With his abrasive manners and his “America First” rhetoric, Donald Trump has not made many friends in Europe—and for good reason. The U.S. President’s idea of America’s interests is crude, often clouded by mercantilist dogma, and only rarely accompanied by a strategy and a follow-up. Still, Europeans would do well to pick up on a few of Trump’s tricks. In particular, the European Union’s foreign policy posture and the continent’s domestic policies would benefit from a dose of ruthlessness in the pursuit of power and economic dynamism.
Whether Europeans admit it or not, the Western-dominated international order is at its end. The reasons are manifold, including the declining willingness of Americans to play the role of a global policeman, stepping in to fix all the world’s problems. And notwithstanding the signals provided by both Barack Obama’s and Trump’s presidencies, Europe, with its atrophied defense budgets, sluggish economies, and a lack of strategic focus, shows few signs of being able to take effective care of itself.
Instead of a laser-sharp focus on the pursuit of interests shared by Europe’s democracies, with all the tools that are necessary, the European Union’s engagement with its neighborhood has been reduced to lukewarm efforts to export its own rules. The Eastern Partnership agenda and Brussels’s work in the Western Balkans, for instance, revolve around the idea that European countries outside of the European Union are aspiring to become just like the West. If that is the case, then all that is needed for Brussels to do is to help them ingest a heavy dose of acquis communautaire.
Looking at the world as if it were aching to become like us adds up to a retro, 1990s-style foreign policy. Notwithstanding ongoing developments in Hungary and Poland, that same approach did wonders in the case of post-communist Central Europe and the Baltic states, where populations and political elites overwhelmingly did want to become a part of the West. Today, the same cannot be said even about the more promising countries that are involved in the Eastern Partnership—not even Ukraine can tick that box without hesitation. And it goes without saying that Turkey does not see itself as a Western liberal democracy-in-waiting, either.
As a result, writes Bruno Maçães in his new book, The Dawn of Eurasia, “the borderlands between Europe and Russia increasingly seem like areas of darkness and chaos.” Maçães, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, earned his doctorate from Harvard under Samuel Huntington’s supervision, and served as Portugal’s Europe Minister between 2013 and 2015. His book reads as much as a travelogue as a piece of geopolitical analysis. He travels to Azerbaijan, China, and Russia, among other places, to observe the contours of the emerging Eurasian world, which seems to pay little heed to the desires of Western liberal democracies.
Instead of a gradual convergence of the world towards democratic capitalism, Maçães predicts that the future will involve a juxtaposition of mutually incompatible political and civilizational models. Unlike in the past, when such models—Qing China, the Habsburgs, or the Mughals—existed in relative isolation, in today’s world they are tightly integrated. That is bound to be a source of new frictions and conflicts.
Europe’s response to those challenges, including the rise of new rivals in the East, is characterized by complacency. For many, including the European Union’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini, it is easier to lambast the Trump Administration than to stand up to the world’s autocracies that are threatening Europe’s security—Russia and Iran. The appeasement now extends even to Cuba, which has arguably very little to offer to the European Union. As Maçães puts it, “Brussels’ grand strategy starts to resemble that of Qing dynasty China: if all we ask is to be left alone why would others not grant us that?”
The problem is that Europeans cannot really check out from an increasingly globalized, connected, and mobile world. The 2015 refugee wave and its political reverberations throughout Europe showed just how vulnerable the continent is to wars and political crises happening thousands of kilometers away. Similar events can easily unfold in the future. Moreover, it is entirely conceivable that the world’s authoritarian powers, such as Russia, Iran, and China, will deliberately exploit such vulnerabilities in the pursuit of their own ends. The Kremlin in particular thrives on chaos, both at home and abroad—that way, it is able to deliver on Putin’s key promise of providing stability through force. Unless Europeans resist, including by credible threat of force, Vladimir Putin will continue on his quest to undermine Eastern and Central European democracies, annex territory, and extend Russia’s sphere of influence to rectify what he sees as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”—the fall of the Soviet Union.
If being left alone increasingly seems to be Europe’s overarching foreign policy objective, preservation of the status quo motivates many of its domestic policies, especially regarding new technologies. By contrast, many a Western visitor returns from Asia with admiration for the observed work ethic and embrace of innovation. “Asia seems addicted to change, often for its own sake,” writes Maçães.
In China, he writes, the internet is seen “as a tool to act in the world and perhaps even to change it, not a way to interpret it” and mobile messaging apps are used “to pay your rent or get coffee at a shop, to find parking spaces, to get directions, to exchange contacts after a meeting, hail taxis from traditional taxi companies, make a doctor’s appointment, donate to charity, send money to your friends and family or to watch a live stream of a university lecture.”
Westerners might be happy to post pictures of their breakfast on Instagram. Yet they appear to spend substantially more time worrying about the potentially adverse effects of new technologies—from genetically modified organisms to the sharing economy to self-driving cars— than to translating the latest technological advances into marketable goods and services. And Europeans are not the only Westerners prone to Luddite sentiments—a 2017 Pew survey found that “Americans are roughly twice as likely to express worry (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that are currently done by humans.”
In the European context, that mindset sometimes translates into outright bans, such as of genetically modified crops in the European Union, or of Uber in Italy. At best, the 21st-century platforms are required to comply with legislation written with 20th-century business models in mind. Even more worryingly, if one is to take seriously the message of economic historians such as Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University, the fear of technological change can become a substantial cultural hurdle to entrepreneurship and economic growth. Mokyr’s work shows that the economic rise of the West, particularly the Industrial Revolution, was contingent on the embrace of innovation across social classes and on the approbation given to innovators and entrepreneurs.
To be sure, there is a difference between catch-up growth—which emerging economies, oftentimes authoritarian, seem to be fairly good at—and innovation occurring at the technological frontier. The lack of intellectual freedom in one-party authoritarian regimes like China’s might easily prove to be their economic undoing. That would confirm the idea popular among economists like Bill Easterly, Daron Acemoglu, or James Robinson that good institutions come in bundles. A dynamic market economy, underpinned by what Acemoglu and Robinson call “inclusive economic institutions,” cannot survive without a political system that respects human rights and gives people a voice—“inclusive political institutions.”
The coming decades will likely settle the disagreements that may exist among economists about the compatibility of political repression and growing economic prosperity. In the meantime, however, it would be naïve to expect rising powers to Europe’s East to hold themselves to the same standards of rule of law and political freedom. “What is the alternative?” asks Maçães. “A more strategic and, yes, competitive approach. We need to look at the map and see what is most important for us at each moment to increase our influence, our leverage, thinking in terms of power.”
But for that, vibrant economies in the West are a necessity. Whatever one thinks of President Trump’s tax cuts and the deregulatory agenda pursued by the administration, there is a decent chance that the two might provide a boost to U.S. growth rates, at least in the coming years. With the exception of Emmanuel Macron’s labor market liberalization in France, it is difficult to even imagine—let alone observe—similar initiatives in Europe, either in individual countries or at the EU level, where the single European market remains far from complete. In addition to powerful special interests protecting the status quo, the biggest obstacle to far-reaching regulatory reform is a deeply rooted Luddite mindset, which posits that the European way of doing things is the best and cannot be perfected. And unless that mindset is reversed, history will not be kind to Europe—just as it was not kind to complacent, inward-looking civilizations of the past.