The German EU presidency begins on July 1 and sets ambitious goals – to give Europe a new impetus internally and externally. The growing conflict between the US and China presents both a threat and an opportunity. Apparently, Europeans will strive to avoid making a clear choice in favour of their long-standing partners overseas.
The uncertainty of their policies is at the same time an indication that the new conflict will not be a repeat of the Cold War of 1945-1990 because of changing global conditions.
Russia was a historical competitor for Europe, which for 300 years sought to dominate the Old World and whose opinion the European powers were forced to take into account. After 1945, graffiti in Russian remained on the ruins of the Reichstag, and Soviet tanks stood in the centre of Europe. The communist ideology of the USSR posed an existential threat to the Western European states and their way of life. On the other hand, the minimisation of ties with communist Russia did not impede the development of Europe and, on the contrary, contributed to it. After 1917, Russia, for the first time since the time of Peter the Great, was eliminated from the European balance of power. But at the same time it remained a “perfect adversary” – simultaneously threatening and conductive to development. Moreover, the costs of the political and economic system of the USSR since the mid-1950s have very convincingly proved to the citizens of European countries the importance of maintaining special relations with the United States, democracy, a market economy and, ultimately, European integration itself.
However, China, on the other hand, poses neither an ideological alternative to Europe nor an existential threat. Beijing seeks to trade and develop economic relations without imposing its political views. Moreover, while officially Beijing recognises Europeans’ rights in world affairs, it strongly supports multilateral institutions. These institutions for Europe are generally one of the few real foreign policy resources. Therefore, for Europe it would be irrational to be involved in a conflict with China, when there are no personal interests or values at stake. Other important US allies – Australia or Japan – are in a fundamentally different position. For them, China is closer and with absolutely certainty will impose its ideas on the rules of conduct, demanding respect for its own interests in the field of regional security. But Europe nevertheless remains marginal.
Therefore, Europeans in the coming months and years will seek to use the new global conflict in order to maximise their own yet-insignificant resources and opportunities. The leading continental states, primarily Germany and France, will this year try to play the role of an independent balancer toward the United States. In this sense, their actions will be somewhat akin to the policy of Russia, which, acting as a friend of China, will try to play a role of an intermediary toward the other side. If Moscow accepts Trump’s invitation to the September meeting of “G7 + Russia, Australia, South Korea and India,” it will justify this with the need to prevent this summit from turning into an anti-Chinese meeting.
Therefore, in the near future we will be able to observe a certain convergence of the diplomatic positions of Europe and Russia regarding the central problems of international politics. Germany will spend its six months chairing the EU attempting to consolidate its political power within the Union. It is unlikely that this will serve as a long-term factor guaranteeing internal stability in the EU, but for some time it will prevent the EU from collapsing completely. A dialogue with China, in the context of an increase in its struggle with the United States, will also be conducted under the banner of a new, more independent role for Europe in international affairs.
The fundamentally new character of the most important global conflict in comparison with the Cold War of the past will contribute to Europe’s diplomatic strategy. The struggle between China and the United States is not a frontal and fairly easily controlled confrontation between antagonistic international regimes that deny each other’s ethics, even though now, many in the USA will try to present it in this way. The ubiquitous nature of the struggle between the two powers will make it more dangerous, but less demanding in relation to the obligations and behaviour of the allies. The solidarity of junior partners with the leader of each of the opposing blocs will not be the rule, but the result of free choice in relation to each individual situation.
Speculative bipolarity should be expected to become an extremely complex international political phenomenon and will resemble the struggle between the powers before the onset of the 20th century, complete with its manifestations. This, in addition to the obvious risks, will lead to the expansion of the individual capabilities of states to increase their influence through diplomatic manoeuvring. Europe has the world’s most experience in such foreign policy behaviour. The very fact that now the Europeans have begun to move towards the recognition of the inevitability of ethical diversity, as a real alternative to the universal ethics of the liberal world order, is already a very serious signal.