It is often claimed that with America’s decline and China’s rise we are entering a multipolar world. This is not quite correct: torn between the US and China, the new world system will be bipolar, with all the misery and instability the term implies. As Cold War II accelerates, we will be made to choose a side, with the looming crisis over Hong Kong indicating that we shall be forced into a decision sooner than we would like.
On the one side, the Chinese regime is a dystopian model of high-tech authoritarianism, which has forced tens of thousands of its Uighur subjects into concentration camps as part of a campaign of forced ethnic displacement, and which controls the political choices of its citizens to a degree intolerable to our professed values.
Openly siding with China is not a desirable option then, even if our status as an American client state permitted it. Indeed China’s penetration of our industry and infrastructure, including that central to our own national security, is a scandalous and catastrophic succession of errors carried out by notionally conservative governments.
China’s breach of the terms by which we relinquished Hong Kong humiliates the United Kingdom, though, in reality, there is nothing we can do to prevent it. And when the state-run newspaper China Daily threatens us that, in limiting Huawei’s access to our infrastructure we should expect a “retaliatory responses from Beijing”, it is a signal we must undo as urgently as possible a dependence on China which should never have been permitted in the first place.
Yet we must remember how we got here. Driven by self-interest and idealism alike, America dismantled the last great European empires, those of Britain and France, and took them for its own, ensuring our strategic decline just as it had by dismantling and acquiring Spain’s empire at the beginning of its ascent. While France took from Suez the lesson it would need to preserve its autonomy from the Atlantic superpower, we took the opposing point of view, that it was only by adhering close to the United States we could advance Britain’s interests in the world.
As the scholar of liberal imperialism Patrick Porter notes, as a result of “the United States’ dismantling of the economic order of imperial preference and the sterling bloc”, and the Suez crisis revealing “Britain’s vulnerability to U.S. coercion”, British governments repackaged our decline as necessary modernisation for domestic audiences. In doing so it “redefined Britain’s status around alliances and nuclear weapons, presenting retreat from empire as a graceful management of change”.
Yet arguably, in a Europe shattered by war and threatened with Soviet invasion, we had no choice. American largesse rebuilt continental Europe, turning Germany into an industrial superpower once again, even as we frittered away our ruinously expensive war loans, only paid off in 2006, on propping up the dwindling empire.
Vastly more powerful than today, though far from equal, Britain was throughout the 40-year military standoff with the Soviet bloc in the German countryside a far less subordinate partner than eventual victory would make us. After the fall of communism, we, along with our EU allies, cashed in the peace dividend to splurge on our consumerist dreams, eviscerating our armed forces and increasing our dependence on our transatlantic patron.
The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, yet NATO remained and expanded. What was once an alliance for Western Europe’s defence mutated into first a pan-continental empire, and then a coalition to export liberalism to unwilling or uninterested peoples across the world.
Yet while our European neighbours managed, for the most part, to politely decline Washington’s invitations to remodel the world according to the grandiose dreams of American ideologues, the United Kingdom rushed headlong into America’s failed and bloody adventures in the Islamic world. Swept along in these liberal crusades by prime ministers devoted to their American patron and vainly hungry for a place in history, the Britain of the neoliberal era thus helped bring about the age of populist anger threatening to tear it apart.
Like a cuckold convincing himself his misfortune is a lifestyle choice, we exulted in our strategic fealty to the United States, even as our household fell apart around us. Successive British governments convinced themselves they could moderate the superpower’s excesses. This delusion ought to have bled out in the dust of Helmand or Basra, but staggers on in the myth of the special relationship with which successive British premiers console themselves.
America’s catastrophic act of self-sabotage is a historical drama which will be pored over and debated for centuries; the idea we should follow its architects into a far more gruelling contest is highly unconvincing, simply as a matter of self-preservation.
