World order: As the US steps back, Europe steps up

Why We Wrote This

Europeans may share some of President Trump’s foreign policy goals, but they are choosing their own means to achieve them. This newfound independence will likely last, whoever wins the U.S. election.

Francisco Seco/AP
European Union leaders gather during a July summit in Brussels. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are leading a drive to develop a more assertive and independent European foreign policy.

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The tension between Washington and Beijing is not the only current in world affairs worth keeping an eye on.

European nations, led by France and Germany, with Britain lending a hand, are leading a bid to rekindle international cooperation, shore up international agreements on a host of global challenges, and make their voices heard more clearly on the world stage.

The drive has been most evident in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to boost the World Health Organization where President Donald Trump has sought to tear it down. Germany and France have both put ambitious green power initiatives at the heart of their economic recovery programs. They are leading the fight to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, in the face of U.S. opposition. And they are trying to chart an independent path with regard to China.

There’s the rub. Europe is fearful of being caught between Washington and Beijing, and does not want to be forced to choose sides. That will call for diplomatic determination and agility.

Even if Mr. Trump is defeated in the U.S. election in November and replaced with a more traditionally minded internationalist in Joe Biden, Washington may still find itself working alongside a more self-confident and assertive set of partners in Europe.

Ask most people for a snapshot of today’s international politics, and they’ll focus on growing tensions between the United States and China. Yet another current is flowing through world affairs today: a newly assertive effort by key European states to rekindle international cooperation and shore up international agreements on a raft of world challenges.

The main players are Germany and France, linchpins of the European Union. But Britain, too, despite its imminent departure from the EU, is playing its part.

The issues on which they’ve been weighing in read like a menu of the world’s most pressing crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, human rights, and nuclear nonproliferation.

France has talked up the idea of a stronger EU role on the world stage for years. Yet now, with a more receptive ear in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany and Britain having to chart a new, post-Brexit identity, the continent’s three most important strategic players are walking the walk.

It seems the wider world is taking notice. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is kicking off his first overseas trip since the change of government in Tokyo with a visit to Europe. France is on the itinerary. Germany was supposed to have been, though his talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will now be virtual, after someone in close contact with Mr. Maas reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. Among issues on the agenda: Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, where France, Germany, and Britain have all declared an interest.

But the shift has been especially evident in the three nations’ response to the pandemic.

In past global health crises, Washington has taken the lead, in coordination with the World Health Organization. But the Trump administration has shunned calls for international action and said it will leave the WHO next year.

Against that background, the Europeans have refused to support a U.S. blueprint for reform of the WHO. Though they agreed with some of the changes the Americans wanted, they have launched their own effort to strengthen the organization.

A joint Franco-German paper calls for moves to make the WHO more effective and accountable, and tackles the organization’s long-standing lack of funding to anticipate and cope with events such as the pandemic. With the U.S. due to stop paying next year, France and Germany propose a hike in other countries’ national contributions.

Last weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his address to the U.N. General Assembly to focus almost exclusively on the need for a newly coordinated international approach to COVID-19 and potential future pandemics.

He announced a 30% increase in the U.K.’s contributions to the WHO. He also pledged additional money for COVAX, the international body dedicated to ensuring worldwide distribution for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, which the U.S., along with China and Russia, has declined to join.

A similar picture is emerging on other policy fronts.

On climate change, Ms. Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have unveiled ambitious green power initiatives as part of the multibillion-dollar EU investment for recovery from the effects of the pandemic. Mr. Johnson, due to chair next year’s follow-up conference on the 2016 Paris Agreement, is planning a December virtual summit to press those countries that have so far failed to live up to their commitments under that accord.

On human rights, German and French calls for a thorough accounting from Russia for the recent poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny have stood in stark contrast to the muted response from President Donald Trump. Both European leaders have also refused to recognize the legitimacy of the recent election in Belarus, which kept Alexander Lukashenko in power and has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets.

And while Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, co-signatories France, Germany, and Britain have been striving to keep it alive. They’ve rejected recent U.S. calls for a re-imposition of international sanctions lifted as part of the accord.

On China, meanwhile, the Europeans are also seeking to chart an independent path.

They share the U.S. view that Xi Jinping’s moves to project Chinese power internationally represent a strategic challenge. They’ve been vocal in criticizing China’s confinement of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims and its security crackdown in Hong Kong. They also feel China bears a serious responsibility for not having alerted the world quickly enough about the threat of COVID-19. And, like the U.S., they are pressing China to abandon what they see as unfair trade practices, including government subsidies for Chinese companies.

But they have steered clear of Mr. Trump’s tariff war, and they are trying to avert a Cold War-style political standoff with Beijing. Mr. Johnson gave one sign of that in his General Assembly address. Though he urged the WHO to demand the full picture of how and where the pandemic began, he added that he didn’t “want to blame any country or government, or score [political] points.”

All this looks as if it adds up to a newly independent European voice in world affairs. Some of it is down to timing. Ms. Merkel, the most influential European political leader of her generation, has said that she will step down at the next election. She has a little more pull than usual, too, since Germany holds the rotating, six-month presidency of the EU.

France’s assertiveness is in part a function of Mr. Macron’s clear hope to ensure Paris’ continued place at the heart of EU strategy and diplomacy in a post-Merkel era. And it is a response to Mr. Trump’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy and the diminished importance he attaches to America’s relations with its longtime European allies.

But it may also be a simple reflection of a new geopolitical reality: a world in which Washington and Beijing are increasingly at loggerheads, with Europe fearful of being caught between them and reluctant to choose sides.

That will call for diplomatic determination and agility. Even if Mr. Trump is defeated in the U.S. election in November and replaced with a more traditionally minded internationalist in Joe Biden, Washington may still find itself working alongside a more self-confident and assertive set of partners in Europe.

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