What does it mean to live in a world without global leadership? Where is the European Union heading? What impact will Trump’s “America first” policy and China’s Belt & Road Initiative have on tomorrow’s world order? Geopolitical reflections on the G-Zero world.
Donald Trump in the White House, China’s mega Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and, as a symbol of Europe’s identity crisis, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – those are just three examples of recent radical developments transforming our globalised world.
While the American president continues to pursue his “America first” policy, introducing punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and thus causing a massive trade conflict, China’s authoritarian political structures are growing ever stronger. Xi Jinping’s power has been expanded. He is the “president of all” and, as is again true of Mao Zedong, the centre of a pronounced personality cult. By introducing a Social Credit System (SCS), China wants to rate and classify its citizens in all areas of life. From creditworthiness to political and social behaviour, everything will be monitored. Total surveillance of this type is reminiscent of the methods employed by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
If all that were not enough, the European Union (EU) is stuck in an existential crisis. Geopolitical challenges thus abound and “interesting times” await.
G-2 and a multipolar world
Globalisation – the cross-border exchange and interaction of people, goods, services and communication – was a phenomenon already known in antiquity. A new aspect today is the increasing interdependency of its various actors. Nation-states, globally active companies, international institutions and nongovernment organisations are now closely linked. Since many actors are unaware of this, often their policy responses to globalisation (read: their internationalisation strategies) are neither coordinated nor consistent with each other’s.
The world without global leadership is a world in chaos, one in which each country and region tries to advance its own interests, thus accepting there will be disadvantages for others. Yet since, in the long run, no country or region is capable of playing a leading worldwide role on its own, the question remains of how long the world can remain in chaos and without global leadership. Are we on the road to a G-2 world, one in which everything depends on how relations between the US and China develop? One in which the EU, in particular, must take a subordinate position?
What would be preferable would be a world of cooperation (Banik, 2016, p.22),of peaceful multipolarity, one in which different actors compete with each other but in the spirit of global complementarity. It would be a new cosmopolitan (Nida-Rümeling, 2017, p.178)world order in which international standards are established and safeguarded and military conflicts are avoided – a world in which Europe, above all, has the chance to define itself strategically and realign itself vis-à-vis the US and China.
Following a brief introduction to the current geopolitical situation, this article examines the impact on the EU of the “China first” and “America first” policies. It concludes by highlighting the importance of viewing diversity as an added value and, especially for the EU, cultivating an identité de cœur (identity of the heart) as advanced by Jacques Ancel, a leading representative of French geopolitics.
Everything is geopolitics
Geopolitics is a multidisciplinary approach that analyses the relationship between power and territory. It thus sees all political decision-making and economic strategies as aiming to exert power and influence within a given geographic area. Eurasia currently plays a significant geopolitical role and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, as can be seen in China’s BRI. Although the interdependence of the various actors urgently demands cooperation and coordination to overcome global challenges, competition is the prevailing principle in today’s world order.
Key global challenges include:
- Climate change and its consequences
- Demographic change
- Increasing urbanisation
- Competition for the world’s natural resources
- Equitable food distribution (including access to drinking water)
- International terrorism (including cyberterrorism)
Because of globalisation and the deterritorialisation that results, various transnational forces have developed, including international organisations, interest groups, lobbying associations and globally active businesses. These transnational players act outside of the context of the constitutional nation-state and independently of it. Borders and the associated controlling mechanisms are disappearing. The political order of internally and externally sovereign nation-states according to the Westphalian model stands in opposition to these transnational forces, and vice versa. Moreover, the general public is becoming increasingly aware of globalisation’s negative consequences, such as non-transparent capital flows, global economic crime, corruption, money laundering, ongoing trade deficits, harsh competition and the exploitation of the world’s natural resources. The globalised world is producing winners and losers. Trust in the political elite is therefore declining among the public in the countries or regions that are losing out, a cohort that includes EU member states. The result is social conflict, political discontent and growing scepticism about the efficiency of today’s democratic systems and institutions. If one looks at China, the question arises of whether authoritarian structures might be the better response to global challenges. An affirmative response would be misguided.
