Geopolitical competition has made a roaring come back in recent years. Russian President Vladimir Putin, always on the cutting edge of new fads, welcomed the new era with flair last week by introducing an entire new generation of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States.
But despite Putin’s nostalgia for the bipolar arms race of the Cold War, U.S.-Russian rivalry is just one example of the new era of great power competition. Indeed, the United States, under its mercurial president and a hawkish Republican administration, seems to be at odds with a growing array of powers.
During the Cold War, Europeans wisely tied themselves closely to the United States in its struggle with the Soviet Union. But in the new, more complex geopolitical environment, Europe may want to look at America’s growing list of enemies and consider a more independent policy.
So far, the list of enemies includes:
The Trump administration has an aggressive trade agenda, aimed principally aimed at reducing the massive U.S. trade deficit with China. Efforts to keep China onboard with plans to contain North Korea delayed its implementation somewhat, but the U.S. has begun to impose a series of unilateral trade barriers, including steel and aluminium tariffs imposed last week.
Trump tweeted out that he welcomes a trade war that he believes the U.S. can win. His administration seems to be seeking a showdown at the WTO that will either fundamentally alter how it deals with China or destroy the organisation.
In response China has sought to present itself as the new defender of the rules-based order and a better partner for Europe on issues like trade and climate change. As Francois Godement has noted, China’s governance model at home is fundamentally at odds with the liberal international order. But that hasn’t stopped the debate over whether the EU needs to find a balance between China and the US.
For the time being this is an abstract debate. As ECFR’s EU-China power audit notes, the EU’s current China policy is centred on trade and investment, and is largely devoid of geopolitical strategy. Individual member states often work with China in ways that the United States doesn’t like, but the EU as a whole can’t really conceive of siding with China in a geopolitical dispute.
Europe, in the form of France, Germany, and the UK (known as the E3), sees its efforts on Iran and particularly its critical role in securing the Iran nuclear deal as a clear example of its capacity to influence the United States and secure its geopolitical interests.
But U.S. goals on Iran have now changed. The Trump administration is seeking confrontation rather than coexistence with the Iranian regime, and it seems to be caught between pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal or converting it into a club with which to beat the Iranians.
As Ellie Geranmayeh has noted, the current trajectory heightens the risk of a nuclear arms race and further military escalation in Europe’s backyard. She concludes that a transatlantic clash is coming over Iran and that Europe can have an independent policy on Iran.
But Europeans, fearful of American secondary sanctions, seem unenthusiastic and instead are actively seeking to deliver the modifications to the Iran deal that Washington seeks. If they fail, they may blame Washington, but they will quietly abandon the Iran nuclear deal anyway. They can’t conceive of trying to make it work in the face of American opposition.
As Kadri Liik notes in the (forthcoming) EU-Russia power audit, Europeans at first saw Russia’s relationship with the US under Trump as dangerous because of the potential for Washington and Moscow to collude. Now, European officials fear that the US and Russia might collide. The dual fear reveals the extent to which the EU is dependent on a delicate balance in US-Russian relations that is unlikely to sustain itself.
The Washington foreign policy establishment, following Russian interference in the US election, already sees itself in a new Cold War with Putin’s Russia, with that competition already spilling over into, for example, Ukraine. U.S. policy in Ukraine now seeks less to settle the conflict than to make it a headache for the Russians. That policy would seem at odds with European interests, but Europeans seem content to cede that policy area to a Trump administration that has shown little interest in European opinions.
Turkey is of course a NATO ally. But U.S. relations with Turkey have deteriorated to such an extent that the New York Times is speculating about whether the two countries will go to war. U.S-Turkish disputes over Kurdish forces in Syria, Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Zarrab corruption trial in New York, and Turkish arms purchases from Russia, among others, have put the erstwhile allies on a collision course, with the U.S. now portrayed in the Turkish press as the main security threat to Turkey.
As Asli Aydintasbas has noted, as U.S.-Turkish relations have deteriorated, Turkish President Erdogan is turning back to Europe and, in part for economic reasons, seeking an independent relationship with Europe. Turkey remains critical for Europe on a host of issues, not least immigration – a breakdown in relations would be a disaster for both sides.
The EU has a more independent relationship with Turkey than with the other powers mentioned. It is an EU accession country and the EU is its largest economic partner. But even in this case, the idea that the EU or its member states would take an independent position from the US on geopolitical questions – such as support for the Syrian Kurds, Turkish efforts in Syria and Iraq, or the sale of Russian anti-aircraft systems to the Turkish military – seems impossible to imagine.
Europe is a great power too, right?
From a U.S. perspective, this is an impressive array of potential enemies and shows a lack of strategic prioritisation that must make Henry Kissinger despair. But the U.S. has at least made a conscious choice to take this course. From a European perspective, the lack of strategic options across these critical relationships demonstrates the extent to which European foreign policy, particularly toward great powers, remains dependent on the American position.
Europe’s relations with each of these countries has its own dynamics, of course. But in ECFR’s year-end effort to define the foreign policy trends that will define 2018, it was striking that each contributor emphasized that the most important (and most unpredictable) factor in Europe’s approach to nearly every great power was the United States.
Even on issues relatively close to the EU border like Ukraine and Syria, there is little capacity to describe distinct European interests and to define an independent geopolitical strategy to secure them. The European Union as a whole has no integrated or coherent strategy for managing relations with great powers, while the EU member states usually don’t take a geo-strategic approach either.
This situation is not remotely new; indeed it is a long tradition that has served Europeans well. But now Europeans have more divergent interests than during the Cold War, while the US has a notably unstable president and a doctrine that specifically touts its intention to ignore the interests of other countries.
The question for Europe now is whether it needs to de-couple its strategy toward regional great powers from that of the United States. Decoupling does not mean opposition to the United States. Regardless of the eccentricities of the Trump administration, the economic, cultural, and ideological links between Europe and the United States means that it will and should remain Europe’s closest geopolitical ally. Rather, decoupling means creating a capacity to define – and, when appropriate, pursue – its interests independently of the United States.
For the moment, European strategic decision making is not up to that task. Until it is, America’s enemies will be Europe’s as well.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.