Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western foreign policy has been based on two mistaken assumptions.
The first was that we could get the Chinese and Russian regimes to accept and embrace the liberal international order through the creation of interdependence via trade, dissemination of technical know-how and membership of international institutions.
The West’s decision to integrate China into the global economic order made China wealthier and more powerful, while the relative strength of the United States shrank.
The European policy was one of integrating Russia into international structures and it was most forcefully advocated by Germany. Some of you may remember Angela Merkel’s catch phrase “Wandel durch Handel” – transformation through trade.
This Ostpolitik precluded tough sanctions on Russia after its invasions of Georgia and Crimea and resulted in German and European energy dependency on Russia, which now finances Putin’s war machine in Ukraine.
The second assumption – mainly practiced by the U.S. but certainly not without support in Europe – was to make the world safe for democracy through military intervention and nation building. These liberal adventures abroad have cost enormous amounts and caused human tragedy.
We tried to transform China and Russia into liberal rule-abiding democracies. It did not work. We tried nation building in Afghanistan. It did not work. We tried to foster democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, it did not work.
At the end of its’ 30-year run, liberal foreign policy has precious little to show for its efforts and has, in hindsight, proven to be dangerously naive. This is why we need something that could be described as “Principled Realism”, a conservative pursuit of realism with a moral compass based on our Judeo-Christian values.
China does not lecture other countries on human rights, corruption and democracy. It offers cheap loans to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin and South America through its “Belt and Road” Initiative. And, dare I say it, even some of the EU’s member states have found it enticing to take these loans.
We may not see the allure of the Chinese offer – whether it is authoritarianism or “Belt and Road” – but not so few leaders do.
The Chinese money comes with strings attached and often involves political leverage as well as substantial control over countries’ natural resources and/or infrastructure. However, also a similar, Western package, is not without provisions.
The EU’s alternative to China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative – our programme on international spending on infrastructure to gain economic and political influence and to “shape globalisation the European way” has been dubbed the “Global Gateway”. The initiative offers lower-income countries “green, transparent and values-based” project financing.
Many poor countries, and especially their leaders, will find the Chinese offer and their non-intervention in domestic affairs more attractive than the EU alternative. Especially if it comes with inept western attempts at democratisation and efforts to force woke mores on their traditional cultures.
History has not ended
The foundation of the liberal internationalist foreign policy is the belief in the end of history. Many believe that with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, history has woken up. I contend that it never went to sleep.
The illusion that China would be committed to free markets, tolerance, and self-determination is long gone. Its genocidal persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, their belligerence towards Taiwan, their cover-up, lies and mishandling of Covid-19 outbreak, the personality cult of Xi Jinping and China’s Orwellian social credit system… People from all across the political spectrum can easily find aspects of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule outright repulsive.
🇷🇺🇨🇳 – China will be Russia's sole economic and financial lifeline in coming years
• Relationship will be highly unbalanced: China's economy is far bigger than Russia's
• Russia is only a minor trading partner for China, giving Beijing leverage in negotiations with Moscow pic.twitter.com/Ccb9nvEgLP
— Agathe Demarais (@AgatheDemarais) March 24, 2022
The EU and the United States must be partners, not competitors
On the long term, the West cannot rely or closely cooperate with countries that seek to undermine our interests and democratic institutions. If the West is to win a new Cold War-esque direct challenge from Red China, we will need to re-examine and strengthen all aspects of transatlantic cooperation as well as our cooperation with like-minded partners around the world.
Sadly, many in the EU institutions don’t see things this way and want to turn “Europe” into an independent power in the international system, balancing between China and the U.S. EU Council President Charles Michel expressed this sentiment when he said that the “EU must not become collateral damage between the US and China”.
Charles Michel’s statement shows that he does not believe that the US and the EU are partners, but instead competitors, in our policies towards China. This is a strategic mistake.
If Michel had his way, the EU would opt for “strategic autonomy”, adopting a supranational foreign policy and EU Army and do without the transatlantic alliance.
