In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Bruno Maçães, a fellow at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels and a former Minister of European Affairs in Portugal who represented his country in Brussels during the eurozone crisis, the first Ukraine war, and Brexit. They talk about the Russian war in Ukraine, the geopolitics of Eurasia, the future of European strategic autonomy, and global rules-based disorder.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What have you learnt about Europe from the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Bruno Maçães (BM): I do not think there was anything too surprising. I hear a lot that Europe surprised positively because many people feared that the reaction of the European Union (EU) would be much more hesitant or showing lack of unity. It is still a bit of a puzzle for historians why Russia and Putin preferred to have a war that has no false flags nor a real attempt to divide Europeans.
These attempts started later – and could be more successful this and next year. However, in February 2022, it was just an open war of aggression followed by a genocidal policy in the places Russia occupied. In that context, what would be surprising would be if Europe did not react – and it did react very well.
Actually, Europe (including the United Kingdom) has extended more support to Ukraine (if we count military, humanitarian, and financial assistance) than the United States – and by a significant margin. Even the military support of the two sides had roughly comparable amounts. It does not come across in the public opinion as much, but Europe has stepped up from a place of lack of preparation over the past decade, which was a problem.
Obviously, when it comes to the military side Europeans were entirely unprepared for what happened. However, given that lack of preparation the response was quite strong. We will see if it can continue. Summarizing, I was not surprised, because given the way in which the war took place, I expected this kind of reaction.
LJ: Is the Russian war in Ukraine considered as peripheral by the Eurasian countries? Could it change the trajectory for this region?
BM: This perspective is not very common. Sometimes we forget about how things used to be. Ten years ago, we discussed European politics in terms of Franco-German relations, the road for Poland, or the differences between north and south. Right now, all of this looks quite distant and does not reflect the reality anymore. Now, we generally have Eurasian politics.
If we follow the news every day, the questions are all about what Russia will become (will it turn away from the West or become a new Iran or a Chinese economic colony), what role does China have in Europe – these topics are now at the top of the news. There are discussions about what kind of understanding can China and Europe have and whether Europe needs to align entirely with the United States on China question. There is a much broader landscape for analysis and the way these pieces interact.
Some of the important questions are how does the relationship between Russia and China affect the war in Ukraine and how does the future look like in terms of Russia-China relations? One of the interesting topics that now are discussed in Europe is how will the China-Russia entante develop. It is as if we are in the 19th century, and we discuss how different European pieces interact – Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Now, we have a similar dynamic but on the Eurasian stage.
There are, in a way, 3-4 blocs, and India has become central to our discussions – particularly, in terms of the war in Ukraine and India’s role in importing Russian energy and keeping the Russian economy afloat. Meanwhile, the United States have taken up the role that the UK had in the 19th century, because it is an offshore balancer – not directly involved with troops, which is reminiscent of what the United Kingdom used to do back then. In that sense, we do live in a Eurasian world. Our horizon has been expanded in the last ten years.
LJ: How would you frame the war in Ukraine from a global, geopolitical standpoint?
BM: There has not been enough effort in understanding the war as a historical development. I see it almost as an old-fashioned colonial, imperial war with clear elements of genocidal conquest, which many of the colonial wars in the past had – including some wars waged by Western European countries in other parts of the world. In that sense, there is nothing terribly new. There is still, however, a lot that is shocking.
In the grand historical narrative that we have built, we have defined ourselves against this world. We believed that it is a thing of the past. Therefore, this is how one should interpret the dynamics of this war in Ukraine: it is a war of national liberation and survival on the Ukraine side and colonial conquest on the Russian side – a part of the colonial project that has been ongoing for centuries, not just since 2014. People are starting to understand that.
