The AURo-Atlantic Romania

The illusion generated by Romania’s pro-European political choice has led to a collective blindness towards the country’s backsliding from European values. Increasingly, one of our core security threats comes from within, rather than outside our borders. 

Romania’s accession to the European Union and NATO was backed by almost unanimous popular support, and throughout the years the country has maintained its position among the states which held the EU and the US in the highest esteem. One generation after another has learned in school that the Latin origins of the Romanian language and people (through which we are related to France, Italy and Spain, countries that many Romanians call home today) are defining for our national identity. Through the royal family we have become related to Europe once again.

The post-1989 strategic choice Romania made was firmly pro-Western, even during the times of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Năstase, when very little of what was happening in our country was reminiscent of the realities in the EU. The Bucharest-London-Washington axis was not derailed even by Brexit, Donald Trump or Liviu Dragnea. Currently, in the EU Parliament, Romania votes consistently along the lines promoted by the Western Franco-German nucleus, and is methodically avoiding any association with the democratic backslidings of other Eastern European states. Everything in our history and identity is European, and the pinnacle of our post-1989 aspirations was always to be sought in the West.

EU membership has brought us the possibility to work and study in the West. In spite of repeated and considerable pressures on the rule of law and democracy, over the past years Romanians have supported the anti-corruption agenda, whether at the ballot or in the streets through protest. Romania’s presence at the head of the fastest-growing EU economies has been constant in recent years, its GDP increasing eightfold since the 1990s. We are among the most reliable European countries regarding the NATO defence expenditure pledges.

The forest of backwardness hidden behind the European trees

In such a context, how could one ever suspect that we are anything but the quintessential expression of Euro-enthusiasm? We have fed ourselves with the illusion that the only possible direction was ‘further and further to the West’; that modernisation and Europeanisation are inevitable processes; that we are invulnerable to the problems faced by our neighbours – from the rise of the far-right and the intolerance towards migrants and minorities of any kind, to the slide into authoritarianism, the spread of Russian propaganda and attempts at destabilisation, simply because ‘we are so pro-West and anti-Russian’.

There is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity.

Notwithstanding these realities which some of us share, there is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity. The political class is using the pro-European discourse opportunistically, rather than with the purpose of genuinely promoting a set of values to Romanian society. The policies adopted in the past decades have effectively marginalised the people that do not live in large urban centres, and thus see themselves trapped in a context that does not offer them many of the opportunities that promised to be so abundant at the time of the country’s accession to the European Union: a country with families split between those that have left to a seek better income in the West and those that have stayed and have been supported by them, a country in which some of us have prospered because of the new economic trends, whilst others have felt overwhelmed by changes that we did not understand and that nobody prepared us for.

The success of AUR, inconceivable until recently, as well as all the instances of ultraconservative and antidemocratic actions are primarily a consequence of this trend.

The traditional parties have fostered a radical electorate behind their democratic rhetoric

Until the moment the exit poll in December’s parliamentary elections was announced, the Romanian media’s interest in the AUR party was close to zero. The shock generated by the collective realisation that a party unknown to most people was to become the fourth-largest political force in the country generated an avalanche of articles that either presented the profile of the AUR candidates and their most outrageous declarations, or commented in an alarmist tone on the consequences of Romania’s entry in the ranks of the European states with extremist representation in their parliaments. However, all these approaches are distant from the essence of the problem.

The Romanian electorate with sympathies towards populist or nationalist narratives is not new. Although the 9% score obtained by AUR may seem very high, in the parliamentary elections with the lowest turnout since the Romanian Revolution this translated into little more than around 540,000 votes. This number seems less impressive if compared with the one million votes received by PPDD in the 2012 elections, when this (now-defunct) party capitalised upon the ongoing hardships associated by the economic crisis through its staunchly populist discourse.

AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel.