It isn’t likely that on the long term, the U.S. will continue to subsidise European security and take European interests in to consideration when the EU would act as a competitor undermining U.S. strategic interests. The preference of the power-hungry EU bureaucracy and the French is for going it alone. But trying to balance China and the U.S. as an independent actor will leave the EU weaker and more isolated.
Realism with a moral compass
This is why “Principled Realism” is more needed than ever. Rather than woke ideas, we need to pursue realism with a moral compass, based on our principles of freedom, human dignity and prudence.
If you believe in the nation state as the cornerstone of international order and law, the obvious choice – and the one that I believe most European democracies will opt for – is to strengthen the transatlantic alliance and work with the U.S., NATO, the QUAD, AUKUS and democracies like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea in the Asian region to counter Russia, China and their new dominions.
The EU, NATO, U.S., U.K. and other important democracies should form – for lack of a better word – a Western Alliance. Such an alliance must base its policies on Principled Realism and reverse the policy of integration and mutual dependence with our competitors and potential enemies.
This means decoupling supply chains for critical resources, and reviewing rules for ownership and dependence on investments from China.
However much we supported free trade in the past, we now need to decouple from hostile states and locate critical supply chains to countries that are not in direct competition with the West. India comes to mind here. It also means that no Western democracy should take money from or participate to China’s Belt & Road initiatives. Those that do, risk being used by Beijing to weaken us.
Furthermore, it will require countries limiting Chinese ownership of companies. Volvo cars, in my own country, Sweden, is a bad example. I am a proud Volvo owner and I realize that Chinese ownership through Geely galvanized Volvo after the dark and not very innovative years of Ford ownership. But it is time to wake up and smell the coffee: Chinese ownership of Western Sweden’s growth engine enables Beijing to blackmail any Swedish government.
This is the EU’s 2nd WTO case in 3 weeks against China, the last one over Beijing’s trade war with Lithuania. China has agreed to consultations with EU in Geneva, but it remains unclear if it will block the requests by the US, U.K., Australia, Canada, Japan and Taiwan to join.
— Stuart Lau (@StuartKLau) February 18, 2022
Supporting Asian democracy by strengthening European defence
Some do not like to admit it, but European countries will never be central players in Asia. What European democracies however can do to support a free and cooperative Asia is – somewhat counterintuitively – to strengthen our own defence. If European states in NATO can carry their own weight in Europe, this would allow the U.S. to focus on the Pacific.
We have a very recent example of why this is important. During the first weeks of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, many feared that the U.S. failure to prepare for two wars could entice China to take the opportunity for a “fait accompli” invasion of Taiwan. Many worried that the regime in Beijing would view the non-response to its take-over of Hong Kong in the same way as Moscow viewed the non-reaction to Crimea; and that Taiwan would follow in the same way as Ukraine followed.
Those that want Europe to have a greater role on the world stage would also stand to gain from this strategy. If European countries paid for their own defence and did not free ride on U.S. defence spending, European governments would be more valued and, yes, equal partners with seats at the table when the decisions are made.
A NATO for Trade
Finally, just as NATO is a defensive alliance essentially with the purpose of preventing an attack from Russia, we need a ‘trade NATO’ as a defensive alliance of democratic states willing to defend member states from hostile Chinese trade sanctions.
For example, after the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, China retaliated by imposing hefty tariffs and trade barriers onto Australian exports of barley, wine, timber lobster and coal. with such a ‘trade NATO’, Australia and others would not be as vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion.
Europe did not become prosperous and influential by exporting woke identity politics. If we are to regain our relative wealth and might on the world stage, we need to be guided by principled realism.
We need to build defence, energy and trade alliances, given how on our own, we are not able to manage in the competition with Russian and Chinese imperialism. In other matters, we must once again trust the nation state and the Westphalian sovereign order. That which did make us prosperous was institutional competition between the states. So, it starts at home. Making it possible to pursue a meaningful foreign policy also means we have to fight woke identity politics and imperialist aspirations dressed up as EU federalism. But above all, it means a rekindling of conservative patriotism.