The tragedy for us was not that the US failed to remake the world in its own image after the Cold War, but that in our own country, it succeeded. America’s ferocious culture war, which suffuses all aspects of life, is now the superpower’s most successful soft power export, and its baneful effects have poisoned our politics, perhaps beyond repair. While Chinese culture and its attendant political malignancies are of only marginal appeal in Europe, whatever strange new fixation captures Americans is soon transmitted to us, entering our political bloodstream, and debilitating our body politic.
When we see British Black Lives Matter activists chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” at bemused and unarmed British policemen, or Katie Hopkins tweeting about non-existent London No-Go-Zones for the largesse of their American patrons, or Emily Maitlis channelling Rachel Maddow’s moralising sermons for bluecheck approbation, we sadly apprehend our subordinate place in the global system.
If the Brexit vote had not corresponded so closely in time with the American presidential election, and if our journalist class were not so slavishly in hock to their more glamorous American counterparts, perhaps we could have escaped from the past four years with a healthier politics, but we did not. We imported not just the content of the American culture war, but even the form in its entirety, with the same elaborate conspiracy theories of Russian meddling, the same cast of grifters and demagogues, rogue bureaucratic Twitter accounts and #Resistance judges.
Like backwoods Gaulish or Dacian chieftains donning togas and trading clumsy Latin epithets, our elites have adopted the fashions of the imperial metropolis wholesale as a mark of distinction.
As proved in London at the weekend, the political disturbances of the metropole soon make their way to our distant province. In the very definition of subject status, events we have no power to influence roil our politics, and threaten our social order.
Just as we began to quell Europe’s worst outbreak of the virus from our East, the more insidious virus coming from our West may well now send our infection and death rates soaring once again. It is in these questions of life and death, for whom one is prepared to kill or die, that national identity is determined. The lives of unknown Americans are demonstrably more real and valuable to many of our citizens than those of fellow Britons, or even their own families. Far too late, with no cultural antibodies to protect us, we realise our exposure to the virulent American strain of politics.
It is worth turning our gaze from the turmoil on America’s streets to the more rational calculations in European capitals for clues as to how the new Cold War will play out on our continent. When major think tanks such as the European Council for Foreign Relations note that it is impossible to align European foreign policy with America’s, for the simple reason that America’s will be violently overturned with every electoral cycle, and the country is therefore too unstable and divided to even possess a coherent foreign policy, we see the greatest challenge facing the United States in a new Cold War: only those allies most severely threatened by its rivals, like Taiwan by China, or the Baltic states by Russia, will take its side. For everyone else, the safest option by far is staying neutral.
In a speech to Germany’s leading diplomats last week, the European Union’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles made the stakes clear. “Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century,” he observed: “This is now happening in front of our eyes.”
Borrell also made clear that the continental bloc will choose neutrality, stating that “the pressure to choose sides is growing. As the EU, we should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalised by one or the other.” Merkel last week emphasised that Europe has a “great strategic interest” in maintaining its relationship with China, and warned that “we Europeans will need to recognise the decisiveness with which China will claim a leading position in the existing structures of the international architecture”.
France, too, will safeguard its own national interests rather than those of the disordered hegemon. Its Foreign Minister, Yves Le Drian, reassured the French Senate last week that ”regarding China, I do not think we should be locked into a logic of confrontation bipolar world. To not start a second Cold War we must affirm Europe’s autonomy.”
In a Chinese readout of a conversation between Macron’s chief diplomatic advisor Emmanuelle Bonne and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Bonne is stated as affirming “France’s readiness to step up strategic communication with China, strengthen mutual trust and maintain coordination in the multilateral arena,” and assuring China that “France respects China’s sovereignty, appreciates the sensitivity of Hong Kong-related issues, and has no intention of interfering in Hong Kong affairs.”
While this may be a popular tactic with European voters — a recent ECFR poll across EU countries shows that the vast majority support neutrality in a conflict between China and the United States — history has a habit of forcing itself on even the least willing protagonists, highlighting the potential fractures within Europe.
