leaders will have to abandon the notion that geopolitics is a realm of permanent alliances and institutions. To defend EU values and interests, they will have to assume more diplomatic responsibility for regional security, pursuing a mix of deterrence and dialogue vis-à-vis Russia and Turkey.
In developing a new strategy, the EU will need to make room for a robust military component, even though its foreign-policy strength will continue to depend largely on weaponising assets such as trade, technology, and regulation. Instead of asking Germany to increase its defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, for example, the EU should be asking Germans to use the remaining 98 per cent of their economy as a means of securing European interests in trade and other issues of concern.
This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.