Continental Drift Revisited: the Underestimated Passing of the Unipolar Moment

 /  Oct. 8, 2020, 11:09 a.m.

G7 summit

In 2007, the Center for the National Interest published an article titled “A World Without the West,” characterizing the future of global politics as a dichotomy between the developing world and the West, with the former actively challenging the international system that was constructed and persistently revolves around the latter. Since the end of the Cold War, such a framing device of dualistic opposition has always constituted the lens through which international political trends are examined, comprehended, and predicted. Even today, with the US-China confrontation at its apex, the latest events in international politics are still seen as an extension, or the heightening, of that original dichotomy, the West versus the Rest, instead of its fundamental reconfiguration or destabilization.

However, the alleged passing of the American “unipolar moment,” a time in which the United States dominated as the world’s sole superpower, is significant in ways that extend beyond that dichotomy. The demise of primacy creates not only loose ends for the established rivalries but also instabilities within the geopolitical entity of the West itself. “La nature a horreur du vide,” which means “nature detests vacuum” in French, is a political stance frequently promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron. Such a slogan symbolizes the rising ambition of America’s allies to shape the “post-unipolar world,” which is just as noteworthy as that of America’s competitors. While the last scholarly debate centered around a continental drift between Europe and the United States took place after the Iraq crisis, it is definitely a conversation worth reviving today.

Former vice president Joe Biden characterizes his foreign policy goals, should he be elected, as the reconnection with US allies through organizing and hosting “a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo somewhat echoed such a vision by promoting the idea of “a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.” The desire for the sustainment of a US-centric liberal order seems to be echoed across party lines, heightened by the benefits of isolating China and suppressing its geopolitical ambitions. However, the main caveat to such a path does not stem solely from the downsides of an unstrategically-managed US-China enmity. The challenges of its feasibility lies in the increasing divergences in how the United States and its European partners perceive the post-COVID world order. 

The international system is going through fundamental structural changes, which are partly obscured by the overwhelming Sino-centric zeal in US foreign policy. As Ambassador William Burns correctly points out in his latest analysis, “our tendency, as it was during the height of the Cold War, is to overhype the threat, over-prove our hawkish bona fides, over-militarize our approach, and reduce the political and diplomatic space required to manage great-power competition.”

Across the Atlantic, the European Union has already begun their premeditation of a future with a weakened, if not totally absent, American leadership. The policies of the Trump administration have certainly exacerbated the distrust. According to a report by Chatham House, President Donald Trump’s “decision in March to enact a travel ban from Europe without even informing European leaders was a bad start. Since then, the US administration has castigated China at the expense of unity in the G7 [and] announced a decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO).” In other words, the impatient impulse to bash China came with the costs of distrust in the transatlantic relationships. The unilateral approaches taken by Washington, D.C. on China have spillover effects that undermine American credibility of coordination with its allies in the long run.

Indeed, many foreign policy analyses in the United States treat the deterioration of the US-EU relationship as an issue confined to the Trump administration. However, European states have been contemplating a strategic future with a changed American role that would last long beyond 2020 or 2024. In contrast with a relatively static US view of the alliance, characterized as a “permanent partnership,” the internal power dynamics of Europe are drastically shifting. Recent changes include the formation of the E3 among Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, the revival of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), and the issues of political unification raised by the amassing of EU Recovery Funds. These issues are extremely relevant for future transatlantic relations. Will the E3 replace the United States as the main coordinative organ of European economic, diplomatic, and political efforts? Will a new version of the CSDP lead to a more independent European collective defense system that would fundamentally alter the role of the United States in European security? Let alone the last point on political unification, which is a vision always pushed back by the United States in order to “divide and conquer” the European states. None of the aforementioned issues, unfortunately, can be addressed by Biden’s “Summit of Democracies.” Sustaining America’s role as Europe’s strongest ally will take way more than a reunion with old friends and just catching up. But more importantly, it takes the realization of a problem in the first place to make its resolution possible. Currently, these considerations are not being fully displayed and acknowledged on the US foreign policy radar.

However, one might argue that the force that ties America and its allies together is stronger than the force pulling them apart. The assumption of “permanent partnership” on the US side is, to a certain extent, rooted in a rather temporary historical moment, which combines common interests—the fear of Soviet-dominance on the Eurasian landmass—with realistic limitations—the post-WWII devastation of Europe. Neither of those two factors are as strong today as they were in the twentieth century. Can China replace the Soviet Union as the glue that ties transatlantic common interests together? Unlikely. Is Europe concerned with China’s rise? Certainly. Does that concern match the intensity and urgency of a Soviet expansion? Certainly not. China’s rise is extremely pertinent to Europe’s prosperity and security. However, an enthusiastic West-China rivalry is more of a US-particular issue than a European one. In addition, the CSDP proposition definitely showcases the European resolution, if not yet capability, to develop a more independent defense system that distances itself from the mode of security symbiosis with the United States.

This is in no way depreciating the significance of China in US foreign policy and the transformation of international politics. Instead, the danger lies in the sustained negligence and the lack of a strategic vision regarding the broader and more fundamental shifting trends in geopolitical climates. The United States has already imagined a future of decoupling with China and even some worse-case scenarios, rightfully and sufficiently so. However, has the United States given equally comprehensive thoughts to its own provincialization across the Atlantic, where its partners have already imagined a future in which the sphere of US leadership is an increasingly peripheral past? As Stephen Walt correctly warns in his 1998 article on the US-European continental drift, the existence and sustainment of institutions such as NATO are unable to hold back the tides of the emerging challenges for transatlantic partnership. Instead, more dangerously, they somehow enable the United States to ignore them. They sustain illusions more than they reassure alliances. In Walt’s words, “the Washington Treaty may remain in force, the various ministerial meetings may continue to issue earnest and upbeat communiqués, and the Brussels bureaucracy may keep NATO’s web page up and running—all these superficial routines will go on, provided the alliance isn’t asked to actually do anything else. The danger is that NATO will be dead before anyone notices, and we will only discover the corpse the moment we want it to rise and respond.”

This article, however, tends to distance itself from the confinement of the US-EU relationship. Rather, the ultimate goal is to show that the US-China friction is only one of the geopolitical crises that could be unleashed by the degeneration of unipolarity. The limelight it has attracted may be blinding for the emergence of other fundamental destabilization of the current order on other fronts. Moreover, this article hopes to shed some light on the fact that international politics is going through a transformation far more fundamental than the mere continuation of its previous rivalries and alliances in a climactic form. The future of international politics is being reimagined by leaders not only in Beijing or Moscow, but also in London, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere. “La nature a horreur du vide” will signify a new geopolitical trend that overflows the boundaries of allies and rivals. The opportunity to shape a new order does not come so often, and when it does, ambitions of friends and enemies alike are all fair game.

Not enough thought has been given to these underlying trends that are drastically shifting. Whether such a proposition shall solicit doubts or recognition is not a top priority, especially when preliminary consideration and attention are still lacking. As Walt correctly points out, “wise statecraft anticipates and exploits the tides of history rather than engaging in a fruitless struggle to hold them back.” It is worth underlining that “exploitation” is impossible without “anticipation,” and shaping reality is impossible without waking up from illusions. 

The image used in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Valerie Zhu

Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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