Wednesday

12th May 2021

Column

What American decline means for Europe

There is something exciting going on in the United States.

Despite Donald Trump's four years of nationalism, Americans' opinions about the world haven't really changed.

Read and decide

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  • The decline of the US doesn't depend on the re-election of Donald Trump

The vast majority of Republicans and Democrats alike are still convinced that it is important for the country to remain involved in the global economy. Almost 70 percent of Americans believe it is important to consider the interests of allies. Even more Americans today consider it crucial to operate internationally than before Trump took office.

And yet things will never be the same again.

It will never be the same because the US is on the defensive.

The turnaround in the balance of power is forcing the country to adopt a different attitude. By 2030, the country will only represent 10-percent of global economic output, while China is likely to be the largest economy of the world.

A number of factors make the shift in the economic balance of power extra difficult. The US must come to terms with massive foreign debt and dependence on imports. And each new shock reflects income inequality and the chronic shortage of investment in vital infrastructure and services.

The current shift of power also forces the US to rethink its military strategy.

"Peace through strength," is still the motto. But the fact remains that the hugely-expensive war machine, with its aircraft carriers and stealth planes, has only barely any answer today to the formidable bastions of radars and missiles that Russia and China have erected.

China could exceed the US defence budget by 2030, if it spends at least three-percent of its wealth on defence.

The US is now trying to maintain its advantage in the Pacific through smaller ships, unmanned aerial vehicles and new missiles, but it will take years and a lot of extra money to put all the new military plans into practice.

To come to terms with that weakening, America would have to work on two things: effectiveness and alliances. Its effectiveness becomes a huge challenge as a result of internal divisions and armed radicalism.

Even if the majority of Americans are rather moderate, US society today resembles a parched prairie, almost waiting for the spark to ignite it.

Domestic insurgency?

Although the army is not allowed to operate inland, the question is being raised out loud whether the police and the National Guard will be able to control the armed militias in the coming years, or whether they are ready for an insurgency at home.

The next president will have to spend an enormous amount of energy on domestic instability.

The international alliances of the US cannot be taken for granted either. On the one hand, a series of economic disputes remain and both Europe and Asia are thinking about more strategic autonomy.

Current partners such as Nato, Japan and South Korea will also try to keep options open between China and the US for as long as possible.

On the other hand, a number of allies themselves are not well off. Japan remains a stagnant regional player and the populations in many European countries today has little to spare to maintain their own military power. Although now is the time to close ranks, there is a lot of doubt and strategic opportunism above all.

The consequences for Europe are immense. Strategic autonomy not only means a critical attitude towards the US.

Nor does it mean that we can allow the European institutions to formulate more expensive promises. It certainly does not mean that, as now, we are half-heartedly drifting between China and the US.

Above all, it means that all member states must be committed to making enormous efforts to close ranks in terms of trade and security. It signifies commitment and patriotism from all European citizens. It will either become real strategic autonomy or strategic irrelevance.

The outcome will soon become apparent in the coming years.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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