The noise and anxiety around the NATO Summit tomorrow not only highlights how tense the transatlantic relationship has become 18 months into Donald Trump’s presidency. It also points to a much bigger question that is looming behind our Twitter-induced panic attacks: Does America want to hold on to its geopolitical property in Europe or is it willing to give it up? Property here does not mean troops or infrastructure in Europe. It means Europe as such and whether Washington, in the future, will consider it its own backyard or whether it will be up for grabs by other powers who are only too eager to bring this rich, slightly unruly, and strategically interesting piece of territory into their fold.
Only in the short run will the answer to this question have to do with Russia. True, U.S. leaders must ask themselves whether they want more and more European countries feeling tempted to call Moscow first instead of Washington on questions of foreign policy. But in the long run, it is not Russia but China that will make this question a pressing one.
We are in the midst of a global change of guards in which one order, Pax Americana, gets slowly replaced by something else in which Beijing will most likely have the say. In the coming conflict of the old hegemon against the rising new one, Europe’s value for the United States will be determined by its usefulness for counterbalancing a globally rising China.
During the Cold War, Europe was of primary importance in America’s quest to contain and defeat the Soviet Union’s expansionist global policies. In the upcoming stand-off with China, Europe’s value will be much smaller, but it will not be zero.
As a result, the real strategic question is whether Washington, long after Trump is gone, will still consider Europe a coveted asset in the coming global standoff. As in the past, America’s security guarantee will not depend on Europe’s share of the NATO defense burden. It will solely depend on whether America deems it in its strategic interest to defend the Old World.
When it comes to counterbalancing China, Europe cannot bring much military might to the table. But its wealth, market size, trade power, strategic geography, and its voting power in the United Nations make it attractive. Much more importantly, the United States could well be interested in preventing Europe from becoming the western end-piece of a Eurasian landmass dominated by the Middle Kingdom. Turning Europe into a tributary economy feeding into China’s global greatness is precisely what Beijing is aiming at, most notably through its One-Belt-One-Road initiative.
For the Europeans, this means making hard decisions. First, they need to decide whether they still want to be part of the West, and thus, whether they want to seek U.S. protection. If so, they have to identify how they can be most helpful in any effort to build a counterweight to China — and whether they are ready to make the investments needed. Furthermore, they need to get smart on how much and what kind of Chinese investment into Europe they want to accept, and whether they look at Communist Party-run China primarily as a business opportunity instead of a geopolitical challenger of the West.
During the NATO Summit, none of this will be of particular importance. The alliance is busy digesting a U.S. president who does neither understand its value for the United States nor the fragility of Europe, an inherently unstable political market. But there will be a time after Trump, and the transatlantic community will then have to focus on a challenge much larger than anything Russia or the Soviet Union were able to pose: the question of order in a world in which China aspires to rule supreme.