President Macron’s state visit to China in early April placed a spotlight on the question of Europeans’ place in a changing global order. During his return from China, he remarked that the emerging China-United States rivalry risks Europe’s absorption into a US bloc, robbing it of agency. To maintain that agency, Macron argued that Europeans should strive to be a “third power,” allowing them to escape domination by both the US and China.
For the European Union to establish itself as a third power, it needs to shape a ‘third way’ approach towards global order. Central to such a third way is to make common cause with the countries of the global south, which similarly see little advantage in accepting a duopolistic order defined by the US-China competition. Such common cause is possible if Europeans recognise the assets they have as a potential third pole and change their approach to the global south.
If Europeans fail to do this, they risk continuing down the road of vassalisation – Europe’s steady subordination to the US. Failure to differentiate from the US makes the EU, in the eyes of the global south, a handmaiden to the United States’ bloc-building approach to the emerging global order. Many leaders of the global south understand duopoly as press-ganging the non-aligned world into partisanship with either the US or China, a prospect they greet with profound resistance. Europeans already contend with the burden of their colonial history and struggle to update their relationship with global south to one of equals. A Europe incorporated into a US bloc will threaten a third strike to its relations with global south states.
The advantage of Europe’s ‘third way’
Staking out Europe’s intention to forge a third way towards global order as an alternative to duopoly generates an important shared interest with the global south. Such a third way flows from Europeans’ recognition of their vulnerability to the designs of China but also the US in the duopolistic global order. Converting that recognition into policy would create a shared stance towards the international order with the global south, creating multiple advantages for Europe. Three main reasons should persuade European policymakers to take this path.
Firstly, when it comes to questions of global order, Europe would be able to reframe itself as the more natural ally to the global south than China. For decades, China successfully presented itself as the champion of the global south by lumping Europe and the US together as co-stewards of a global order that grew ever more inequitable in the post-1989 unipolar era. Portraying the West as status quo defenders of a hegemonic global order, China owned the multilateral reform agenda with its calls for greater inclusion for the global south. This is notwithstanding the fact that, at the same time, in a tidy bit of cakeism China also breathed life into alternatives to the global order such as the BRICS and the New Development Bank. Although it advertises these organisations as global south-centric, they very clearly lend China strategic depth.
Indeed, China’s aspiration to global leadership is inherent to the duopoly dynamic. As China inevitability establishes dominion via its own bloc building, it will face growing incredulity when it presents itself as the global south’s champion. Europe can therefore interject with its third way. This will neatly upend China’s decades-long narrative by offering a more credible geopolitical argument for alignment between Europe and the global south.
Secondly, the third way creates a clear raison d’être that will help Europeans improve their floundering relationships with global south states. The third way can bring to an end the colonial baggage-laden charity paradigm and lip service to respect among equals, replacing it with a concrete demonstration of the global south’s centrality to Europeans’ strategic interest. In one stroke, this seriousness of intent repairs more than countless apologies for past European wrongs.
Finally, the third way increases Europe’s influence in both directions – towards China but also the US. Europeans can make inroads into China’s outsized global south influence, while, with the US, they will become simultaneously less dependent and more valuable. The new approach would mean no terminal break with the transatlantic alliance; rather, it simply signals diversification and maturation of Europe’s global relations befitting of the new era.
Building the third way
The shared geopolitical challenge facing Europe and the global south can create fertile ground for stronger relations between them. But deepening the alliance requires more than a declaration of intent. Only action that supports each other’s interests will make ties that bind.
The global south’s disproportionate exposure to global risks – from pandemics to economic shockwaves – and its existential drive to secure its economic development will need to feature prominently in any discussion of new alliances with Europe. Creating greater equitability in (still) important multilateral organisations such as the UN Security Council and Bretton Woods institutions will also be important.
Support for European priorities would define the other core part of the dialogue. But Europe should conceive the dynamic as first courtship, then negotiation, given the historical legacy. This means that the declaration of common cause should not demand an immediate quid pro quo on big ticket issues such as support for Ukraine.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent visit to Africa modelled the approach well: investing in the future without immediate expectation of returns. Endorsed by Germany, and joined with France’s existing energetic Africa engagement, a third way approach as pan-European policy could become a reality.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.