The future of a US-dominated world is at an end already. This is becoming increasingly evident from the way the world, particularly the erstwhile US allies in Europe and Asia, are increasingly tilting towards China, leaving the US alone in its ‘trade Cold War’ with the latter. For this reason, the US ‘trade-war’ with China is unlikely to really become a ‘Cold War’ of the sorts the world saw between the US and the Soviet Union. Although this is what suits US interests best, a general resistance among a number of key states against US attempts to divide the world into blocs or force them into even following it in its footsteps vis-à-vis key issues, such as the Iranian nuclear programme and the deal, affecting global politics does show that changes of really high magnitude are taking place that the US has largely failed to stem. The recent most session of the UNSC on Iran-embargoes illustrated the very declining influence of the US in terms of its ability to impose unilateral decisions. For the Trump administration, this decline also means a stark failure of its “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, a policy that sought to impose maximum sanctions on Iran to force its economy to crumble.
This policy received a chilly response from the US’ traditional foes—Russia and China—and new foes—Germany and France—alike. The debate that took place in that session particularly saw Germany not only blaming Washington for a violation of international law by withdrawing from the nuclear pact, but also aligning itself increasingly with China’s claim that the US has no right to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, was particularly scathing when he compared US sanctions on Iran to the killing of George Floyd, saying they were akin to “putting a knee to one’s neck.”
Whereas US relations with Russia and China remain bad for obvious reasons, it is US allies in Europe who have not only started feeling the crucial need to assert an independent policy, but have also realised that the emperor “has no clothes.” Their increasing disdain for and a policy to detach themselves from the US is deeply rooted in their assessment about the way the world is changing. From a bi-polar world in the Col War days when Europe was weak and had to rely greatly on the US, the world has largely moved from the post-Cold War unilateral system to a multipolar world, where Europe is not only no longer weak and not completely dependent upon the US, but also happens to be one of the major ‘poles’ of this multipolar world where it decides on issues according to its own interests.
This is evident from the way Europe has adopted policies vis-à-vis Russia and China. Where Europe has significantly opened up for China, European powers continue to oppose Russia’s return to the G-7. At the same time, Germany, unlike the US, sees no problems in finalising the Nord Stream-2 project with Russia. Similarly, as opposed to the US’ ‘trade-war’ with China, the EU is looking forward to a long-term investment deal with China. With Germany taking over the EU presidency next month, Merkel, who is being increasingly seen as a ‘multilateralist’ at heart, will be paying special attention to the EU-China summit in Leipzig in the autumn.
In other words, with the US and EU increasingly defining the world in strikingly different ways, that a low-profile ‘Cold War’ within the Transatlantic alliance would eventually come to surface fully is no longer unthinkable.
Whereas one might think that US-EU differences would come to an end with Trump’s defeat in 2020 elections and that a Biden victory would bring things back to the Obama-era days, European officials, quoted by the Western media, have increasingly been warning against such straightforward thinking, arguing that there is no guarantee that in four years’ time even Biden wouldn’t be replaced by someone even ‘more radical than Trump.’ For Europe, therefore, a pivot to China is not merely an effect of the Trump presidency; it is more of a result of the way—and where— it wants to position itself in today’s multipolar world.
At the same time, if Donald Trump were to win elections in 2020, this low-profile Cold War will intensify. Already, he has his eyes locked on Europe as his next ‘trade war target.’ Indeed, this is also how Trump plans to ‘punish’ Europe for the latter’s increasing assertive diplomatic position on Iran, China and even Russia and G-7. In recent months, Trump has repeatedly spoken of increased tariffs by 25 per cent on cars that are made in Europe. Therefore, if Trump does auto tariffs on Europe, there is a real sense that the political calculus in Europe would radically change, forcing an economy of equal size to retaliate and thus engage in an extended ‘trade-war.’
This will certainly have consequences for the NATO as well; for it will largely institutionalise the bi-lateral tussle, taking it away from the ‘clash of personalities.’ Indeed, to a great extent, it is already institutionalised in Europe, and a change of presidency in the US will have little impact on the way—and where—Europe positions itself in the multipolar world. In other words, even if Biden succeeds, his victory would have virtually no impact either on the independent march of the world towards multipolarity or on how Europe responds to it.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”