One of the biggest concerns experts have about President Trump’s foreign policy is that by alienating key allies like Germany, it offers China and Russia an opportunity to divide Europe from the U.S. Yet while trans-Atlantic tensions have worsened since 2016 and public opinion in key European countries has turned sharply against the president, there are few signs Russia or China are effectively capitalizing on the moment.
On the contrary. Far from severing the ties between the U.S. and Europe, China and Russia seem to be strengthening them. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny—Vladimir Putin’s chief political rival—so outraged the German public that Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming under renewed pressure to shut down the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Moscow is evidently preparing to double down on support for embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, even as Europeans cheer the peaceful public protests against his rule.
China seems to be trying even harder to make itself unpopular across Europe. The emergence of more horrifying details about Chinese treatment of Uighurs, Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, and its threats against Taiwan have roiled Europe’s powerful human-rights lobby.
When Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil led a 90-person delegation to Taiwan last week, China’s Foreign Ministry condemned the visit and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that Mr. Vytrcil would pay “a heavy price” for his temerity. Mr. Vytrcil’s speech before the Taiwanese Senate was provocative. “I am Taiwanese,” he said in Mandarin, consciously echoing John F. Kennedy’s speech in Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
The gap between the major European countries and China widened noticeably last week: France called for a European effort to develop homegrown 5G technology rather than relying on Huawei, and Germany adopted an “Indo-Pacific” strategy that will reduce its reliance on China. Both French and German officials reacted angrily to China’s threats against the Czechs.
These events suggest several conclusions. The first is that neither China nor Russia is ready to do what it would take to pry Europe and Washington apart. In part this is because, as Americans well know, Europe demands a high price for its support. For Beijing or Moscow to meet European demands on everything from climate change to human rights would require changes that neither is willing or perhaps able to make.
The second is that the trans-Atlantic alliance will remain bound by the same powerful force that creates many international bonds: a sense of common threat. Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin did not like or approve of each other, but they worked together because of a mutual fear of Nazi Germany. Ms. Merkel is not fond of Mr. Trump and vice versa, but both can recognize an overriding common interest. A smoother diplomat in Washington or a more flexible government in Berlin might ease the path for trans-Atlantic cooperation, but diplomatic tact isn’t what holds the alliance together.
The third is a helpful reminder that our adversaries are not 10 feet tall. The U.S. makes its full share of mistakes in foreign policy, and America’s European allies have also been known to drop the occasional stitch. But despite the supposed advantages that a secretive and authoritarian government is said to provide in foreign policy, antidemocratic powers are fallible too. One problem is that autocratic governments get so used to bullying and intimidating their people that they fail to grasp how counterproductive such tactics can be when deployed overseas. At home, critics of an authoritarian regime can be easily cowed; foreign governments are less easily forced into compliance.
Finally, there is the somewhat less encouraging observation that both Russia and China feel relatively unconstrained at the moment. With the U.S. consumed by election politics and domestic polarization, and the European Union still divided and slow-moving, neither Moscow nor Beijing seems to fear consequences for its reckless behavior. The rest of 2020 could have a few more nasty surprises up its sleeve.
All of this suggests that Russia and China will continue to anger and alarm their neighbors and the world at large. And much as the bluster and bullying of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II strengthened the encircling coalition that he feared, so China and Russia are driving much of the rest of the world into a defensive alliance.
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Appeared in the September 8, 2020, print edition.
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