Obviously, the United States are the guarantor of a different kind of global order, where, of course, power is present, but where all geopolitical conquest of territory is not part of the coordinates of the operating system of the American land order. Thus, the Russian invasion is a clear challenge. There is a danger to the United States that if the invasion is successful, the American land order would unravel. Russia does not have the capacity to replace it with anything else. As a result, China could have an opportunity – which it does not have right now and which it struggles with – is to build something new upon the ruin of the American land order.
In this dynamic, Russia is playing a destructive role, which could pave the way for China’s rebuilding the world order in its image. In that sense, similarly to what happened with wars in the past that have given the opportunity to the United States to build a new order on the ruins of a traditional European order.
There is a lot about the Russia’s invasion that is outdated, anachronistic. This, however, does not make it any less of a threat. What it means is that the existing world order is under threat. Whatever the ideas inspiring Russia are – and we may well believe they will not be successful in the end, but that is not the question – the question is the short and medium term and the absolutely destructive impact of the invasion.
LJ: If Europe was forced to face the Russian threat in the future with a smaller engagement from the United States (be it because of the developments in Taiwan or political changes on the national level), would the Russian threat be a unifying or dividing factor?
BM: This could be a real question a year and a half from now. I think the core of the European Union and the United Kingdom would stand by Ukraine. The support would not be sufficient for what Ukraine wants to do. It could be sufficient to keep Ukraine in the fight. The war could change, tragically, more in the direction of the guerilla/resistance war, which would be much more difficult for Ukraine. If that happens – if a Republican candidate wins and withdraws the support for Ukraine entirely – we will probably stop talking about Ukraine’s possibility to recover all its territory and the debate will become again as it was in the first two months, focusing on Ukraine’s survival.
I think most of the European countries will step up. It will imply dramatic changes in how we organize our economies. A quick ramping up of the industrial production in weapons (but not only) should be already happening. A very few European countries will probably abandon ship, saying that there is no longer any point. Of course, Hungary has already done that.
However, I think the core of the EU will remain united. The messages we hear from France, Germany, and Poland are reassuring in that respect – at least these three countries, together with the UK, would guarantee that the policy would not revert entirely to something else.
LJ: In this context, is the notion of strategic autonomy dead or just resting – to refer to the Monty Python’ dead parrot sketch?
BM: It is resting. People do not like this term, so the European Commission might come up with a new one. The idea should be appealing to Poles, but clearly it is not that popular in Poland. The way the idea was developed was not the best. In his speech for GLOBSEC in Bratislava, President Emmanuel Macron had a much better approach. He presented strategic autonomy as an insurance policy – not as an anti-U.S. policy.
People in Central and Eastern Europe must be aware that American politics has become entirely unpredictable. They have a character like Rama Swamy, who could become the vice president in the Trump administration – and then, could very quickly become the next president if something happens to Trump. He could even be elected president if Trump gets arrested before the election, as I do not see Ron DeSantis being capable of winning, whereas Joe Biden is quite fragile (and the latest polls show that).
Strategic autonomy is about Europe’s ability to act alone if necessary – not because of ideology, but as an insurance policy. This should be at the top of our agenda – not just in France, in Central Europe as well. It is a bit frustrating for me that we seem to be stuck with the way this discussion started, as we did not please everyone, but we should move on, because it is important.
LJ: How will Europe need to address the Chinese question?
BM: Most of the establishment in France and Germany has quite a different view on China from that held by the United States. We should not hide these differences. Many people in Berlin and Paris are unhappy with what they see as an excessively confrontational approach – in part, as I have heard many time in Brussels from EU officials, because the European perspective is fundamentally different.
We are not concerned with the question of global leadership, we do not see ourselves as a contender in that particular competition. It does not create the same anxiety to look at China as a contender, a potential rival, or as a challenger to the American order. Many Europeans would be comfortable with a certain rebalancing of global power – in contrast to the United States, which becomes immediately very anxious about any idea that a country could come close in economic, political, and military power to the U.S.
These differences will remain in place. They are not dramatic, but we should be conscious that they exist and they should be addressed head on. There is still plenty of room for reaching an agreement between Europe and the United States on China. I do not think, however, to have an agreement on everything.
