The Third Pole of Power 

It’s been a long time coming, and now it’s official. Dubbed as a new Cold War, the US-China confrontation in the Pacific has now cut across the Atlantic into the NATO Summit Declaration. Yet, in a re-emerging bipolarity, Europe may this time choose to play the role of a third pole of power, writes Dr Antonios Nestoras. 


NATO shifts for a New Cold War  

In December 2018, for the first time in its history, China got a mention in a closing  statement of a NATO leader’s Summit which declared the country presented “both opportunities and challenges”. Fast forward to less than three years later and the difference in language is striking: a few weeks ago in Brussels, NATO leaders blasted China’s “ambitions and assertive behaviour” as “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security”. 

This is a historic shift that concludes the latest episode in a period of deteriorating US-China  relations. What preceded the Brussels Communiqué was a series of protectionist measures on  both sides, such as Trump’s Huawei ban (May 2019) and Xi’s announcement of a “dual-circulation policy” (May 2020), which were heralded by media pundits and analysts as the beginning of a US-China Cold War.  

Despite efforts to dampen the protectionist drive and normalise relations, the rivalry  has instead intensified, entangling more states in a situation that is starting to resemble what  Niall Ferguson called a “tech world war”.  

The Americans are looking to leverage NATO and draw their European allies into the US-China rivalry – so the latest leaders’ statement can also be seen as an attempt to redefine NATO’s mission in a new Cold War. This time, though, they’re confronting a different adversary. Although the situation invokes historical analogies with the US-Soviet Cold War, many things  are similar, but some things are vastly different – especially when it comes to Europe’s ability to play an autonomous role in the conflict.  

The Inevitable Conflict

Their country’s superpower rivalry with China has been long in the making – according to many American academic and policy-making circles, who have been watching the ascent of China as an economic powerhouse, its assertiveness in challenging US interests in the Asia Pacific, and its ambition to revise the US-led liberal order. 

In addition to geopolitical dynamics, Charles Edel and Hal Brands writing for Foreign Policy concluded that the origins of the US-China Cold War were also ideological. According to them, an authoritarian regime such as China could never feel domestically secure whilst the international community remains overwhelmingly liberal democratic. Thus, an intense political hostility between the US and China  – to some – has a sense of inevitability.  

American thinking about the new superpower showdown is inevitably influenced by historical comparisons with the US-Soviet Cold War. Michael McFaul, Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, notes that even though China is not calling for a global revolution like the Soviets did, but equally, China is more integrated with the liberal world order than the Soviets  were just as the US are more interdependent with China than they ever were with the Soviets. McFaul subsequently suggests that China will be a far more challenging foe to the US than Soviet Russia. 

Where is Europe in All This?  

Europe is not the same continent it was 70 years ago; its position in a New Cold War will thus differ to its one in the last. In 1945, Europe’s economy was wrecked and it was totally dependent on US aid  for recovery. Today, the joint economy of the bloc ranks third in the world – both in nominal  terms and purchasing power parity. The internal market of the 27 member states now guarantees the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, whereas the EU relies on free trade agreements to bolster Europe’s economic weight and influence in the world. The Euro, used by 19 of the member states, is the second largest reserve and second most traded, after the US Dollar.  

For decades following the aftermath of World War II, the continent was fragmented: Germany was divided in two and occupied by allied forces and the Red Army; Eastern European states were in the Soviet sphere of influence, run by puppet communist regimes; most European countries did not have a functioning liberal democracy (Greece, Spain and Portugal, for example, were not democratised until the 1970s). 

Today, the process of European integration has created not only an economic bloc, but also a political union, which – despite its problems – is increasingly conscious of its own history, values and weight in international affairs.  

The grievous destruction of the war, the undoing of colonialism and dependency on the US for security did not leave the ailing European states with much room for exerting international influence. EU diplomacy was difficult from the beginning due to its specific nature and consuming battles for internal legitimacy and consensus amongst the member states – the 2016 EU Global Strategy has been called an “exercise of diplomacy in its own right”. For the most part, the second half of the twentieth century was a great period of  introspection for Europe. 

This is changing fast. On the one hand, continental debates focus on the concept of strategic autonomy: the EU’s capacity to make its own decisions in matters of foreign policy, security and defence. On the other hand, there is an institutional drive to turn the EU into a global geopolitical actor. For now, the concept of strategic autonomy and the vision of a “geopolitical European Commission” are little more than buzzwords. Yet, if a New Cold War compresses Europe between two superpowers, the EU could find just enough political support to become both autonomous and geopolitical. 

Europe: the Third Pole of Power? 

It is not entirely certain that Europe will simply fall behind the US in a New Cold War – but this does not mean that the Western states won’t be on the same side. After all, transatlantic ties run deep and Europe’s ideological differences with China are just as pronounced and irreconcilable as their American allies. However, it is also quite possible  that the EU will pursue a more nuanced relationship with China. The old continent may choose instead to play a more autonomous role as not a first, nor a second, but a third pole of power, and thus try to break the re emerging bipolarity.  

Whilst 70 years ago, Europe could not help but being a mere theatre of the Cold War, it would be a fallacy to assume that this is Europe’s only choice if another superpower showdown happens  today.  

Dr Antonios Nestoras is Head of Policy and Research at the European Liberal Forum (ELF). Over more than 12 years in the academic, think-tank and European public administration fields, his  work has been published in peer-reviewed journals, think-tank reports and EU media. He holds  a double PhD in Social and Political Science from VUB and the University of Antwerp. He writes  here in a personal capacity and his opinions do not necessarily represent those of the European  Liberal Forum.

8th July 2021