While the Baltic states and Poland depend on America for security from Russia, and will likely remain faithful allies, the EU’s Western liberal democracies are ironically more likely to incline towards China, or at least adopt a pose of studied neutrality.
While Germany’s Atlanticist thinktank class is committed to the American alliance with an emotional passion not seen elsewhere in Europe, the country’s powerful business lobbies are drawn towards China as the growing economic engine of the world, creating an unresolvable tension within the country’s foreign policy.
Merkel may view the European Union as little more than the geopolitical wing of the German car industry, but Macron’s France likely sees the coming great power confrontation as a means to accelerate European autonomy, attempt to incorporate Russia as a security partner, and by weakening both superpowers afford more space to extract rewards for cooperation by playing both rivals against each other.
China’s soft power efforts have played well in Italy: despite being the source of the virus, and doing much to exacerbate its lethal spread, it has manouevred itself into a position of most trusted ally, eclipsing the EU itself, and creating a dangerous moment for European unity. The Channel will only keep growing wider then, as America’s internal political conflict drags us deeper into its chaos, and the eastward shift of economic gravity pulls our closest neighbours towards Beijing’s new order.
In Europe’s east, China has invested in infrastructural projects like the highspeed rail link from Greece, where it has bought the busy port of Piraeus, to Budapest, linking the Balkans to its trans-Eurasian Belt and Road initiative.
The likely framing of the superpower confrontation as an ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism will not necessarily work in America’s favour in a Central Europe successfully dismantling liberal norms.
In a fiery speech last week on the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, Viktor Orban seemed to reposition Hungary in the Chinese camp, exulting that “ The United States is no longer alone on the throne of the world, Eurasia is rebuilding with full throttle,” and declaring that “a new order is being born. In our world, in our lives as well, great changes are banging on our gates.” The EU will therefore find it difficult to strike a common position on China, opening up the continent to influence campaigns from both sides, and deepening political instability.
Merkel may have launched a campaign to use this crisis to Make Europe Strong Again, but to be torn between two great powers struggling to establish their respective spheres of influence is not a comfortable place to be. As Borrell nervously remarked to the German ambassadors this week, “it is fashionable to say that we are reaching a Thucydides moment. Let’s hope not!”
The United Kingdom is, then, placed in a difficult position. The timing of this crisis so soon after Brexit is unfortunate: dependent on trade deals with both China and the United States to make good the loss of our European markets, we are likely to be forced to choose one, and bear the reprisals of the other. The Chinese government is unfortunately only being truthful when it warns us, through its flagship newspaper, that “while the UK is no doubt hoping that toeing the US line … will help it gain a favorable trade deal with the United States, with which it began negotiations this month, the benefits are likely to be offset by the losses.”
The Global Britain fantasy of notionally right-wing Brexiteers was always parasitic on the American-led order maintaining access to Asian markets for us: a vision dubious at the time of the 2016 vote, and already vanished in 2020. As Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London notes in a recent survey of Britain’s unpalatable foreign policy options, our postwar supposed role was “a position within an international system that was ordered and stable, but that no longer exists”.
But instead of quietly reflecting on their role in dragging us into this disaster, Britain’s prominent neoliberals are instead promoting the absurd idea of importing Hong Kong’s three million British Nationals (Overseas) to a yet-to-be-built megacity on unused marginal land, surely the least thought-out program of imperial population resettlement on these islands since the Plantation of Ulster.
Removing Beijing’s political opponents en masse presents not the slightest threat to the Chinese regime, and instead strengthens it. It may lock us into a permanent state of tension with China unlikely to end in our favour. This is not serious foreign policy, but empty signalling primarily for domestic purposes, Palmerston’s civis romanus sum speech for a country that has decommissioned all its gunboats. So much for Global Britain: halfway through 2020 it has already shrunk to a speculative high-rise refugee camp in North Lincolnshire.