Today’s world order, an aftereffect of the Second World War, is obsolete. Our international institutions are no longer capable of overcoming global challenges. The question of which world order will emerge in the future depends on geopolitical strategies, in particular on those pursued by China, the EU and the US.
Which ramifications does BRI have for Europe and its companies? This gigantic infrastructure project certainly offers opportunities for the EU, but it is and will remain a Chinese project that exclusively serves Chinese interests. Once constructed, it will be used first and foremost to control and ensure the transport of raw materials, above all from Africa, to China’s production sites. The same purpose will be served by expanding the railway lines, roads and ports included in BRI. And while local economies will benefit from this expansion, the participating countries will find themselves more dependent on China both economically and politically. These infrastructure projects are being financed with Chinese loans; in return, China is securing unimpeded access to crucial raw materials. Moreover, the projects often have no positive impact on employment in the BRI countries since most of the workers at the major building sites are Chinese– thus minimising the jobless rate in China.
Is BRI turning to a white elephant?
From the military perspective, BRI also has myriad implications. The People’s Republic maintains the world’s largest army as measured in the number of its troops. This army can easily monitor the building projects and transport routes (land/sea). Thus, BRI is expanding China’s military influence and driving the modernisation of its armed forces. China’s security strategy has changed. The army is evolving from a land-based military organisation to a naval power. In 2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army opened its first foreign base in Djibouti. This was a cause for concern for France, the US and, in particular, India.
BRI has, moreover, a very strong ideological component. National unity and stability are top priorities for the Chinese government. Begun in 1978, China’s economic opening – welcomed and supported by the West’s business community – largely served to avoid social conflict among the country’s population. Private property and entrepreneurship were encouraged, and farmers could retain any surplus production. All these measures were also meant to jolt the often inactive populace from its lethargy. The country’s citizens were used as a factor of production enabling the country to catch up technologically. Foreign investors endorsed this strategy.
With BRI, China is launching a new strategy for strengthening national unity and stability as a way of proactively preventing social unrest and the desire for democratic reforms. BRI is also being called the “path of Xi Jinping” and is meant to reinforce China’s power on the global level. One thing is certain: China is currently the only country in the world with a global strategy.
Analog American president in a digital world
The US president’s “America first” policy illustrates a different approach to globalisation’s challenges. Instead of opening to the world – as China is doing with BRI – “America first” focuses on protectionism. Trump is withdrawing from multilateral trade agreements in favour of bilateral pacts.
Although the US still evinces the qualities of a global leader in many areas, Trump’s unpredictable approach to governing is increasingly a cause for concern for the EU and NATO allies. What is at stake is the reliability of the US when it comes to Europe’s security interests.
Trump seems to be a president from another age. He appears completely unconcerned with globalisation and the interdependencies that have resulted for global actors. He seems to have no interest in acknowledging the world’s complex geopolitical contexts. On the contrary, he apparently still sees the world from the perspective of a real-estate magnate. Borders and walls are being rebuilt. The marketing of the “Trump” brand, moreover, must be visible to everyone.
Although Trump’s methods are very different from those of Xi, both have one thing in common: they are national strategies that strengthen the position of the country in question.
EU: lost dreams
From a global perspective, the European Union is hard to classify. It is neither a nation-state nor the “United States of Europe”. Until now the EU has not succeeded in becoming a political union. It lacks a joint strategy, particularly in terms of foreign, security and economic policies. This lack of a joint strategy is, geopolitically speaking, what prevents the EU from being an equal partner to the US and China. On the contrary, neither China nor the US wants a strong Europe. That is why they support individual member states, depending on which of their interests is at stake.
Europe’s vulnerability is particularly evident in the military arena. Since Trump has taken office, Europe can no longer rely on the US as NATO’s mainstay and main financial contributor. Now that America’s security interests in Europe are no longer a priority for the president, the EU is being forced to step up and take responsibility.
China is taking advantage of Europe’s strategic weakness as well. Chinese investments, especially those relating to BRI, are concentrated in Eastern Europe, and the 16+1 negotiations are further marginalising Brussels.
