A World of Two or Three? – The US, China and the EU in a New Global Order

Written by | Monday, January 13th, 2020

Is there a place for the EU in an old-fashioned power politics world, now organized around the confrontation between Washington and Beijing? Brussels needs to learn to balance and counterbalance the two world powers but also find the way and the means to defend its own approach, matching narratives and actions. A strong political figure as Josep Borrell can help overcome institutional inertia and pick up a few policy priorities where the EU’s external action can effectively make a difference.

Ursula Von der Leyen wants the new European Commission to be geopolitical and strategic. This idea materialized during Josep Borrell’s European Parliament confirmation hearing, where the EU High Representative and Vice-President (HR/VP) avowed the global order is moving away from a ruled-based multilateral order back into an old-fashioned power politics one, organized around the confrontation between Washington and Beijing. Thus, amid this shift, the EU needs to “learn the language of power” to vindicate its own independent voice and not to be squeezed by a new titans’ clash. In a world marked by increasingly-less-concealed hostility and open disagreement on the basics, the EU needs to reassess its global role and avoid playing into the game of any of the other two superpowers, particularly when Donald Trump’s US has ceased to be a fully reliable partner. Four features will define the EU’s way to go in a world of three, not two.

A mismatch between narratives and reality – Are we living through a new Cold War like confrontation, as suggested by some of the narratives put forward? It may look so, as traditionally smooth commercial relations are suffering from a political setback after different packages of sanctions have been passed by both governments in the last three years. However, a closer look shows that sanctions represent just around 2% of their combined GDP; hard talk has not really translated into any sort of grave escalation; and both actors keep on manifesting their willingness to reduce tensions. It is difficult to accept that this world resembles the Cold War context that for four decades pervaded global politics. This does not mean that a new G-2 cannot fall back into bipolar confrontation, but today’s dense network of global interdependences suggests that this remains a distant scenario.

A real distance? – The new Commission’s agenda to act strategically suggests that the EU might at times distance itself from the US – quarantining the traditional ‘special relationship’ – and approaching China when necessary. To become an independent geopolitical actor, Brussels needs to learn to balance and counterbalance the two world powers. But can the EU really distance itself from Washington? Decoupling security structures and reducing economic and trade dependency is not only a colossal challenge; it is also a costly and divisive business for the EU. In his hearing, Borrell claimed the need to strengthen relations with NATO, while shifting from a “strategic autonomy” (concept put forward in the 2016 EU Global Strategy) to a “collaborative autonomy” logic. In doing so, he might have signalled that the capacity – and inclination – towards moving away from the US are limited. Distancing narratives trace a direct connection between the return of geopolitics and Donald Trump’s period in office, so there is a deep understanding that the geopolitical miscarriage is somewhat temporary, at least in the short term. So, whether the US further distances from Europe – and vice-versa – in the next decade remains to be seen.

A renewed capability-expectations gap – The higher the stakes are, the higher the need for fulfilment. EU foreign policy and defence has traditionally been characterised by Christopher Hill’s capability-expectations gap, which illustrates how grand narratives about the EU’s role in world affairs usually falls short of expectations due to limited instruments and internal divisions. So can the EU translate its “geopolitical Europe” narrative into action? “Strategic autonomy” has been coupled with remarkable advancements in European defence; Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) being the most significant one, other efforts include increased EU-NATO cooperation and the possibility to use European money to fund defence capabilities through the European Defence Fund (EDF), though these initiatives are not free from criticism. Whether these initiatives can substantially increase the EU’s independence vis-à-vis the US, let alone to become a tour de force in a more geopolitically contested world, is unclear. The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani showed how difficult it is for the EU to openly confront the US and not be seen as a geopolitical bystander in major conflicts and power politics confrontation.

The recurrent quest for policy coherence – A geopolitical Union requires the simultaneous use of multiple policy instruments to achieve a commonly defined political goal. EU foreign policy has traditionally failed to successfully bring together the intergovernmental features of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the external relations in the hands of the European Commission. However, despite being a double-hatted figure, Borrell’s oversight of policy portfolios in the new European Commission is limited and, in any case, similar to that of previous HR/VPs. External action has not been placed at the top of Von der Leyen’s organization chart as other executive vice-presidencies have. But a strong political figure as Borrell can help overcome institutional inertia and pick up a few policy priorities where the EU’s external action can effectively make a difference.

The Southern neighbourhood offers a promising testing ground. In security, development or migration, there is increasing evidence that the EU’s neighbourhood does not stop at the southern borders of North African and Middle Eastern countries. Today, sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel are more present than ever in the political dynamics of the countries with which the EU has stablished long-standing relations since the launch of the Barcelona Process in 1995. Euro-Mediterranean relations must become more encompassing today, broadening them to an EU-Mediterranean-Africa triangle, where territorial links diminish the physical distance imposed by the Mediterranean Sea. This political priority, matched with relevant policy instruments and their coherence, could well embody a priority of the new HR/VP and Commission on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Process in November 2020.

‚The US, China and the EU in a New Global Order: A World of Two or Three?‘ – Opinion by Pol Morillas – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Opinion can be downloaded here


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