The duplicitous rhetoric used by Romania’s main political parties is one of the reasons why this segment of the population has remained largely under the radar in the past years. Hence the Social Democratic Party (PSD), along with smaller parties such as PRO Romania or ALDE, and even the National Liberal Party (PNL), have adopted a nominally democratic pro-European rhetoric meant to gain the sympathy, or at least the trust, of Romania’s international partners. At the same time, these same groups have not shied away from adopting socially conservative and even antidemocratic positions when this promised some easily obtained electoral points. In fact, such electorates were actively cultivated.

Apart from social values, the main parties have also pushed for policies that led in the end to an uneven, imbalanced development. After three decades when PSD, nominally a social-democratic party, has regularly governed Romania, our country is still at the very bottom of the risk of poverty rankings in the EU: according to Eurostat, in 2018, 23.5% of Romanians were in a difficult or very difficult financial situation. At the same time, although the PNL defines its vision as promoting a ‘respect for diversity’, among others, this party voted almost unanimously in favour of the illiberal 2018 referendum aimed at banning same-sex marriages in Romania. It is also fairly clear that repeated declarations with nationalist and anti-Hungarian undertones by some PNL leaders did not do much in helping promote the party as a defender of liberalism in our society.

Although it may seem that the rise of AUR comes from its clear, simple and ideologised discourse, this dimension comes only second among the factors that have contributed to its success. Although undeniably persuasive and well-adapted to the dynamics of social media, the discourse of AUR only represents a vehicle being used with great effectiveness. First and foremost, AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel. This void is the key, and not the fact that an agile and opportunistic actor has observed a vulnerability and has learned to exploit it. The current excessive focus on AUR, as if it represents a sole and exhaustive expression of political radicalisation in Romania, is moving the spotlight away from the true issue: the practices of the main parties and the failure of their development policies.

Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one).

AUR remains the least of our worries

What we are seeing is fundamentally a problem of social exclusion and absence of opportunities. The chronic distrust in the state authorities and moderate political forces, or even the quintessential institutions of representative democracy, stems from their sustained incapacity to generate prosperity. Although not alone in facing this issue, Romania has been performing exceptionally poorly in this chapter, year after year. In September 2020, essential democratic institutions received abysmal trust ratings: only 9.5% of Romanians trusted the country’s parliament, while 13.7% had confidence in the country’s government. 

If there were truly a climate of public trust in the country’s institutions, the conspirational and anti-system discourse of AUR could not have resonated in such a way. Their nationalist and illiberal rhetoric lacks rigour if it is not assembled upon a frame of distrust and alienation amongst segments of the society. Unfortunately, the unequal socio-economic evolution of our country has led precisely to this reality. 

Between 2014 and 2019, Romania prided itself in one of the biggest GDP increases in the EU, over 40%. In recent years, some areas of the country have experienced a remarkable growth, with standards of living coming to a par with those in Western Europe. According to Eurostat, in 2019 the Bucharest-Ilfov area had a GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) larger than that of cities such as Helsinki or Berlin. The contrasts within the country, however, are enormous. Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one). All other regions of our country feature on the lower third of the EU’s development ranking.

Romania has a major social mobility issue as well. According to the 2020 Global social mobility index from the World Economic Forum, Romania is the second most difficult place in the EU to improve your social and financial situation if you are from a low-income background. Only Greece, a country devastated by an economic crisis spanning almost 10 years, fares worse among EU states at this indicator.

Marginalisation – a national security risk

An analysis conducted in 2016 by the Romanian National Institute of Statistics revealed that the counties with the largest percentage of former residents that have emigrated over the shortage of jobs were in the province of Moldova. In Neamț, the number of emigrants almost equals the number of existing workplaces in the county. There is no coincidence that such regions lacking any opportunities have the constituencies where AUR obtained its best results. For as long as the socio-economic developments leave behind winners and losers separated by such a large gap, the conditions favouring the success of nationalist parties will linger on. And as economic and political results are oftentimes attributed to the European Union in the public psyche, the resentment towards a West perceived as not delivering on expectations can be expected to rise (which will also be amplified by parties keen to find a scapegoat for all of the country’s misfortunes). 

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation.

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation. When people see themselves systematically neglected by conventional political actors and the institutions that are meant to serve them, they turn their hopes and support to whichever options promising a change. AUR has communicated effectively; it knew who its target-audience was; it has indeed been helped by the context of heightened uncertainty and distrust amplified by the pandemic, and it has exploited the popularity of the church in the countryside to attract the most visible and vocal part of the dissatisfied. However, many more have remained under the diffuse influence of PSD, PNL and their smaller satellites, where they serve as an exploitable demographic that is much larger than the 500,000 votes which AUR won last time.

The Romanian version of the article was published on Adevărul.

About the projectSupported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.

“We are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities” – an interview with Ulrike Franke (ECFR)

Dr. Ulrike Franke is policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Her areas of focus include German and European security and defence, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence.

What potential do you see for truly projecting a geopolitical Commission, especially in a post-pandemic Europe? What are the critical ingredients for a successful geopolitical Commission? Over the past years, France was very active in advancing bold visions for the future of Europe that were received with little enthusiasm in Berlin. Is a Franco-German alignment on a geopolitical Europe agenda more or less likely in a post-pandemic context? 

This is the big question for the EU at the moment. In my view, the first step in shaping a geopolitical EU would be for the Union to define in a clear way the interests it has in the world, and to communicate them. But this interest-focused thinking is something that the EU is not very comfortable with, and Germany in particular is neither comfortable, nor used to doing it. The second challenge is finding agreement among the 27 member states on various issues, whether it is on Russia, China or anything else. It is often difficult to get to a unanimous decision among the 27, which is why Ursula von der Leyen has proposed qualified majority voting on some foreign policy issues, especially in the areas pertaining to human rights, as she pointed out in her latest State of the Union speech. 

For now, the EU still struggles to be a geopolitical actor. And Germany in particular appears not ready for the EU to be a geopolitical actor. The current situation in the Mediterranean is a good illustration of this. There are still important voices in Germany who believe that the EU – even in this specific instance – should be an honest broker and an arbitrator rather than an actor. But this is a dispute between an EU member state and a non-EU member state! The idea that here the EU could be an honest broker is rather surprising, but that is what you hear from Germany. France is taking on a completely different vision; they argue that this is an EU member state, so of course we are taking sides and we are sending support to the Greek. This is a perfect example where you see the difference in approach between France and Germany when it comes to a geopolitical EU. 

With regard to COVID, I don’t think that it will have a major impact on European foreign policy, or that will contribute to a geopolitical awakening of Europe. Rather, at least at the moment, the consequence is that geopolitical issues have been pushed into the background  – and we’ve seen this in the von der Leyen speech – because there are other things that seem to be more important at the moment.

The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language.

To what extent are Europe and Germany ready for a world where the return of great-power competition is becoming the new normal? Thomas Bagger in Washington Quarterly was emphasising the lessons that his generation took on board from 1989 that influenced their worldview – convergence, multilateralism, the belief that Germany was no longer threatened and that the future was more about development aid and mediation. It is very much a mind set that slows Europe down in the geopolitical arena as opposed to all the other major players. Put more broadly, is a generation shaped by the ‘end of history’ mindset ready for a world in which the “jungle grows back”?

I very much liked Thomas Bagger’s article, and I am in the midst of writing a follow-up article which looks at the question from a Millennial point of view. I thought what he said about his generation, the legacy of 1989 and how it influenced the thinking of his generation was very interesting. But what he may not have thought about so much is what this means for my generation, who didn’t experience 1989, but grew up in the world that was shaped by it. The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language. This is true for Bagger’s generation, but it is even more true for my generation, as we never learnt this language. This, in my view, explains why Germans have so many problems with geopolitical, strategic thinking. 

But this is not solely a German problem. The EU, as an organisation, also struggles with this new situation, because it wasn’t built with a geopolitical mind set either. I like the rhetoric about the geopolitical EU but if you look at the State of the Union speech that Ursula von der Leyen gave recently, she didn’t mention defence with one word. And on geopolitics, she ran through the list of the foreign policy challenges but didn’t advocate a particularly strong position on any of them. Changing this will be difficult  and it will be particularly difficult as the biggest country in the EU is particularly unprepared  for this. 

Let’s unpack a bit the issue of strategic autonomy. How far from each other are Paris and Berlin on this issue? Which are the main disagreements? To me a very divisive issue, especially in the CEE space, is the French instrumentalisation of the Trump factor in order to push for strategic decoupling and become more independent from the US.

By now, more people are talking about “European sovereignty”, or European strategic sovereignty rather than autonomy. Many found that autonomy sounded too much as if it was directed against the US. So today the term is strategic sovereignty, rather than autonomy, although the idea broadly remains the same. But in any case, there is a certain level of ambiguity, which allows everyone in the EU to define the concept in a way that suits them.

The general idea behind European sovereignty is that the EU, that Europe, should become more of a geopolitical actor. In my view, this is a good ambition for the EU to have. But one can already see that different countries emphasise different elements. Germany for example, seems to support the idea because it is something that could help bring the 27 EU members closer together, which is a German priority. France, on the other hand, tends to be much more focused on concrete outcomes, even, sometimes, at the detriment of European unity. Plus, there is the defence question; European sovereignty includes a defence element, but the extent to which the EU should be or become a defence actor is controversial. In the European East, many worry that a too ambitious EU may undermine NATO. So there is still a lot of work to be done before the EU can claim sovereignty. 

To sum up, Germany seems more focused on process as a team-building effort, while France is more interested in the concrete ends.

It depends on the context, but this is something we are indeed seeing when it comes to the issue of defence and military cooperation. Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity.  Therefore, the creation of common security structures, from PESCO to the EDF was seen in itself as a victory. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defencepart of common defence, and therefore points out that the establishment of common projects does not mean anything yet.

How realistic is a potential strategic convergence between Europe and the US in counterbalancing Chinese influence in the post-COVID world? Or will mercantilist pressures (very high in Germany for example) trump geopolitics?

Over the last few years, the EU, and Europeans broadly speaking, have woken up to the fact that China is not just an economic competitor and rising power, but an ideological and strategic competitor. For quite a long time, China has been seen primarily through economic lenses, this has only changed recently. For Germany, a big wake-up call was the acquisition of the German robot maker KUKA by a Chinese investor. More recently, the aggressive disinformation campaign on COVID by China reminded Europeans that China’s geopolitical power is an issue. 

There is now more cooperation between Europe and the US on the issue, although the US’s stance is much more clear-cut than the European one. Also, on this topic, the Trump administration has caused a big problem, in particular regarding public opinion. In some countries, there is such a rejection of the US under Trump that people have begun to wonder whether a more dominant China would really be so bad. European policy-makers are still broadly transatlantic in their thought process, but the last four years of the Trump administration have destroyed a lot of goodwill among the European population and this will come back and haunt the US when it comes to teaming up with Europe on China. If Trump is re-elected, I think that it is going to be much harder for Europe to work with the US on China.

Finally, Europe has a unity problem when it comes to China. Among the 27 EU member states, there are different views when it comes to China. Of course economic interests are big here. As long as there are countries in Europe that struggle economically and feel that they are being helped more by China than by the EU, the European bloc will have problems.

Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defence part of common defence.

Having in mind the broader trends impacting the character of contemporary war, what should Europe prepare for? There is the pressure of geopolitical rivalries and that of the high-end war. At the same time with everything that is happening in the broader MENA space, it may be a dangerous illusion to think that we are beyond the post-9/11 campaigns and the stabilisation operations.

The biggest problem is that Europe needs to prepare for all eventualities. I study new technologies and it is true that this is an area where Europe needs to do much more – but at the same time it can’t neglect more conventional threats. European countries need to retain a conventional military capability. They will remain important for operations, be it stability operations or for defence. Even if we don’t use it – we are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities. This is the reality with which a lot of people are not necessarily comfortable or don’t like but I very much believe that that is still the case. So the big challenge is that Europe needs all the above: conventional military capabilities and new technologies.

