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Rebalancing the International Order

China, Russia and the US must engage in a trilateral dialogue to maintain international peace and stability, writes Margarita Mathiopoulos. 

When Xi Jinping addressed the Chinese Communist Party Congress last year, I happened to be in Beijing addressing the “Foreign Policy Forum 2017” at Peking University. Xi outlined “the Chinese Dream”, a very clear strategy for China with paramount political and strategic global implications for the years to come. The aim: to make the country the world’s dominant power by the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049. And President Xi also made very clear that it will remain governed by a Leninist one-party state.

To suppose that China will transform into a Singaporean model or Western-style democracy is illusionary. Inversely, it would be careless to assume that China’s transition to global pre-eminence will implode under the weight of the political and economic contradictions allegedly inherent in the Chinese model.

At the same time, Europeans, and especially we Germans, have been on a strategic holiday since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. Little consideration was given to where the West was heading, how to preserve the core elements of liberal democracies and fair rules in capitalist economies. On the contrary, there was liberal triumphalism vis-à-vis Russia, the West became increasingly self-absorbed and globally complacent, the European Union in particular.

From a Chinese perspective, Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US President are seen as evidence that the Western-led liberal order is entering a new phase of retrenchment that will provide more space for China to expand its own global presence. Beijing’s New Silk Road Project is already a robust manifestation of its new “going-global-policy”.

This liberal order is now being seriously challenged. Within Western societies, populist movements have risen, expressing anger at the economic and social price that people on low to middle income had to pay for globalisation. Internationally, China and Russia have become the two most important dissenters.

Russian officials are particularly disillusioned. They believe that they made an honest effort to join Western-led-institutions after the collapse of the Soviet Union but were spurned by the West, which subjected them to a long series of insults: NATO’s attacks on Serbia in the Balkan wars of the 1990s; NATO enlargement to eastern Europe; and Western support for “color revolutions” which threatened or in some cases overthrew Russian-backed leaders in several eastern European countries.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, President Putin famously criticised what he thought were the West’s tactics to weaken Russia. Too few of us in the room took his words seriously. In a speech to Russian diplomats last year, he complained again that certain countries “continued stubborn attempts to retain their monopoly on geopolitical domination”, arguing that this was leading to a “confrontation between different visions of how to build the global governance mechanisms in the 21st Century.”

As Donald Trump is known to be non-ideological, there might be a window of opportunity to convince him to initiate a dialogue with China and Russia on how these major nuclear powers can maintain international peace and stability in a yet-to-be-defined New World Order. But this dialogue will not be possible unless it is based on the following guiding principles: mutual respect, parity and equal treatment.

Washington, Beijing and Moscow will have to agree that they are indispensable powers of the 21st Century, global leaders who accept and respect to have diverse political views, avoiding the so-called “clash of civilisations”, allowing peaceful coexistence, and being driven by the responsibility to broker and preserve peace and stability by an agreed trilateral agenda of a new type of great power relations.

This Realpolitik Agenda for a New World Order would first of all focus on securing the goals laid down in the UN-Charter, especially its prohibition on territorial aggression. Other priorities would include a strong regime to deter and prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the de-nuclearisation of North Korea; common fight against terrorism and Islamist totalitarianism; close cooperation on climate change; re-defining fair and free trade rules.

If all three big powers agree to engage within this new, rebalanced international framework, their peaceful coexistence will be possible in the 21st Century.

Margarita Mathiopoulos is Professor of US Foreign Policy and International Security at the University of Potsdam and Founder and CEO of ASPIDE Group

Published in April 2018