The age of liberal internationalism has made way for the return of great power rivalry. The facts of global interdependence are the same — witness the disdain for state frontiers shown by Covid-19 and climate change. But the redistribution of global power has changed the geopolitical weather. National impotence is proving a poor brake on rising, well, nationalism.
For now, the world sits in a curious no-mans land — still attached to familiar multilateral institutions, but with the great powers squaring up for a fight about the contours of the new landscape. Not-so-great powers will face growing pressure to choose sides. Will they be with the US or with China? Historians will record in passing that this was a really odd moment for a middling power such as Britain to strike out on its own by leaving the EU.
In essence, an emboldened, rising China and a resentful, falling Russia are unwilling to acquiesce in an order they charge is calculated to perpetuate western hegemony. Xi Jinping wants to return China to the centre of the global stage. Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to claw back a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.
The overall effect is to substitute rival gangs for multilateral rules. Some nations will sit on the fence; others will try to hold on to a privileged economic relationship with China while still hiding behind Washington’s security shield. Many have already made their choice.
The fashion these days is to say that the autocrats have a head start. And it’s true that the absence of domestic opposition means that China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin can act with relative impunity. When it comes to gangs, though, the advantage lies with the west.
Joe Biden has been around for a while. He cherishes the old order. For good reason. The period between 1945 and 2000 saw an almost perfect alignment between America’s selfish national interests and its international leadership. This was before China joined the World Trade Organization, the US went to war in the Middle East and the global financial system came crashing down on its western architects.
Biden’s appearances during a week of international summitry, including a one-to-one with Putin in Geneva, had a single purpose: to gather up the old gang for the looming confrontation with China. Russia is a serious nuisance. China poses the systemic threat. Here America’s friends are its most important asset.
The stresses and tensions in the transatlantic alliance are not going to go away. The French will always be suspicious of American intentions. Angela Merkel refuses to let her commitment to liberal democratic rules get in the way of Germany’s economic interests. And the Europeans have their own gang. The EU may lack a geostrategic presence, but it is up there with the US and China in setting global economic norms.
For all that, Xi’s aggressive pursuit of China’s interests has made Biden’s task easier. The significance of the agreement to end the EU-US dispute on subsidies for Boeing and Airbus lay in its recognition that the real threat to both companies will soon come from China.
Emmanuel Macron is as Gaullist as any French president. He is also as assiduous as any European leader in making sure the television cameras capture his intimacy with the US president. Merkel is on her last lap. When the president welcomes her to the White House next month it will be in hope that her successor will match rhetoric with action.
The Europeans, in short, are beginning to face up to uncomfortable strategic realities. Not fast enough for some in Washington, but sufficiently so for Biden to claim that it was a week well spent.
The odd nation out here is the UK. As the host of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Boris Johnson might have hoped to put post-Brexit Britain at the centre of events. Instead his attempt to renege on the Northern Ireland trade deal he agreed with the EU has left him isolated among his peers.
Macron’s irritation with perfidious Albion made the headlines, but Biden pulled no punches in his talks with Johnson. Perhaps he pointed out that you cannot pose as a champion of the rules-based order while tearing up a treaty you have just signed with your allies. Johnson, as European and American diplomats will tell you, is not trusted. Unless that changes his much-vaunted “Global Britain” will look a lot more like Britain alone.