The Guardian-Rafael Behr
The US risks being superseded by China as the prime global power within decades. For Washington, the idea is appalling
Joe Biden’s manners should not be mistaken for mildness of purpose; the modest style is deployed in service of a tough message.’ Biden with first lady, Jill Biden, at Dover air force base, Delaware. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP
Joe Biden crosses the Atlantic this week on a tide of goodwill. After four years of Donald Trump, European leaders are grateful for the mere fact of a US president who believes in democracy and understands diplomacy.
Trump had no concept of historical alliance, strategic partnership or mutual interest. He saw multilateral institutions as conspiracies against US power, which he could not distinguish from his own ego. He heard European talk of a rules-based international order as the contemptible bleating of weakling nations.
Biden’s stated purpose is bolstering that order. In an article published in the Washington Post on the eve of his trip, the president talks about “renewed” and “unwavering” commitment to a transatlantic relationship based on “shared democratic values”.
The itinerary starts in Cornwall with a gathering of G7 leaders. Then comes Brussels for a Nato summit, plus meetings with presidents of the European Council and Commission. Biden intends to orchestrate a surge of western solidarity as mood music ahead of a final stop in Geneva, where he sits down with Vladimir Putin. On that front, a stable chilling of relations will count as progress after the downright weirdness of Trump’s willing bamboozlement by the Kremlin strongman.
A re-enactment of cold war choreography would suit Putin by flattering his pretence that Russia is still a superpower. In reality, Washington sees Moscow as a declining force that compensates for its shrunken influence by lashing out where it can, causing mischief and sowing discord. Putin is seen as an irritant, not a rival.
That is in marked contrast to the view of China – an actual superpower and the eastern pole that Biden has in mind when he talks about reviving an alliance of western democracies. In that respect, the repudiation of Trumpian wrecking-ball rhetoric can be misleading. It sounds to European ears as if the new White House administration is hoping to set the clock back to a calmer, less combative epoch. In reality, Biden is coming to tell Europe to get its act together in the coming race for global supremacy with Beijing.
By Europe, in this context, the president also means Britain. Boris Johnson might imagine himself a world leader of continental stature, but a US president is not required to indulge that fantasy.
Biden takes a dim view of Brexit, seeing it as a pointless sabotage of European unity. The White House preferred Britain as a pro-US voice wielding influence inside the EU. Since that function is lost, Brexit’s only utility is in making it easier for the UK to embrace economic and strategic vassalage to the US. That means toeing a hawkish line on China.
European nations should not really have to pause for long if the choice is alignment with Washington or Beijing. It is easy to muster resentment of US global swagger and point out hypocrisies in its claim to be a beacon of political freedom. But the alternative is an expansionist totalitarian state that militates against democracy and is currently engaged in a genocide against the Uyghurs.
If China were a poorer country, Biden’s mission would be easier. But the economic gap between the established superpower and the challenger is closing. Per capita, Americans are still much better off, but China could overtake the US in gross domestic product by the end of this decade. With that heft comes world-leading technological capability with crossover military application that keeps the Pentagon up at night.
During the cold war, the Kremlin maintained a credible military rivalry with the west but was not an economic competitor for long. The collapse of the Soviet model seemed to prove that political freedom and prosperity came as a package. There could be no enterprise without markets, no markets without fair rules, and no enforceable rules without democracy. The Chinese Communist party’s hybrid model of authoritarian capitalism appears to have disproved that theory.
When the G7 was conceived in the 1970s, its combined membership – the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – comfortably represented a commanding share of global wealth. There was a natural association of liberal democratic institutions and economic success. Today, those seven nations’ combined GDP is down to 40% of the world total. The west is still rich, but it is no longer the world’s envied super league.
Chinese money gives Europe commercial incentives that compete with its high-minded rhetoric on democratic values. China is Germany’s biggest export market. Smaller EU members have welcomed Chinese investment in infrastructure and businesses, although qualms are steadily growing about built-in political strings and security trapdoors. A huge Brussels-Beijing trade deal, signed last year (much to Washington’s dismay), is currently frozen as part of a tit-for-tat dispute over European criticism of Chinese human rights abuses.
But EU governments simply don’t feel US levels of urgency to contain China. Geography is a factor – the US has a Pacific coast and strategic commitments to Taiwan, where Britain and France, for all their naval bravado, are little more than spectators. There is a conceptual difference too. As one diplomat puts it, Europe doesn’t like what China does, but the US doesn’t like what China is. The idea of the US being superseded as the paramount global power within the current century is existentially appalling for Washington.
The Trump phenomenon compounds that anxiety for the current White House administration. It was a near-death experience for America’s constitutional order; an intimation of mortality for a political and economic model that looked insuperable at the dawn of the 21st century. The US president urges fellow western leaders to show strength in solidarity because the prospect of division, decline and the discrediting of democracy is more real than at any time in his five-decade Washington career.
During that time, Biden has succeeded by patience, diplomacy and soft-spoken understatement. That style earns him a grateful audience in Europe, but the president’s manners should not be mistaken for mildness of purpose; the modest style is deployed in service of a tough message. He is not flying across the Atlantic to wallow in nostalgia for the alliances that won the first cold war. He is drumming up recruits for the second one.
- Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist