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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Europe as an uncertain global player: Macron's wrong tone

05 Jun 2024 - 13:31

Anyone who wants to understand today’s turbulent world order, would do well to (re)read Dominique Moïsi's book: The Geopolitics of Emotion. How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World. In response to Samuel Huntington, Moïsi argues that today's geopolitics is not determined by a clash of civilisations, but by a clash of emotions.

Fear primarily reigns in Europe and America

Moïsi, a French international relations expert, demonstrates how emotions can play a role in geopolitics just as strongly as, if not stronger than, socio-economic factors. Consider the imperialist revisionism of Vladimir Putin's Russia, driven by resentment over the disintegrated Russian empire. Think of Xi Jinping's narrative of the rebirth of China as a global power after its ‘century of humiliation’. Or think of Donald Trump with his Make America Great Again rhetoric. These are historically rooted resentments and emotions, which politicians can use as a mobilising force.

In his book, Moïsi analyses the current ‘emotions’ in the world along the following lines. In Asia, predominantly, a culture of hope has emerged, based on the economic success of China and India and the growing geopolitical power attained by these countries. The Islamic world in the Middle East is mainly defined by feelings of humiliation and misunderstanding, manifesting in weak and divided states. And fear primarily reigns in Europe and America. People in the West fear a loss of both geo-economic and geopolitical power, and are concerned about the internal stability of their national democracies and identities.

Elephants in the room
In early May, I participated in an international conference in New York where all these emotions came together fascinatingly.
Scholars from America, Asia and Europe discussed the shifting liberal multilateral world order. The unipolar post-Cold War world order is under mounting pressure. Emerging powers advocate for an alternative system.

In New York, there were two elephants in the room: China and Trump 2.0. As a result, Moïsi's emotional divide was less apparent, as fear, fear of the future, was the common thread among scholars and think-tankers gathered in Manhattan. What exactly does China want? How far will it go in creating a world order with Chinese characteristics? And what if Trump returns to the White House? He hates – as reaffirmed again – international organisations and multilateral cooperation, focusing solely on what-we-can-get-deals out of arrogant self-interest.

Academics from Japan, South Korea and the Philippines expressed deep concern about China's assertive expansionism in their region. They have to deal with – literal – clashes with China in the East and South China Sea, and expect to be significantly affected by a potential conflict around Taiwan, both militarily and economically.

Japanese war games reckon that US army bases in Japan will be among the first targets in a Taiwan war. Japanese policymakers are contemplating a nuclear option, considering atomic deterrence should the country become isolated between Russia, China and North-Korea in the distant future.

America has been so unrestrained in its dominance in recent decades that major mistakes could be made

Worryingly, sources from within the American intelligence community expressed concerns about Washington's acceptability of a Sino-American war scenario. A younger generation of policymakers, without personal experience of the Cold War, would think more lightly about war. Japan is considering a scenario similar to Ukraine's: a conventional war ending in a status quo, but with many civilian casualties.

But alongside the fear of war, there was also hope. Countries like the Philippines, Pakistan and South Korea would prefer not to choose between China and the US in a bipolar scenario. They see multi-alignment as the most successful strategy for themselves. They also claim the responsible role of shock absorber in this system, preventing China and America from confrontation.

Asian strategists urged European countries to also help avoid the inevitable ‘Thucydides trap’: an unavoidable war between a rising and a ruling power, like the one between Athens and Sparta in ancient times.

Remarkably, American diplomats themselves stated that “unipolarity is a disease.” A unipolar world order is not good for America, nor for the rest of the world. America has been so unrestrained in its dominance in recent decades that major mistakes could be made. In the new world order, it is essential to make room for China and emerging countries of the Global South (such as India, Brazil and South Africa), as long as there maintains a vision of a multilateral, rules-based order, with the UN Charter as a minimal guideline.

Continent of Fear?
And where did that leave Europe? Among Europeans there was some unease about French President Emmanuel Macron's recent Sorbonne-speech and interview in The Economist. He made far-reaching proposals for closer European cooperation, but the tone in which this was done did not meet with much enthusiasm. Macron stressed in shrill, ‘declinist’ tones that “Our Europe is mortal; it can die”. The question remains whether this ominous form of communication (which Macron used earlier when he called NATO “brain-dead”) is the most constructive in a time of great uncertainty and socio-political unease.

Macron's inspiring European leadership could be of great use in this, but not his doom-and-gloom discourse about a dying Europe

With Moïsi, one could indeed call Europe the continent of fear. Especially the fear of losing what Europe has and is. One could still call Europe the world's ‘quality-of-life superpower’, with the highest quality of life for most people. But the EU is vulnerable. There are fears for the loss of European influence in a bipolar world order and of losing the European way of living, that of a moderate middle-class society. There is also fear that European geopolitical power building and further cooperation will not succeed, or that the process will go too slow. Europe is chronically divided and struggles to maintain coherent leadership, putting Europe's competitiveness and geopolitical position at risk.

Historian Arnold Toynbee once said: “Civilisations die from suicide, not by murder.” In other words: civilisations collapse due to internal forces, not external influences. The main concern in New York was therefore the fragility and lack of self-confidence of Western democracies, as these are plagued internally by polarisation, fragmentation, political mistrust, populism and technocracy.

Meanwhile, as Asian thinkers affirmed, the Western social model remains the ultimate goal in the Global South. People take issue with Western foreign policy, hypocritical paternalism and politics based in capitalist interests disguised in human rights language, but they still pursue the American and European quality of life. People even urged the West not to be blinded by China, but above all to strengthen its own democracy and economy as a long-term remedy against Chinese influence. Macron's inspiring European leadership could be of great use in this, but not his doom-and-gloom discourse about a dying Europe. A bit more self-confidence is needed to turn fear back into hope.

  • 1This column is partly based on the presentation René Cuperus gave at the conference ‘Crisis of Liberalism. World Order in the 21st Century‘’, 8-10 May 2024, New York City, organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung New York & FES Asia.


René Cuperus
Interim Chief Editor of the Clingendael Spectator