Playing second fiddle will cost Europe

Being junior partner to the US has no future amid changing global order


There are competing visions among academicians, experts and politicians on the future of international relations. What will the primary features of the world be in 10, 20, or 30 years? Will it be a world where states cooperate for the benefit of all, or will it be a “jungle” where all fight and the strongest gets everything? 

These are challenging questions to answer, but one pattern of the emerging new world order is clear — it will not be a unipolar world, governed and controlled by one state. The unipolar moment, which emerged after the end of the Cold War and was marked by uncontested US hegemony, is over. 

The growing economic and political power of other states, first of all, China, Russia, India, Brazil and others, have contributed to the process of power diffusion and its shift from the West to the East. However, the narrative about the US-led Collective West competing with the Global East is too simplistic to describe the complexity of the emerging new world order. 

The West is not, and perhaps never was, a monolithic pyramid with the United States sitting at its pinnacle. France’s decision to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 is one example of how individual European countries have sought to protect their independence. The establishment of the European Union, and the creation of a common area of up to 500 million people with a high level of economic development, social protection and the rule of law, has significantly boosted the EU’s capacities and capabilities for independent power projection. 

In recent years, active discussions have been underway in Europe to push forward its “strategic autonomy”, a term coined by French President Emmanuel Macron. But the conflict in Ukraine and the complete disruption of Russia-West connections seem to have complicated the task.

As the US took the lead in pushing forward the West’s economic and military support to Ukraine, it seems that Europe had no other choice than to accept US supremacy and rally behind Washington, not only on Ukraine but on all other major issues, including US policy toward China.

However, this perception is not true, and it will lead Europe nowhere. Current international relations are not a remake of the bipolarity of the 1950s and 1960s, where everyone was forced to choose between the US and the Soviet Union. The world is much more diverse and the emergence of several global players denies the logic of simple, binary choices. 

Europe may still opt for the US security umbrella, but Europe needs to understand that being the US’ junior partner in the emerging new world order is not in its best interests. First of all, it will harm Europe economically. The Ukraine conflict has negatively impacted Europe’s economy, while US energy and defense industry companies are reaping astonishing revenues. 

Recent US actions, including the adoption of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, have sent a clear message to everyone. The US is going to use the current geopolitical dynamics in Europe to attract European capital and intellectual know-how to the US, depriving Europe of cutting-edge technologies and making it an economic backyard for US companies. 

This perspective will not only end any possibility for the EU’s “strategic autonomy” but also decrease the living standards of tens of millions of people in Europe, increasing poverty and ruining the “European dream”. As Europe is facing tough challenges due to its economic decoupling from Russia, the US is putting pressure on the EU to start economic decoupling with China and support the US’ assertive posture on Taiwan. 

If Europe follows this path, it will not only put an abrupt end to any possibility of the EU avoiding the fate of being the US’ junior partner but will also ruin the European economy, making the EU a source of human capital to boost the US demography and as the destination for US exports. It may also drag Europe into a dangerous confrontation with China for reasons that have nothing to do with European collective security or any European country’s strategic interests.

Many European leaders understand the potential pitfalls of this scenario. In recent months, the German chancellor, the president of the European Council, the prime minister of Spain and the president of France have visited China, seeking to boost bilateral relations and promote further economic cooperation. 

Facing tough economic challenges due to the conflict in Ukraine and US efforts to strengthen its economy at the expense of Europe, economic decoupling with China is a non-starter for Europe. It is good for Europe that at least some European leaders understand this dynamic. 

After visiting China, President Macron, in an interview with Politico, stated that Europe must reduce its dependency on the US and avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan. Europe needs sound geopolitical analysis to avoid being downgraded into the US’ junior partner, who follows Washington’s orders regardless of the implications.

The author is the chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan, Armenia. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.