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Europe’s Double Bind

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a gap between European aspirations and actions. If European leaders are serious about defending rules-based multilateralism and securing the European Union's interests in the twenty-first century, they will need to start coming to terms with today's geopolitical realities.

BERLIN – COVID-19 has made a mockery of the world’s great powers. US President Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” but his administration’s handling of the pandemic has been anything but great. Chinese President Xi Jinping has often spoken of a “Chinese dream,” yet his own response to the crisis has relied on algorithmic authoritarianism. And Europeans who often pay lip service to multilateralism have met the pandemic with closed borders and national solutions, rather than leading a global response.

In fact, in Europe’s case, COVID-19 is forcing a deeper reckoning. The post-Cold War dream of a rules-based international order with Europe at the center is in tatters, and the European Union is now being buffeted by both philosophical and geographical shocks. Philosophically, Europeans are confronting the fact that raw power, not rules, is the main factor determining today’s global dynamics. Over the past three years, Europeans have watched their two biggest trading partners transform from champions of globalization into the leading exponents of “decoupling.”

Because neither America nor China wants a conventional war, both have taken to weaponizing regional and global institutions. While the United States has politicized what were once seen as public goods – including the financial system, interbank transfers, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the Internet – the Chinese are increasingly using state aid and strategic investments to manipulate markets and undercut the West in key areas.

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