The world without global leadership is creating major challenges for the EU. Internally, member states are increasingly critical of the diktat from Brussels and are demanding a return to national sovereignty. At the same time, the EU has not been successful in responding to the needs and fears of its citizens – ie, unemployment, especially among young people, and a growing feeling of uncertainty caused by the loss of control in Europe. Borders and the reintroduction of national control mechanisms are again being discussed.
Externally, the EU finds itself facing increasingly dominant nation-states, including China, Russia and the US. The “age of the strongmen” seems to have dawned, strongmen who are unfailingly pursuing their own interests around the globe. If the EU is not successful in defining shared, uniform European interests – above all in the area of security, foreign and economic policy – the Union will sooner or later find itself relegated to geopolitical obscurity.
Cosmopolitan and multipolar
Globalisation does not mean that borders – and thus countries, territories, regions and communities – disappear (Zajec, 2017, p. 238).On the contrary, the more globalised the world is, the greater the sense of belonging people have for their country, region or area. When all is said and done, we want to remain who we are.
Personality cults, like those currently being cultivated in China and Russia, and projects and visions, like BRI and “America first”, not only define national interests, they also provide the strategic and ideological framework required for ensuring national cohesion. This is where the EU continues to come up short. Europe does not have a shared strategic vision, either internally or externally. Diversity is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.
This is where it is worth taking a closer look at the ideas of Jacques Ancel (1879–1943), a thinker who, from a geopolitical perspective, accords a central position to people while also introducing the concept of “identity”. According to Ancel, there are no natural borders, only those that people recognise based on shared memories, history, culture, language and the express desire to coexist. Thus, in contrast to the German geopolitical nation-state school, he represents a non-rational vision of the “nation of the heart” or an “identity of the heart”.
«C’est le cœur qui vaut et qu’il faut considérer avant tout» (Jacques Ancel)
In this sense, the EU could strategically position itself externally vis-à-vis China and the US as an avant garde actor while also responding internally to the public’s concerns. Nationality, national sovereignty and the shared European identity must be respected as complementary elements and not seen as mutually exclusive. Europe’s diversity must, in turn, be leveraged as a strength and not condemned in a hostile ploy against Brussels.
Geopolitically, this could serve as the EU’s contribution to a new, more equitable, cosmopolitan world order, one characterised by balanced and fair global trade, by a just distribution of the world’s natural and food resources, and by joint efforts to fight terrorism.
In our globalised world, the EU, China and the US are not isolated island paradises. No one is privy to the absolute truth. The challenges stemming from climate change, growing global competition (for natural resources, food, water, etc), the rivalry between national and transnational forces and, above all, international terrorism are forcing us to face reality. The illusions underlying various ideologies must be relinquished. These include the Europe of elites; patriotic Chinese-style capitalism; “America first”; personality cults; and a return to revisionist power structures. Differences must be bridged (Banik, 2016, p. 127). The goal is a cosmopolitan world order in which human values take precedence in keeping with an “identity of the heart”.
Author’s note: this article was previously published in World Scientific, China and the World, Vol. 01, No. 04 (2018).
References (selected works)
- Ancel, Jacques(1938). La géographie des frontières, Paris, Gallimard.
- Banik, Katja (2016).Les relations Chine-Europe: à la croisée des chemins, Paris, L’Harmattan.
- Boniface, Pascal (2017).La Géopolitique, Eyrolles, Paris.
- Gauchon, Huissoud (2008). Les 100 mots de la géopolitique, puf, Paris.
- Juncker, Jean-Claude (2017).Discours sur l’état de l’Union 2017, Brussels, European Commission, 13 september 2017.
- Nida-Rümelin, Julian (2017).Über Grenzen denken, eine Ethik der Migration, edition Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg.
- Marshall, Tim (2015). Prisoners of Geography, Elliott and Thompson Ltd., London.
- The Economist (2018).“All under heaven:China’s belt-and-road plans are tobe welcomed – and worried about,”print edition, Leaders section.
- The Wall Street Journal (2018).“The global world order will outlast U.S. leadership” (James Dobbins), 24 July 2018.
- Zajec, Olivier (2016).Introduction à l’analyse géopolitique. Éditions du Rocher, Monaco.