Europe’s liberal order threatened from the east and the west

The continent, and not just the EU, prizes rules and co-operation, but the US and China favour a bullying approach that benefits themselves alone, says Ana Palacio.

Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate detained by the Chinese government for most of the last decade, was denied permission to seek cancer treatment abroad.

The global financial crisis, which began ten years ago this month, showed that the Western-led, rules-based, international order’s long-term survival is not inevitable.

It is often assumed that if, and when, the United States loses its place as the global hegemon in that system, China will be the country to lead the world. But what would a Chinese-led order look like?

Events this summer hinted at an answer. In June, a subsidiary of the Spanish oil company, Repsol, began drilling an offshore well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China immediately protested, first by cancelling a joint China-Vietnam security meeting, and then by reportedly threatening military action against Vietnamese positions in the Spratly Islands.

Unable to rely on American support, Vietnam kowtowed to the Chinese, ordering Repsol to halt its exploratory drilling. It was a victory for naked power, and a defeat for shared rules.

Then, in July, just before the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, news broke that Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo — who had been detained by the Chinese government for most of the last decade over his calls for democracy — had been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer.

Liu requested permission to receive treatment abroad, but the Chinese government denied him that dignity. He died shortly thereafter.

Far from condemning this cruelty, the international community — andm Europe, in particular — offered only a muted response. No-one raised Liu’s name publicly during the G20 meeting. And even after Liu’s death, Western leaders offered only anodyne messages of condolence. Nobody wanted to rock the Chinese-powered boat.

That approach might seem sensible, for a Europe that is still finding its footing after years of economic crisis. China is the European Union’s second-largest trading partner after the US, having invested €35bn in the EU last year.

But such ostensible pragmatism has serious drawbacks. Perhaps more than any other global actor, Europe — not just the EU, but all of Europe — has an interest in the continuation of a liberal order founded more on co-operation than on competition.

Indeed, the existing order plays to Europe’s strengths, while mitigating its weaknesses.

Rules-based cooperation is embedded in Europe’s — and especially the EU’s — institutional DNA. It forms the basis of the European project, which links separate states through shared norms, interests, and values. And it has facilitated unprecedented peace and prosperity, in a region long wracked by conflict and competition.

For Europe, soft power far outstrips hard power. That works fine within today’s rules-based system, where the EU — with its well-enforced laws, technological competence, educated population, and broad cultural influence — plays a critical role in bringing together diverse actors.

But in a brave new world of ad-hoc transactions and raw power relations — the kind that China and US president Donald Trump seem to prefer — these qualities would do Europe little good.

But what is Europe to do? The EU is in no position to serve as the leader of the free world, no matter what European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president, Donald Tusk, say.

The US is — and, for the foreseeable future, will remain — the world’s indispensable power. The problem is that the Trump administration seems to have little interest, and even less competence, in leadership, preferring, instead, to tout
a short-sighted and largely undefined ‘America First’ approach.

If this is a permanent condition, there can be little hope for a rules-based
international order. But if the Trump administration does not snuff out the candle of values-based policy, and the rule of law, in the next four (or eight) years, then all is not yet lost.

During this time of uncertainty, Europe must tend to that flame. It should do so not by launching headlong into foolhardy and fruitless crusades, but
by continuing roughly — albeit more courageously — on its current path, picking its battles and weighing risk against reward.

Where it can promote human rights or institutional approaches at a reasonable cost, it should do so. Where such
efforts would prove unproductive and costly, Europe should tread carefully, while still upholding its values. The sad truth, today, is that if Europe does not speak up, nobody will.

A China-led, transaction-based world order would have clear winners and losers, and the latter would far outnumber the former. Europe must do what it can to prevent that outcome, balancing ambition with realism, and courage with caution. Leadership may be a bridge too far for Europe today. But stewardship is within its grasp.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former senior vice-president of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting
lecturer at Georgetown University.

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