It is hard to believe, with the world (and especially The New York Times) laughing at us, that for roughly 2½ centuries Britain maintained the balance of power in Europe. But how? A balance of power, the young Henry Kissinger wrote in 1951, depends on two things: “an outside balancer with a profound conception of national strategy and unencumbered by ideological considerations” and “a large measure of agreement on basic values within the ‘concert of powers’ ”.
However, he added, before “you can have a balance of power there must be power to be balanced. The balancer must not himself be part of the equilibrium, except to tip the scale.” This, Kissinger argued, had been the case in the period after Napoleon’s defeat, when the balancer had been Britain and the power to be balanced France. But it was not the case in the early Cold War.
“At the moment,” wrote Kissinger, with the Korean War raging, “the United States is not a balancer but a direct contestant on a worldwide scale; and, moreover, not by choice.” Worse, the ideological element that was central to the Cold War precluded any kind of equilibrium. When a communist power confronted a capitalist one, “each side tend[ed] to play for absolute security, which mean[t] absolute insecurity . . . of its opponent”.
Nearly seven decades later, a lot has changed. But has it changed enough for America now to become the balancer — to play, in Kissinger’s words, “in relation to Eurasia the traditional role of an island power towards a land-mass — to prevent the consolidation of that continent under a single rule”? Perhaps.
The rise of China is the great economic and political fact of our lifetime — a rude awakening for those of us who thought it was the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1951, China was an impoverished backwater with a revolutionary government that Joseph Stalin easily duped into fighting on his behalf in Korea. Today, thanks to the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history, China is the superpower, Russia its junior partner.
There have been other great changes, to be sure. Shorn of their overseas empires, the European nations have still prospered economically — to the point that the EU has nearly as large an economy as America. But Europe remains militarily dependent on Nato, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last week. It could not defend itself against Russian aggression without American help.
The problem is that many Europeans no longer wholeheartedly believe in the transatlantic alliance. Partly, no doubt, it is because they cannot abide the personality of Donald Trump, a president who (not unreasonably) keeps asking why they refuse to pay their fair share of Nato’s costs and at the same time maintain tariffs and other barriers against American exports. But the Europeans didn’t care for George W Bush either. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Richard Nixon. As a general rule, Europeans dislike Republican presidents.
What is new these days is the magnetic economic attraction of China. One Belt, One Road (OBOR) — sometimes called the Belt and Road initiative — was launched by Xi Jinping in 2013 to expand China’s influence along the historic Silk Road. Although it has since morphed into something global in scope, OBOR’s core remains Eurasia. The Portuguese former diplomat Bruno Macaes has written a couple of good books on this subject, which clearly fascinates him.
The news that the Chinese have persuaded the Italians to join OBOR caused some consternation last month. Italian companies will get to build a power plant and a steel plant in China. The state-owned China Communications Construction Company will enlarge the port of Genoa and improve the port of Trieste. But this is hardly unprecedented. In 2009, Chinese firms leased and later bought a majority holding in the Greek port of Piraeus; and in 2011, the Chinese acquired a stake in the Portuguese state electricity operator EDP. Nearly all the EU’s eastern members have now signed OBOR memoranda of understanding.
Enter the new balancing power. On Twitter, the US National Security Council warned the Italians that “endorsing [OBOR] lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people”. On Thursday, secretary of state Mike Pompeo made a similar appeal to all America’s Nato allies. “We must adapt our alliance to confront emerging threats,” he said, “whether that’s Russian aggression, uncontrolled migration, cyber-attacks, threats to energy security [or] Chinese strategic competition, including technology and 5G.”
This is not so much the language of a new Cold War as the language of a new balance of power. China is the would-be hegemon, threatening to dominate the entire Eurasian landmass; America seeks to tip the scales the other way.
It is not Italy that is pivotal, of course, but Germany. In this twilight of Angela Merkel’s long reign, the dominant member of the EU confronts a profound dilemma. The Germans loathe Trump — to the extent that (incredibly) a majority of Germans now say they regard America as a bigger threat than Russia, which they depend on for a rising share of their energy in the form of natural gas. Even more importantly, Germany’s most powerful companies, led by the car makers, see China as the key to the future of their export-led economy, which is currently in the doldrums. BMW sells twice as many cars in China as in Germany. Not for the first time in its history, Germany looks to the east.
And yet, and yet. In January, Germany’s leading industrial organisation, the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie, warned that Chinese practices (for example, the systematic stealing of western technology) pose an existential threat. A year ago, a few German business leaders were whispering to me that Trump might, after all, be right about China. Now their politicians are implicitly agreeing.
At the European Council last month, EU leaders took the first steps to constrain China’s economic expansion in Europe, including a “concerted approach to the security of 5G networks” and new rules to address the “distortive effects of foreign state ownership and state-aid financing”. No prizes for guessing which foreign state they had in mind.
This is the global context within which the farce at Westminster — Carry On Up the Commons — is playing. Britain, once the balancer, now seems merely unbalanced, a discordant chorus alongside the concert of Eurasia. When a water leak stopped the parliamentary racket last Thursday I nearly called Kissinger up to commiserate. In 2016, we had both tried our best to look on the bright side of Brexit.
The irony is that when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 — as Kissinger recalls in his memoirs — “the British had told Nixon they might resume their historical role of balancing the continental powers”. As the world brays with laughter at the bungling of Brexit, that is indeed hard to believe.
Niall Ferguson is the Millbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford