Can China afford a multi-front war?

Europe is no longer the center of the world. But it can do a lot to play an active role in the new East-West order

In his new book, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff thinks about how Germany and the EU can position themselves in the conflict between the USA and China. He advocates more intensive transatlantic cooperation.

Democracy versus autocracy. Rule of law against arbitrariness. Freedom against oppression. Transnationalism versus nationalism. The frontlines of the global disorder of the 21st century do not just cut across continents. They run through countries and regions, and they have long shaped not only the political east, but increasingly also the west.

The clashes are less of a military nature than more and more of a technological, economic and social nature. An arms race and a race in many senses has begun. Who will be the first superpower of artificial intelligence? Who the first decarbonised economy and society? Who will dominate the infrastructure of the future? China or the United States under Joe Biden?

And what about these complex developments in Europe? And about Germany as at least the economic heart of the post-Brexit EU? These are the questions that concern Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, for many years and from many roles, whether as a historian, diplomat or FDP politician. Lambsdorff's perspective is shaped by lengthy stays in the USA, Russia and the European Union. Heads of EU election observation missions have taken him to Africa and Asia. He knows the perspective of the member of the European Parliament as well as the one in the German Bundestag, where he works today on foreign, security, European and development policy.

Prawns, whales and elephants

The international situation that Lambsdorff describes in the book “Wenn Elefantenkampf” is not new - but it is becoming more and more visible and increasingly palpable for individuals in Germany and Europe, whether as a consumer or as a citizen. On the one hand there is China, which today is in a position to use the mutual dependencies with the West in its favor, in economic policy, in trade policy or in media policy. On the other hand, there is the USA, which under Barack Obama recognized the rise of China to become a new superpower as a serious threat and has since tried to prevent it or at least to slow it down under Donald Trump and now under Joe Biden.

A new kind of cold war is the result. The battlefield is global again. Old acquaintances such as Korea and Germany can also be found among the affected nations. Lambsdorff quotes from the “Korea Herald” from June 2020: “A second cold war is looming between the USA and China. For the people of the seafaring and fishing nation of Korea, their adage threatens to come true: When two whales collide, the shrimp's spine is broken. " Lambsdorff transfers this to the situation in Europe and recalls an African proverb according to which the grass suffers when elephants fight: "We in Europe must fear that we will be trodden on as grass by two fighting elephants."

Is this an inevitable fate? Lambsdorff at least does not want to submit to that. On the contrary: He is not just behind Jean-Claude Juncker, who, as President of the EU Commission, demanded that Europe should become capable of global politics. He also names the steps that Europe must take in order to become the subject and not the object in the new East-West confrontation. Since, as is well known, good politics begins with looking at reality, Lambsdorff starts there: In Europe one has to understand that one still starts from a false premise - «the idea that our free way of life asserts itself against new imperialisms simply because of its attractiveness becomes".

The three percent target

Lambsdorff considers the belief derived from this that Europe is still the center of the world to be an illusion. Rather, he sees the geopolitical order radically changing. In order to survive in this new world, too, Lambsdorff is campaigning for more intensive transatlantic cooperation, as the journalist Thomas Friedman had geostrategically justified in the "New York Times" before Trump was voted out: What Berlin does, Germany does, and what Germany make, the European Union, the largest single market in the world. But the country - the USA or China - which succeeded in winning the European Union on its side in the competition for technological standards, trade rules and supremacy - this country would determine the rules for global digital trade in the 21st century.

According to Lambsdorff's analysis, fundamental preparatory work is required in order to put Germany in the mental position at all to take on this key role and, in addition, to pursue a foreign policy that allows Germany and the European Union to become a major diplomatic power, a medium-sized military power and an internationally networked team player to perform in the Federal Republic. For him, this includes a new structure of the public debate: based on role models among allies, a new federal government is to present a strategy paper one year after the election in the Bundestag, in which not only the goals for Germany in the world are defined, but also described, how these are to be achieved.

In addition, a theme week on foreign and security policy is to take place every year before the Munich Security Conference, in which Parliament deals extensively with global issues. And for “solid financing”, as suggested by the head of the security conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, three percent of the gross domestic product should in future be used for “international affairs” - for development cooperation, defense and diplomacy. Three percent! John F. Kennedy would have liked to have seen it - this transatlantic debate is so old. It will also shape the future of the West under Joe Biden. Because the USA is again in the elephant fight.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff: When elephants fight. Germany's role in the cold wars of the 21st century. Propylaeen-Verlag, Berlin 2021. 304 S., Fr. 37.90.