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Sep 29, 2022

Transatlantic Relations in the Asian Century

While the center of economic gravity has already moved to Asia, Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has reaffirmed Europe’s role as the center stage of international affairs.

A building damaged by a Russian missile strike is reflected in a window broken with shrapnel, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine in central Dnipro, Ukraine September 11, 2022.
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The Asian century is here. The global center of economic gravity today is already in Asia. Much of the world’s population is in Asia, and for the United States the sole “peer competitor” is in Asia. This is, of course, China, which has shifted in American foreign policy from an undemocratic partner to an antagonist.

For US foreign policy, Asia, then, is the place in which challenge and opportunity collide. The challenge is that China may try to displace the United States as the leading Indo-Pacific power, either through an invasion of Taiwan or through more gradual techniques of advancing Chinese interests. The opportunity resides in the enormous claim Asia has on the future of commerce, of technology, and of innovation. Former US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was supposed to take into account the opportunities and to recognize the challenges of an Asian century. Former President Donald Trump neglected the opportunities, focusing only on the China challenge. President Joe Biden came to office certain that Asia would dominate his foreign policy in one way or another—ideally as a set of opportunities, but quite possibly as a China-driven threat or challenge.

Biden was not entirely wrong. China’s great ambitions and its economic clout have started to frame US foreign policy. Biden has approached the issue of American competitiveness in new ways, not just as an internal good but as a necessary component of US China policy. Haltingly, Washington has tried to fashion greater strategic autonomy from China, i.e., by bringing certain kinds of industrial production back to the United States. The Biden administration has also devoted substantial effort to building its network of allies and alliances in Asia, from Australia to India and South Korea (which Trump regularly antagonized). Japan has been an indispensable part of these alliances as well.

Even US alliances in Europe have been redefined in recent years, with Washington arguing that much more attention needs to be paid to Asia. Germany, in particular, has started to take a less trade-dominated approach to China, not only because of US urging, but certainly in part because of it. It is obvious that Asia plays a far more considerable role in US grand strategy in 2022 than it did in 2012 or 2002.

The Return of War

However generously acknowledged in Washington and elsewhere, the Asian century took a pause on February 24, 2022. On this date, Russia invaded Ukraine (for a second time after 2014), launching the largest and most dangerous war since 1945. It is a war with many global implications, and to that degree it is a war that matters in Asia. India has continued to trade with Russia and to buy arms from Russia. China is hedging, hoping perhaps to see the West weakened by it, yet clearly disturbed by Putin’s war.

As the war drives up energy and food prices, as it threatens to descend into nuclear brinksmanship, Asia is not insulated from it. Should Putin fall in Russia, plunging the country into internal chaos, the effects in Central Asia and in Asia would be profound. The war’s vortex of instability, which has been experienced first-hand in Europe, would spread to Asia. But the very significance of a European war—with Europe being the place in the 20th century where two world wars began—demonstrates that the Asian century will be a European century, too. And in ways Biden himself did not anticipate, the 21st century will be another American century as well.

Euope’s Global Importance

Why do wars in Europe have the potential to go global? A simple answer might emphasize Europe’s immense stature circa 1900. For the first half of the 20th century, Europe was the world’s locus of wealth and power. Through empire, Europe was connected to the entire world. Much has changed, of course, since 1945. Other centers of industrial and financial might have emerged, many of them in Asia. Decolonization decoupled Europe from the world and the world from Europe, leaving commercial ties, but breaking many of the old political bonds. The United Kingdom, for example, had an empire in 1900. Today it politely convenes the Commonwealth. Germany once had vast military ambitions. Since 1945, it dedicated itself to being a productive member of the European community. Seemingly, a war in Europe would be no different in the 21st century than a war in Asia or in the Middle East. It would be no less likely to spread outward.

Yet, the war in Ukraine has spread outward. Two factors explain its global importance. The first is practical. Ukraine lies at a global crossroads. Its destiny affects the European Union countries to its west; it affects Russia to its east; and Turkey to the south. Within the international system, it is a pivotal building block. Its role in global commerce is anything but trivial. Many gas pipelines run through Ukraine, and when the gas flowed freely (before the war), it subsidized the European economy. Europe has lost these subsidies, and that will bring economic turmoil. Ukraine is also a major producer of foodstuffs, and even though an agreement was brokered to release some of Ukraine’s grain, this deal has been tenuous and could easily still collapse. Already, Ukraine’s difficulties getting past the Russian naval blockade have driven up food prices in the Middle East and Asia. Should the war become wider, as it is on the verge of becoming, inflation and hunger will be the result. It is not just the ability to move these foodstuffs that matters. It is the Ukrainian harvest, which the war will disrupt in every way.

The second aspect of Ukraine’s global importance is theoretical. Ukraine is a precedent for 21st century international affairs. If it is partitioned or destroyed by Moscow, Russia will have shown that the UN Charter and the rules-based order may apply in various places, but their application is very far from universal.

Might makes right: that would be a familiar recipe made modern. Europe has countless unresolved territorial disputes. It is a patchwork quilt of ethnicities and nations. It has relied on a respect for borders and for national sovereignty to maintain the peace. Russia is trying to reverse this. Should Ukraine be able to regain its sovereignty and should Russia emerge from the war chastened, it will be much more questionable as a precedent or as an international code of conduct. It is not much of an overstatement to say that the future of the international order, for the next several decades, will be determined on the battlefields of Ukraine.

The Center Stage

The Biden administration sees the war in Ukraine through a global lens. The United States is pouring money into Ukraine, and it is outstripping European countries in its provision of military aid. Not all of this is about Europe. Part of what motivates American support for Ukraine is the hope that Ukrainian success will have a deterrent effect on China—that Beijing will be scared off from invading Taiwan if Russia fails to conquer Ukraine. No less than the countries of Europe, the United States cares acutely about the precedents that are being set in Ukraine, because these precedents will be felt in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have a similar view of the conflict, which is why they have given their own support to Ukraine’s military and imposed costs on Russia for its invasion. Their sympathy for Ukraine is real. But it is also the international order in Asia that concerns them. A Russia, backed by China, that is on the rampage would be bad news for Europe to be sure. It would be bad for the rest of the world, too.

The key consequence of the war has been clear for US foreign policy. Europe is center stage. Europe takes up the lion’s share of the White House’s time. The European alliances marshaled to help Ukraine are the crucial alliances—for the foreseeable future. Taiwan is a hypothetical preoccupation of the US military. The war in Ukraine is the everyday preoccupation. Europe may not matter more than Asia structurally. As long as the war is raging, however, the war will make Europe matter much more than Asia operationally. The Biden administration has not had to pivot to Europe. The Obama, the Trump, and the Biden administrations had never left Europe. If there has been a pivot it has been psychological. For too long, US policymakers could treat Europe as one of the problems that had been solved. Now they are learning the global dimensions of Europe’s unsolved problems, which emanate out from the Ukrainian-Russian relationship, the Russian-German relationship, the Russian-EU relationship, the Russian-NATO relationship, and the US-Russian relationship. These problems will not render Asia invisible. They will, however, force the United States to regard Europe as it has for most of American history—as the center stage of international affairs.

Michael C. Kimmage is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America and author of The Decline of the West: An American Story (forthcoming).