Think Tank
Europe, Russia and Attitudes Towards the ‘New Cold War’ Between US and China

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, writes Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club. The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

The global conflict between China and the United States will be the most serious test of Euro-American relations in the history of this relatively unified community of liberal market democracies. This is because China neither threatens the survival, nor the interests, of Washingtons European partners, and an acrimonious relationship with Beijing only serves to create problems for them. Therefore, the leading countries of the European Union (EU) are increasingly thinking about how to behave going forward and are certainly not going to unconditionally support their American NATO ally. This represents a first-ever rift in the 75-year history of transatlantic relations.

Last week, President Trump managed to simultaneously loudly announce a new attack on China’s economic positions around the world and receive a sensitive blow in the form of the polite refusal of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to personally participate in the G7 summit in the United States. The need to stay at home in connection with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was cited as the formal reason for the refusal. However, if such a pandemic had happened in the old days, no one would fail to expect the presence of the German leader at the meeting. On the contrary, it would be used to demonstrate to the whole world the unity of the West in the face of a new threat. Now, the Europeans have neither objective nor subjective reasons to engage in such a demonstration of support.

Indeed, everything has changed. According to a recent survey conducted in Germany by the Pew Institute and the Kerber Foundation, only 37 percent of German respondents believe that relations with the United States are a higher priority for their country than relations with China. This is 13 percent less than it was in the same survey of public opinion in 2019. It is curious at the same time that only slightly fewer respondents, 36 percent of them – generally prefer closer relations with China. Here there is a growth by 12 percent also compared to the same survey last year.
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Expert Opinions

Bursts of antipathy towards the United States have happened before in Europe. From the time the US and its allies invaded Iraq until the end of George W. Bush’s Republican administration, Europe’s attitude towards the United States was also critical. Incidentally, the then-European leaders and Russia’s president, a few months after the war started, took a family photo with George W. Bush at a meeting of the G7 when it was morphing into the G8. After Barack Obama became president, everything returned to its relatively calm course. The European states could not use this respite of 8 years to correct the balance of power in their favour, both within the West and at the global level. Therefore, the coming to power in the United States of the radical Republican administration of Donald Trump was viewed with horror.

After 2017, the United States adopted revolutionary policies with respect to the international order. This order arose after the Cold War on the basis of norms and rules established within the West in the 1945-1990 period. It equally distributed economic and political benefits between the participants. At the same time, the leadership remained with the United States, since it was the strongest power militarily. For Europe, this order was more than convenient. European integration as such arose when the United States removed from Europe any concerns about its own security and responsibility for decision-making. In economic terms, China received tremendous benefits from the Liberal order. Even Russia strove at one time to become part of it, although it soon became dissatisfied with this opportunity.

By the beginning of 2020, the US policy on a revolutionary revision of existing rules and norms had already taken shape. The only thing it lacked was a serious, full-blown conflict with one of the great powers. In this regard, Russia could not serve as the basis for all US foreign policy. But China is already quite suitable for such a role. That is why the coronavirus pandemic was the first-ever phenomenon of this order, with serious consequences for international politics as a whole.

And in first place among these consequences is the beginning of a head-on collision between the USA and China in all spheres, except the military one, so far. This clash was objectively caused by the impossibility of the simultaneous realisation by the two powers of their development goals. A change in the global balance of power as a result of the growth of Chinese power could not continue to occur in a relatively conflict-free manner. Although this is exactly what the Europeans would prefer, since then they would get the opportunity to gradually back away from the United States. Or perhaps just by reinforcing their position within the transatlantic community.

China itself has long sought to make the conflict with the United States a certain kind of “phoney war.” When the nature of the confrontation is obvious to everyone, its specific manifestations and the long-term goals of the parties are clear, but everything happens in an implicit form. In this case, the Chinese hoped to accumulate opportunities until the ousting of the United States from the world Olympus would simply require a direct clash between them. This, however, did not work out. As often happens with the weakening powers, gradually losing their international dominance and, moreover, subject to serious internal problems, the US is trying to “cut the Gordian knot” in a revolutionary way and translate the conflict into an open form. It at least gives Washington some chances to win.

Therefore, a global change in the balance of power both represents an increase of China’s capabilities and an increase of the US’s determination to maintain a dominant position. Europe may be the worst-affected party in this conflict. Just as the situation after the end of the Cold War was the most comfortable for Europeans, the collapse of the Liberal world order presents the most trouble. The most serious of these problems is the growing need to determine their own place in the global balance, precisely at a time when Europe is least prepared to deal with this.

The European Union has experienced several serious crises over the past 10 years. The Eurozone crisis in 2008-2012 significantly undermined the democratic decision-making between the EU countries, putting some of them in the position of adopting rules that others imposed on them. The refugee crisis in 2014-2015 for the first time cast serious doubt on European solidarity with regards to the issue of internal security, which is important for everyone. The 2020 spring pandemic crisis virtually destroyed European solidarity. The richer countries took a rather selfish attitude towards those countries most affected by the pandemic – Italy and Spain. The fact that now the “Macron and Merkel Plan” proposes to allocate significant grant funds to the economic entities of these countries is unlikely to improve the situation. It is proposed that these funds should be allocated directly to companies, that is, essentially, bypassing national governments. Therefore, the latter may quite reasonably ask themselves why they need a community where the strong members ignore their interests in relations with their own citizens?
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Expert Opinions

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.
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Message from the Chairman
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.