Western domination is gradually fading, and with it, the primacy of force over law returns. The world is moving away from Westernization. What should Europeans do?
For a long time, the Western conception of international relations was based on the balance of power established by the treaties of Westphalia. These treaties created an inter-state order in Europe from the 17th century, characterized by legal equality between states. The sovereign state was the foundation of the political order, although historical evidence suggests that this notion was introduced in the 19th century.
To ensure that no state tries to upset this balance, a coalition is formed to stop Napoleon’s conquering ambitions during the Napoleonic Wars. This system found expression in the concept of the European Concert, which was inscribed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Charter of the United Nations, which affirms the sovereign equality of the members of the organization, maintained these principles until this day. The international game was dominated by the balance of power and the balance of power.
In Asia, the rise of China calls into question the American presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In a white paper on Asian security cooperation published in 2017, Chinese officials have expressed their desire to replace American hegemony in the region by dismantling the alliances of the Cold War era (Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia). The white paper also stressed that smaller powers should not hinder larger ones, as this only serves to bolster China’s hegemonic ambitions.
In Africa, the Beijing Consensus, a mercantilist vision of international relations dating from the early 2000s, has enabled China to develop relations with countries producing raw materials without being constrained by ethical considerations. China has been described as a colossus, a palpable global force and a game changer. It needs space and must ensure an adequate energy supply while feeding its huge population and meeting the demands of its growing middle class. Without necessarily leading to disruptive policies, it has a significant impact on the country’s relations with the rest of the world.
Russia, too, is trying to re-establish a sphere of influence. It can do so by relying on the Russian-speaking minorities of Eastern Europe, Donbass, Baltic States, Caucasus and Crimea. The “Russian world” serves as an ideological foundation. It is an easy way for Russia to justify a right of control (or even more) over political situations in neighboring countries. It is also a form of soft power which serves to project the image of Russia in the world.
In the Middle East and Libya, Russia is mainly anxious to regain its position, and can sometimes obstruct diplomatically, sometimes intervene militarily in support of a regime (Syria) or a faction (Libya). There are many examples of countries whose foreign policy is marked by a strong assertion of power: India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and even the United Arab Emirates. It is a brutal awakening for Western democracies, which no longer appear as models! The international order established by Western domination is disintegrating. These developments seem to translate into a world in crisis, marked by the return of power over the law, but also by doubts about the ability of multilateralism to face global challenges.
The modern world is changing. Power strategies seem to be dominant. However, to positively influence the evolution of the world, Europeans – and Westerners more generally – must continue to defend their principles. For the Old Continent, all efforts in this direction will be in vain as long as European foreign policy has not chosen its identity, either as a European component of a Western bloc, or as an autonomous balancing power.
To do this, the European Union must maintain its position as a world power. Because we have returned to a system of checks and balances, the EU must be able to counterbalance the dominant powers. However, with American protection, Europe never chose the path of power. And, if European power exists, it is akin to soft power, which relies on influence and the power of attraction, as opposed to hard power, which relies on the power of arms and money. This is insufficient to compete and influence the rest of the world on a global scale. Let us recall Raymond Aron’s definition of power: “I call power on the international scene the capacity of a political unit to impose its will on other units.
Europe’s foreign policy cannot remain on the defensive. The new diplomacy of the twenty-first century remains to be invented in this period of transition. This is an existential challenge for Europeans, who have a long history and are capable of mediating and facilitating all peace processes. Today’s European diplomats can help make Europe a force for peace. Europe, the cradle of the Westphalian order and the nation-state, has a role to play in this world of blurred horizons.
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