Over the past few years, the US has invested constantly in searching for a new offset strategy, going beyond a precision-guided munitions regime and focusing on what is often called algorithmic warfare (combat operations dominated by intelligent weapons and platforms using artificial intelligence as the core, but also enablers like big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and intelligent control). Does Europe have a similar effort?

I don’t think Europe has a similar effort as the third offset strategy. But I don’t think that this is surprising, or concerning – even in the Cold War, even for the first and second offset strategies, the big ideas of reinventing, rethinking warfare and conflict always came from the US. 

That being said, of course there is a lot of thinking being done all over Europe about the future of conflict. It doesn’t necessarily happen at the EU level. But at the national level you do have quite a few people thinking of the future of warfare and conflict, especially in the UK and France, which makes sense, as they are the big military powers of Europe. One big challenge is how to continue working with the EU, what will new technologies mean for joint operations, such as within NATO. Interoperability will be a big challenge, and it is essential to figure out how to work together and make sure we don’t end up with an interoperability gap at the NATO level.

You are specialised in drones. What role will drones and swarms of drones play in enhancing deterrence? Such solutions could be contemplated in better securing the Eastern flank. 

I don’t think that the current generation of drones have a big role to play in the inter-state wars, or for deterrence. The current generation of drones are particularly good in asymmetric conflicts, where you enjoy air superiority, but they are vulnerable to contested environments. That being said, smaller countries benefit quite a lot from having more airborne capabilities, and this is something which we are seeing right now in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where both sides have used drones extensively.

A lot of work is being done on the next generation of unmanned systems that have more autonomous capability, are harder to find, faster etc. This changes the situation, as it means that they will be more of a challenge for  air defence. Swarming especially is an area where a lot of work is being done. Swarms are particularly thought to be a great way of overwhelming the enemy’s air defences, which are not built and optimised against swarms of 100 or 1000 attacking drones. 

But what we should never forget is that it will not be only our side trying to get this technology. I do see a danger of an arms race when it comes to ever more capable AI-enabled autonomous systems.

Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone.

It seems that there is a different mood and tone in Berlin vis-à-vis Russia, driven by what happened in Belarus and particularly by the poisoning of Navalny. Will such a stance last? Should we expect a change also in Macron’s plans of rapprochement with Russia?

This isn’t my primary area of expertise. If I had to speculate, I wouldn’t  think that Navalny’s poisoning is going to change the approach substantially. After all, it is not as if Macron had been saying “let’s work with Russia, they are going to be our friends.” I believe that the French government is entering into talks with Russia with open eyes. They are aware of the spoiler role that Russia has been playing with regard to European stability for the last 5 to 10 years. The poisoning of Alexey Navalny hasn’t changed this assessment.In my view, Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone – which strikes me as a valid point. But France has not done well in explaining its approach, particularly to the Eastern Europeans. I think it was some misunderstanding among the Eastern Europeans that France wants a new partnership with Russia, but I don’t think this is what they are trying to do. 

‘If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order’ – an interview with Samir Saran

Samir Saran is president of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of Asia’s most influential think tanks.

Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order, because it has its foundations rooted in democratic principles and is currently the only power that can push the world towards a liberal trajectory, Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of Asia’s most influential think tanks, told Eastern Focus in a video interview. We discussed the world’s “silly season”, the emerging global order and how, absent a hegemonic United States, “which has ceased to be a superpower ten years ago, with the financial crisis”, it is up to middle powers, including Central and Eastern Europe or the Asian countries of the Quad (India, Australia, Japan) to put up a united front to defend democracy in the face of a rising China.

Saran curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship platform on geopolitics and geo-economics, and chairs CyFy, India’s annual conference on cyber security and internet governance. He is also a Commissioner of The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, member of the South Asia advisory board of the World Economic Forum, and a part of its Global Future Council on Cybersecurity. He is also the Director of the Centre for Peace and Security at the Sardar Patel Police University, Jodhpur, India.