President Macron does want emancipation, even though he does not always say it publicly, privately, he has been quite clear on this. Even if we do not agree with Macron that emancipation should be an exclusive policy, emancipation as such may still happen – whether Europeans want it or not, because the United States are changing very dramatically and quickly. It is not just the question of being focused on Asia, but also that the American political culture is changing.
Almost eighty years after the World War II, we now have a generation that has been brought up in an entirely non-European world, whereas the generation that is still in power was brought up in a different context, where America looked up to Europe as a cultural and even political reference. That has all changed and now it is a very different America. It is very different even from the time I lived there 20 years ago – the change strikes me as extraordinary.
It may well happen that the United States want to go in a different direction and then it will not be up to us. We will not be able to say that we preferred things how they used to be. We will have to adapt to a world where we will be much more alone and, then, it would be emancipation against the wishes of many Europeans, but I believe it would happen. Therefore, even though I disagree with Macron in terms of how he changed this concept into a problematic and ideological mission, he is talking about a real issue that we will face very soon.
LJ: Is a rules-based order a vision that we have because of the American hegemony and the Cold-War-based duopoly of power? What will the future world order look like?
BM: The Russian project wants to revert us to the world of real power, where, essentially, there would be no rules, but there might be temporary agreements between the great power. We have known this world in the past. However, I think that this project will not be successful. We will have rules, but the question is: which rules?
We should talk about a rules-based disorder. It is a paradoxical expression, but what it means is that we are going to have rules of some kind, but it is still an open question what these rules will be. China has an ordering vision for the world – it has many different ideas for how to organize the world order. There would be institutions, rules, and procedures. We would not like almost all of them, including the values that would be behind these rules and institutions, but it would not be a chaotic world of raw power in China’s vision.
So, which rules will dominate? I suspect there would be a balance between different perspectives. Perhaps we will talk about the world order as being shaped in 60% by the United States, 20% by China, and in 20% by Europe. Therefore, Europe needs to be actively concerned with what really matters to Europeans, try to infuse the global order with their own preferences, values, and favorite rules – which, in many cases, are different from those of the U.S.
We do not like to talk much about that now, during the war in Ukraine, but, for example, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) goes directly against what the European Union stands for. People might say that the EU also has subsidies – that is true, but we do not have subsidies that discriminate on the basis of nationality (and not just in the internal market). For instance, if we want to subsidize electrical vehicles and the green transition, we cannot discriminate on the basis of where they come from. The IRA in the U.S. discriminates in this regard openly and cheerfully.
Therefore, we cannot really say that we agree with the United States on the rules, but we do agree on many foundational rules – like transparency, individualism, and free market, among others. But there are also many differences.
We have to embrace the geopolitical project of shaping the world order. In order to have distribution of power between these agents and a balance that does not change into an open conflict. I do not think we can exclude China from the world order. It is not North Korea. We would not be able to do so, even economically.
I have been following closely how delinking is working out. There is a couple of very good papers that analyze that area. They show that we may try to exclude certain finished Chinese products, but then we would be importing finished products from Vietnam or Mexico that were manufactured with Chinese components. Thus, it is a bit of a Whack-a-Mole game. China is so large and its economy is so significant that I very much doubt that we can build a new world economy without any Chinese participation. And if China is going to participate, we need to see how.
This is how Europeans can contribute – to tone down the idea that by partnering with the United States we could make China disappear. Where I disagree with the discussion in America is not about the criticism of the Chinese regime, it is because we do not like it, we can make it disappear. On the basis of a realistic approach, I do not think it is possible. And if we cannot make it disappear, we need to find some kind of understanding where we defend our values and the things we truly care about. But China will still have a role in the global order, it is inevitable.
If we think about this situation as an automatic pilot, guided by software lines, then there are many programmers. Some will write most of the program, but they have to allow others to introduce some lines of code into the program.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.