For the European Union to talk about twenty-first-century geopolitics is like for Yo-Yo Ma to perform Rammstein songs – it seems very strange. Like America we probably need to change our approach and play a different tune.

The twenty-first century has made the idea of power struggle come back to life and each day we see it with the trade war between the United States and China and how Europe is intertwined in it.

One could ask: why does the US impose sanctions on China? The answer is simple – it has to.

America shifted out of necessity

In the American film “Three Kings” about the first intervention of US forces in Iraq there is a very tell-tale scene. A character played by George Clooney asks one of his fellow soldiers:

“What’s the most important thing in life?” ”No, not respect, not love, not God’s will.

“What is it, then?,” inquires one of the soldiers.

“Necessity,” replies Clooney.

“As in?”

“As in people do what is most necessary to them at any given moment.”

I take it to be more about having the guts to modify the otherwise subconscious impulses to attend to the circumstances that confront us. This is what happened to the soldiers and you can watch to film to know more.

Donald Trump

It is also a necessity that shifted our approach to free trade, Russia, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was neither values nor ideas but a change of circumstances with implications for the security environment.

In 2014, China overtook the United States without fanfare as the world’s largest economy (based on purchasing power parity).

Americans very much want to be No. 1—they enjoy having that status, but this not just about branding but about having an influence on a global order that for many years was theirs.

We tend to forget that American politics is very much domestic. In 1992, George W. Bush lost his second bid for the White House because he was more globally oriented.

The “It’s the economy, stupid” domestic campaign of Bill Clinton during a recession prove to be more in line with the needs of the majority of Americans.

Today, Donald Trump also cares more about the domestic sphere: whatever he says on international relations has a greater echo in Europe or Asia than in the United States.

So although policies pursued by the Americans are out of necessity, we would like to think that this is a temporary shift. However, the Democrats and Republicans are very much aligned in their approach to China and trade.

GDP per capita (in constant prices) grew in China by 100 per cent between 2019 and 2009, the US just by 17 per cent (Poland e.g. 43 per cent). Europe and the US created a greenhouse for China in order for their economy to thrive. This is what fuels outrage in the United States.

During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, American external politics mostly dealt with the Middle East. Barack Obama was more focused on the internal situation (due to the fallout of the financial crisis, the need for healthcare reforms and much more).

However, this was the time when Chinese economic influence was seen everywhere but the Americans did not know how to react. This void was filled with anti-globalist policies, protectionism, tariffs, and twenty-first-century rhetoric of shifts in global power and geopolitical struggle. This is the necessity that American politicians see today.

The international order that the US helped to create, did not make Americans richer anymore, that is why the US is demolishing some parts of it.

Technology as the new fighting ground

The latest Pentagon report states that China has caught up with or is ahead of the United States in several areas of military modernisation – navy, conventional missiles and manoeuvring missiles, and integrated air defence.

Technology and 5G are other elements where Americans want to win back some parts of the business that they lost. United States officials warn that Huawei’s 5G systems will allow China to eavesdrop on the world’s communications and steal the world’s data.

We are now at the greatest turning point in Chinese history since its unification in the 3rd century BCE. China is turning outward – but does not want to rule you. Like the Borg in Star Trek, it wants to assimilate you – out of necessity.

There are probably more Marxists in Europe than there are in China, but their necessity makes them behave the way they do, even when there is talk that president Xi Jinping is going to use the title “Chairman” (previously only reserved to Mao Zedong).

The argument of decoupling and reshoring is made by many European leaders too, not only by the Americans. This is something that is going to become a mainstream idea in Europe because many of us face the same risk of stagnation and public uproar.

But reshoring is costly. At the Polish Economic Institute, we did estimates on how value added created in China could come back to the EU. Germany and Poland are those countries that could see the highest increase of production because they are industrial countries.

All of this would mean higher costs to each consumer. We wish it may happen and probably in case of some strategic goods such as drugs it is going to take place.

The term ‘industry 4.0’ coined in Germany could be a narrative that many businesses are going to use when creating less labour-intensive production plants with higher value-added per worker.

The US is making Chinese corporations sell their assets to American enterprises or ban the use of their products. While these regulations look more like a political firework display, the economic ramifications of these moves are wide-ranging. And, for example, could end with China banning the use of Apple devices.

Many US companies, including Visa, Mastercard and Starbucks, also use the WeChat payment platform and e-commerce features in China. Trump’s regulations could force these and other companies to reconsider their presence in China, with consequences that could extend beyond the White House’s predictions.

