A new transatlantic alliance is springing up in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but what form will it have when the dust settles?
Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has reinvigorated transatlantic cooperation, bringing the United States and its European allies closer than they have been since the end of the Cold War. A united transatlantic alliance is sanctioning Russia and supporting Ukraine. For the Europeans, the US-led campaign against Russia is not about regime change but about defending a liberal international order.
The rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been threatened by Ukraine as the latter has democratised and sought closer relations with Europe. However, the invasion of Ukraine does more than violate democracy and human rights: it breaches every principle on which the post–World War II international order was formally built. Even non-liberal states, most notably China, supported these ideals: sovereign equality of states, territorial integrity, and non-interference in domestic affairs.
But a sustained return of US global leadership, supported by the transatlantic community in defence of liberal ideals is by no means certain. Domestic political polarisation in the US is not set to recede any time soon, limiting bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy issues.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Europeans continue to show little appetite for global leadership either. They will make increased attempts at transatlantic burden-sharing, particularly as regards NATO: Germany announced it would spend an additional €100 billion (US$104.9 million) on German defence to meet NATO’s 2 percent goal in 2022. Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has reminded the West of how fragile the world order can be. NATO has been vindicated as a defence alliance and has welcomed moves from long-time neutral Finland and Sweden to become members.
The EU also has welcomed applications from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to join the union in order to support their democratisation. As one of the largest markets in the world, the EU and its member states hold substantial power to shape and maintain a liberal international order. Yet the EU and its member states have not tried to mobilise their power to share the burden of maintaining a liberal international order or assume a global leadership role.
Europe still seems to lack the political willingness to engage more actively in countering challenges to a liberal international order, with or without the US. Despite pledges to strengthen “European sovereignty”, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s aggressive “Zeitenwende” (historical turning point) speech, Europeans seem unlikely to take on an increased global leadership role.
As with the US, internal challenges have undermined the EU’s effectiveness on the world stage. The euro crisis, followed by mass migration of Syrians and others fleeing civil wars, persecution and economic collapse, triggered nativist, nationalist responses within Europe.
The very success of EU expansion in scope (such as monetary union) and territory (such as to the East) fractured it internally and undercut its ability to speak with a strong, single voice internationally. Divisions within Europe impede collective action. For instance, Europeans are as divided over how far to engage with China as they used to be regarding Russia. This also creates transatlantic tensions.
If neither the US nor Europe is willing to take the lead in promoting and protecting a liberal international order, China might fill the power vacuum seeking to “make the world safe for autocracy” and in particular the Chinese Communist Party.
The liberal economic order facilitated China’s rise, China’s economic growth relies on international markets, and China has joined and is increasingly engaged with multilateral organisations. China is party to most international agreements, and it arguably complies with them at least as much as the United States does outside of treaties involving international civil and political rights.
While the US has debated decoupling its economy from China through tariffs and other regulatory barriers, China has invested in technology to enhance its place in global value chains, rather than move out of them. The most likely scenario is “selective engagement” with a liberal international order, not only by the US and Europe but also by China.
In a similar move to former US president Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy, Beijing could pull back from international agreements that it perceives as not serving Chinese interests. If its attempts to shape liberal international institutions in order to defend authoritarianism fail, China might fall back on a strategy of ‘contested multilateralism‘ or ‘cooperative counter-hegemony‘.
China’s withdrawal could be fuelled by the US and Europe closing ranks to restore a liberal international order. A lot will depend on which side non-Western countries, including India, Brazil and South Africa, take. On the one hand, they share China’s and Russia’s rejection of US dominance.
On the other hand, the war in Ukraine has served as a wake-up call: not only has it destroyed the European security architecture but it also threatens a rules-based order.
Countries relying on the management of interdependence through international institutions might join forces to support a less US-dominated, and more sovereignty-preserving, rules-based international order.
Tanja A. Börzel is professor of political science at Freie Universität Berlin and directs the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script”.
Prof Börzel’s Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (EXC 2055) research is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy.
Gregory Shaffer is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and President of the American Society of International Law. The views expressed are his own.
Both authors declared no conflicts of interest in relation to this article.