What options are available to us in the real world? They are very limited indeed. As Freedman asserts: “No wonder the British foreign policy establishment is at a loss about what to do next… if the new big project is containing China, it is one in which the interests of the two countries do not wholly coincide and to which the United Kingdom could make only a limited contribution.”
Yet neither can we aim for strategic autonomy, because, “British intelligence and defense capabilities are deeply intertwined with American ones, and it would not be easy to disentangle them in short order. The most substantial recent investments, including in Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines, Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers, and F-35 fighter jets, all rely on U.S. technology and facilities.”
The MoD’s recent program of military modernisation, paid for by winnowing down our troop numbers to dangerous low levels and carried out with the ostensible aim of enhancing our global reach in a world of greater strategic competition, has therefore only cemented our dependence on a declining hegemon. British politicians would do well, then, to match our rhetoric against China to our actual capabilities. If this is indeed the dawn of the Chinese century, our strategic considerations should look far beyond the headline-grabbing soundbites of the moment, plotting the onerous path ahead in decades rather than news cycles.
A closer relationship with Europe might seem attractive, if Brexit had not poisoned the waters: but a Europe torn between Chinese and American influence will be a difficult relationship to maintain, if our closest neighbours maintain their links with China while we align with the United States for the sake of Hong Kong, or simply of nostalgia for better times. The practical and moral arguments against deepening relations with China are clear and compelling: yet those against tying our nation’s fate to that of a rapidly declining power merit serious consideration.
The handling of the Covid crisis has not enhanced our government’s reputation for either foresight or planning capability. Serious debate is needed before we are distractedly hurried into a generational struggle against a vastly superior opponent, with only an unreliable and now increasingly unstable ally for support.
In terms of the models they set for us, we are presented with a battle between two rival dysfunctional systems: where China’s foreign policy is excessively cynical and self-serving, America’s is excessively naïve and inept. China’s domestic politics suffers from an excess of stability, culminating in totalitarianism; but America’s from an excess of volatility, culminating in chaos.
The right balance for us is surely somewhere in the middle, maintaining as cordial a relationship as we can with each party, while ensuring as much individual freedom of action as possible, and as much strategic, economic and supply chain autonomy as can hurriedly be rebuilt after three decades of historic profligacy. Our future will not be autarkic, but it will be far closer to autarky, as much by necessity as by choice, as any mainstream commentator would have imagined just two months ago.
Britain reached its diplomatic height in an earlier period of multipolarity, during the long years between the Congress of Vienna and the Battle of Sedan when, as the most cynical and relentlessly self-serving actor on the world stage, we played rival powers against each other and avoided foreign entanglements as far as possible.
As Palmerston remarked in 1848, in a bon mot borrowed by both de Gaulle and Kissinger, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Our interests now are to get through the coming decades of strife as safely, securely and peacefully as we can. It is no great hardship to quietly abandon our permanent subordinate role in a Transatlantic alliance that has not, in recent years, served us well. The Special Relationship was always an unrequited passion, and America’s postwar hegemony the merest blip in our history.
In Freedman’s survey of Britain’s now urgent foreign policy dilemma, he suggests that “the country enjoys relative security as an island at the more tranquil end of the Eurasian landmass, with a decent economy, a moderate climate, and a high standard of living. Because of this, the case for a quiet life, for steering clear of trouble elsewhere, is not so unreasonable that it can be dismissed out of hand.”
This is the case for national Hobbitism, and it is an attractive one. It is not immediately clear that Japan or Switzerland or Sweden are worse models for us than America or China. To our nation as much as to the individual families of which it is composed, Covid has unleashed a world suddenly filled with hardship and danger, where the familiar has become filled with risk and threat we are unable, on our own, to manage. We may think of it as the sensible precaution of societal distancing: quietly withdrawing from a threatening world, completing the necessary domestic repairs we long put off, and waiting watchfully for better times.