It is too early to know exactly how big tech companies and app stores will respond to the regulations.

Made from the same clay

Emmanuel Macron

There are, however, dangerous signals coming from some European politicians – especially from France. Just last year Emmanuel Macron, declared NATO brain dead as if the transatlantic military cooperation were non-functional and obsolete. This remark sparked outcry but was a strong signal of a rift being created.

Whether on Iran or climate change, Europeans have gotten accustomed to disagreeing with the US over the last few years in a way that would have been unthinkable under previous administrations.

Moreover, US interest in Europe — a product of the dominance of the Cold War in US foreign policy — will continue to decline. Asia is of utmost interest, not Europe. Washington’s frustration with low European defence spending did not start with the Trump administration and will outlast him too.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market has said that “Belarus is not Europe” and that talks with Vladimir Putin would consider the nature of Belarus’ relationship with Russia. Fortunately, the European Council did what needed to be done and demanded a new and fair election. Some try to forget that we have a war just next to the EU’s eastern border.

According to the UN, some 13,000 people have been killed since war broke in Ukraine, a quarter of them civilians, and as many as 30,000 wounded.

This denialism of the West is a very dangerous path that can ruin Europe’s soft power. If we lose our tradition of European solidarity, we are done.

Europe today has two great powers – one is sticky power – the power of gravitational attraction of surrounding countries with its economic welfare.

And soft power – the power of cultural attraction that makes migrants want to live in Europe; a power that makes Belarus be part of the West and make protesters wave EU flags. We cannot ruin this soft power.

Not a single country in Eurasia has such comparable power as Europe. Neither Russia, nor China, nor any of the Middle Eastern countries. Soft power is a real asset.

But we definitely have to increase Europe’s hard power by investments in the security and military sector. If we like it or not this is where Trump is right.

Some of us are already doing this – and the most evident case is the Three Seas Initiative that has recently resulted in the launch of a Three Seas Fund.

But, being the EU, we should not deteriorate US-EU relations in the process of becoming the leading gravitational force in the region and in the world.

There may be two different outcomes to the presidential election in the US this year. But those who think that a president from the Democratic Party would halt many if not the majority of trends in the current American politics are wrong.

The US is experiencing an economic crisis and any president will have to act to end it. Any president will have to face China’s rise, unemployment and racial tensions.

Any president will have to face both right-wing and left-wing radicalism. So, American policy will not change very much and those who play the waiting game (until the US changes its attitude) may be wasting their time.

The EU and the US still are the West. And as the Mexican (and Polish too) proverb “We are all made of the same clay, but not from the same mould”. There are more issues that make us a community in comparison to China or Russia and we need to stick together.

We have the same values, but we might not like each other’s style.

The US, however, is a constituent part of European existence. Restoring a consensus with the North American partner is crucial. The other option is to act responsibly and arm.

It is, of course, true that we must rebuild the network of trust into international institutions and should not succumb to the authoritarian narratives produced by non-Western powers. According to them what exists is only pure geopolitics and power struggle. This is simply not true.

The international institutions and collective interests, with peace at the top, are still crucial.  We might need to rethink the WTO, WHO or built on the new institutions as we did so many times before.

A new role for the EU

To conclude, there are some analysts that argue that we are not going into a multipolar world meaning we will not have one empire in this world but many empires which at the end would mean that multilateral bodies of policy coordination would be even more useful than before. This a new role for the EU.

There are also those who believe in Thucydides’ trap, famously coined by Graham Allison in Destined for War, that the rivalry of an ambitious competitor with a dominant hegemon often results in war.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said (apocryphally) that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Because of Brexit, both Sweden and Finland lost the United Kingdom as a nuclear guarantor of their border because they are not NATO-members.

If a twenty-first-century style of geopolitics is the new normal, the EU also has to shift. It needs to do what needs to be done in order to increase its sphere of influence as it moves forward with the Balkan enlargement.

It is in the EU’s interest to move forward with its commitment to Albania and North Macedonia – especially given the growing influence of countries such as China, Russia, and Turkey in the Western Balkans. Peaceful expansion is needed.

Some would like to go back to the hyper-globalisation of the late twentieth century, but this might not be an option any longer. We must make-do with the current circumstances and adapt.

Europe has a chance to be the third pole in cooperation with the United States in a multipolar world not because it wants to but because it has no other option.


Head of the Polish Economic Institute

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF