The leaders of France and Germany have issued a challenge to the next U.S. president: to recognize significant shifts in interests and a corresponding need to break with President Joe Biden’s European strategy. The next president will have to recenter America’s priority relationships in Europe toward nations in the north and east of the continent. The need for such a shift can be summed up in two words: Communist China.
President Xi Jinping’s China poses an existential threat to the U.S. post-1945 democratic order and all its attenuated benefits to prosperity and freedom. Unlike the Soviet Union, China can leverage massive trade and investment in return for Western political loyalty. As its nuclear weapons capability strengthens dramatically later this decade, China will pose an even greater threat to the United States than the Soviet Union did.
If China succeeds in replacing the U.S.-led democratic order with an imperial order of feudal mercantilism, global prosperity and freedom will no longer be protected. The U.S. must thus now prioritize its relations with allies that recognize Beijing’s challenge and stand willing to confront it. Australia and Japan stand out in the Pacific. But there are a few other positive spots. India, once a cause for hope in China, clearly views its U.S. partnership as a one-way street. Canada and the United Kingdom seem uncertain whether to endorse U.S. efforts forcefully to constrain China’s imperialism. The policy of incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers another concerning question mark.
When it comes to European Union member states, however, there is an increasingly sharp contrast between those that share America’s concerns and those willing to put China first. The pomp and pleasantries that defined French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent state visit to Washington hide a more difficult truth — that France is abandoning the American foreign policy orbit in favor of a transactional alignment with China.
Macron proved as much in a quite stunning display of disdain for President Joe Biden when, just a week prior to his Washington state visit, he used a keynote speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to echo Xi’s rhetoric about avoiding international confrontation. Macron’s was a calculating play for Xi’s favor, designed to earn his amenability toward new investments in the French economy. Indeed, Macron offered a telling example of his desperation to avoid aggravating Xi when he was asked by CBS 60 Minutes host Bill Whitaker about rising tensions over Taiwan. Macron’s response was a masterpiece of verbose waffle, something Whitaker seemed to recognize when at one point, he interrupted Macron to ask, “What does that mean?” Macron could not bring himself to offer even one direct condemnation of China over its recent actions to undermine Taiwan’s territorial integrity. Macron says that territorial integrity is central to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. But as with his broader “strategic autonomy” foreign policy doctrine, the rhetoric comes cheap.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz adopts an even more overtly China-sympathetic policy. He became the first EU leader to meet with Xi in Beijing, following the 20th Communist Party Congress. That October coronation saw Xi become the party’s new Mao Zedong, an all-powerful leader of destiny. Scholz’s interest in visiting Beijing was clear from the coterie of German industrialists with whom he traveled and by his government’s approval of a Chinese purchase of a stake in Hamburg port just prior, the trip was all about bolstering Chinese trade links. And in fine Communist form, Xi wanted Scholz’s public pilgrimage before signing off on new economic concessions to him.
When it comes to Beijing, the disintegration of Washington’s foreign policy umbrella is not debatable.
Take Scholz’s new essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, titled “The Global Zeitenwende.” What he defines as an “epochal tectonic shift,” Scholz first adopted the Zeitenwende term following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. As part of this new thinking, Scholz pledged a major increase in German defense spending. He said he would end years of underinvestment in the German military and meet NATO’s 2%-of-GDP spending target. Scholz reiterated that 2% pledge in Foreign Affairs. But the chancellor’s lofty rhetoric also comes cheap. After all, Scholz’s government announced last week that it would not meet the 2% target either in 2022 or 2023. Instead, Berlin has the generously termed “cautious expectation” of meeting that target by 2025.
While that might frustrate the Biden administration, far more alarming is Scholz’s essay claim that “China’s rise does not warrant isolating Beijing or curbing cooperation.” This might seem reasonable, even sensible. But the read-between-the-lines message here is Berlin’s rejection of U.S. efforts to isolate China from high-technology goods and Beijing’s pursuit of other security-related advantages. As with Macron’s APEC speech, Scholz’s words are a thinly veiled hat tip to Xi. Taiwan? Again, as with Macron’s equivocation, Scholz simply says he has “raised concerns” with Xi.
Still, this concern is deadly serious.
With U.S. military analysts anticipating a Chinese attack on Taiwan within the 2023-2030 window, the U.S. faces a very real prospect of a military confrontation with China. Thousands of Americans could well die in such a conflict. And America’s prospects of defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are also in question. This is a time of peril. In turn, America’s 21st-century alliance structures must begin with those willing to join U.S. efforts to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese Communist imperialism.
Fortunately, a gaze toward Northern and Eastern Europe offers cause for hope.
In the Baltic states, the U.S. has allies that recognize the associated imperial challenges of both China and Russia. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all meet the 2%-of-GDP NATO target. Considering their respective GDPs, each of these nations has provided far outsize support to Ukraine compared to France, Germany, and other EU powers. And each of these nations has joined the U.S. in resisting Chinese efforts to isolate Taiwan while expanding its own detrimental influence in Europe. Lithuania has faced a particularly fierce Chinese trade war in response to its support for Taiwan (notably receiving less than a solid response from France, Germany, and Brussels). NATO’s newest impending member also deserves greater American priority.
Noting the outsize U.S. financial aid and armament contribution to Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin last week warned that Europe “would be in trouble without the United States.” She called for increased European defense investments. Marin also said something else worthy of American note. Visiting Australia, Marin identified Chinese technology exports as “critical dependencies we must get rid of.” She added, “We cannot be naive. This is the time to stop being naive also when it comes to China.” Marin is no fool. She recognizes this rhetoric will enrage Beijing. Marin’s choice to use this rhetoric and align herself with the U.S.-Australia stance on China is thus a courageous one.
The facts are clear. When it comes to Europe in 2022, the Baltic states and Finland are the ones acting most decisively both to defend NATO’s eastern flank and support the U.S. on China. The next U.S. president should prioritize these allies for what they are: better partners for the 21st century. France and Germany have every right to pursue whatever foreign policy they desire. But it is nonsensical the U.S. would fete over them even as they play to America’s preeminent adversary. Abundant economic trade is not the same thing as a true alliance. China’s challenge no longer affords such wishful thinking.