He writes frequently on issues of global governance, climate change, energy policy, global development architecture, artificial intelligence, cyber security, internet governance, and India’s foreign policy and authored four books, the latest of which is called ‘The New World Disorder’.

“It’s the do it or lose it moment for Europe”

Part 1

“For me, the most important unknown unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold?, Saran told Eastern Focus. “Which way will the wind blow in the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried?”

He says that Europe is at a crossroads and because it is seen as democratic, liberal, open, pluralist, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending the rule of law, defending the right of individuals and freedom of speech, Europe can give the world a chance to be liberal. “If the European Union is split between the north and south and east and west, and we see a large part of it give up on the Atlantic project, the liberal project, and align itself with more impressive authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting these days, there’s a lot of money attached to that choice -, you will see the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise.

How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon?

I think that a political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. If a political EU is not born, I will see the end of the European Union itself,” Saran says. 

He also points out that Europe has made a mistake in thinking that it would change China by engaging with it. “China will change the EU before the EU changes China,” he explained. “Beijing is not interested in politics, it wants your markets. And it will have them, one way or another.”

“Europe needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety,” he insisted. “If China is able to change south-east Asia, don’t be surprised if Europe has the same fate”.

Central and Eastern Europe swinging between the EU and China

Part 2

Central and East European countries can be decisive and could form a bridge between the EU and Asian players. If only they wanted to take that path, Saran explains. “The choice for CEE is between becoming a bridge between East and West or becoming the venue of conflict.”

Central and Eastern Europe is facing two types of pressures and both are of an economic nature. On the one hand, the CEE countries are struggling to boost their economies and increase their income per capita by finding investment. “[They] will have to meet [their] aspirations while being political about it and worrying about the colour of the money,” he stresses.The second pressure is the nature of economic growth: are CEE countries going to continue to be cheap manufacturing centers for Europe, or will they switch towards becoming advanced technology societies? “Are you going to be the rule-makers of the fourth industrial revolution or the rule-takers?”

India – CEE cooperation
“These are the choices you have to make and I think here India becomes an actor. We have experience with these things over the last 20 years. We are also one of the swing states that would decide the new world order, we have lived this and maybe we can share our experiences with you.”GlobalFocus Center, the Observer for Research Foundation (India) and Keynote (Czechia) initiated the Central Europe – India Forum, whose first online meeting took place in June. CEIF will be a forum to explore avenues of cooperation between CEE and India in socio-economic, political and security arenas.

Industrial growth becoming “intimate”
“People are going to make far more political decisions going forward. That is one reality the pandemic teaches us. As we become more digital societies, […] your arenas of value creation are going to be your bedrooms. And you wouldn’t like to share those data sets with countries whose systems you do not trust. It’s going to be about the organs inside our bodies, how we eat, how we date, how we elect, whom we elect…”

The first global crisis without Captain America

Part 3

Saran explains that middle powers from across all regions need to take matters into their own hands if they decide to keep dwelling in a liberal system. “The old power [the US] is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and you have the new power [China] that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position,” he said.

“This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something we must invest in for our own existential reasons.”

“So we have a democratic failure at one end, and a despotic emergence at the other end and we need to make sure that democracy survives despite this moment. None of us wants a ‘no China world’ because we all benefit from China’s growth; we want a responsible China world. [we need to] put up a united front and not negotiate individually, but as a group,” he insisted.

“The EU has done this longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and they want to slice you up”.

Saran also points out that, from an Indian perspective, Russia needs to be given more room in European thinking, so Moscow wouldn’t be pushed into the Chinese corner. “It would be a mistake to leave Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese, even if Russia’s neighbours may not find it palatable,” “We have to understand that Russia is not China, and that China is taking hegemony to a different level. Russia has a small economy and a huge military, there is an imbalance there; so we have to create economic incentives for the Russians, give them a stake in our common economic future.”

“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.