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Gangs replace rules in the new global order

The age of liberal internationalism made way for the return of great power rivalry. The facts of global interdependence are the same – testifying to the contempt for state borders shown by Covid-19 and climate change. But the redistribution of world power changed the geopolitical weather. National impotence proves a bad brake on rising, well, nationalism.

For now, the world is sitting in a curious no-man’s land – still connected to well-known multilateral institutions, but with the great powers fighting each other over the contours of the new landscape. Non-major powers will face growing pressure to take sides. Will they be with the US or with China? Historians will note in passing that it was a strange moment for a middle class like Britain to strike out by leaving the EU.

In essence, an encouraging, emerging China and an aggrieved, declining Russia are unwilling to agree to an order calculated to maintain Western hegemony. Xi Jinping wants to bring China back to the center of the world scene. Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to return to an atmosphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

The overall effect is to replace competing gangs with multilateral rules. Some nations will sit on the fence; others will try to maintain a privileged economic relationship with China while still hiding behind Washington’s security shield. Many have already made their choice.

The way these days is to say that the autocrats have an advantage. And it is true that the absence of domestic opposition means that China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin can act with impunity. In terms of gangs, however, the advantage lies with the west.

Joe Biden has been around for a while. He cherishes the old order. For good reason. The period between 1945 and 2000 saw an almost perfect alignment between America’s selfish national interests and its international leadership. That was before China joined the World Trade Organization, the US waged war in the Middle East, and the global financial system collapsed on its Western architects.

Biden’s appearance during a week of international summit, including a one-on-one with Putin in Geneva, had a single purpose: to assemble the old gang for the looming confrontation with China. Russia is a serious nuisance. China poses the systemic threat. Here, America’s friends are the most important asset.

The tensions and tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance are not going to go away. The French will always be suspicious of American intentions. Angela Merkel refuses to allow her commitment to liberal democratic rules to jeopardize Germany’s economic interests. And the Europeans have their own gang. The EU may lack geostrategic presence, but it is working with the US and China to set global economic standards.

For all this, Xi’s aggressive pursuit of China’s interests facilitated Biden’s task. The importance of the agreement to end the EU-US dispute over subsidies for Boeing and Airbus lies in the recognition that the real threat to both companies will soon come from China.

Emmanuel Macron is as Gaullist as any French president. He is also as considerate as any European leader in ensuring that television cameras capture his intimacy with the US president. Merkel is on her last lap. When the president welcomes her to the White House next month, it will hope that her successor will match the rhetoric with the action.

In short, Europeans are beginning to face awkward strategic realities. Not fast enough for some in Washington, but enough to convince Biden that a week was well spent.

The foreign nation here is the United Kingdom. As the host of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Boris Johnson would have hoped to put Britain at the center of events after Brexit. Instead, his attempt to abandon the Northern Ireland trade agreement he had agreed with the EU isolated him among his peers.

Macron’s irritation with the ominous Albion made headlines, but Biden was not beaten in his conversations with Johnson. Perhaps he pointed out that you can not be a proponent of the rule-based order while breaking a treaty you have just signed with your allies. Johnson, as European and American diplomats will tell you, is not trusted. Unless that changes, his much-vaunted ‘Global Britain’ will look a lot more like Britain alone.

Philip Stephens