Everything around us will be different. For us Europeans, all will change on the international scene, because in Beijing, Washington and Moscow, nothing is the same anymore. The pandemic is either changing the situation or speeding up old trends.
In the United States, the “pivot” is not new. It was under George Bush that, tired of the Iraqi adventure and no longer aspiring to anything but withdrawal, the Americans began to refocus on Asia by not opposing the entry of Russian troops into Georgia. Europe was no longer their business. Afterwards, Barack Obama went on to declare that the Middle East was no longer their business either, since the most striking decision of his presidency was his refusal to ground Bashar al-Assad’s air force despite the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The United States has been unwilling to be the world’s policeman for some 15 years now and, with an economy that needs to be revived, a public debt that continues to soar and very difficult political and budgetary choices to be made between now and January, the next President of the United States will certainly not be redeploying the American umbrella over Europe.
Whether it is Joe Biden, Trump again or someone else, he will have to close it a little tighter because he will have priorities to set, savings to make and perhaps even the temptation to reach an agreement with Russia in the hope of blocking its rapprochement with China. The best that Europe could hope for from the next host of the White House would therefore be the search for a sharing of duties in a reinvented alliance, but, in any case, we will have to consider more than ever before the possibility of a European defence, the joint investments it would entail and a common policy in the Mashreq and in the Maghreb. Both in Algeria, destabilised by the collapse of oil prices, and in the Libyan anarchy, or in the face of the vacuum that the ruin of the Iranian economy will create in the Middle East, we Europeans will have to assume our responsibilities and we can only do so together.
The United States is going to force us to come into existence and Russia could at the same time put us in front of a new alternative. In Moscow well over a year ago, opinion polls showed that Vladimir Putin was running out of breath. It was not, and still is not, a sudden plunge. The decline in his popularity was clear and steady because the Russian standard of living has been hard hit by Western sanctions and because the impasse that has resulted from its interference in Eastern Ukraine cannot flatter national pride as much as the annexation of Crimea.
The Russians are concerned about this. They also wonder where their president’s involvement in Syria will lead them, and because of a mixture of social discontent, the erosion of a personality who has been in power for two decades and the questions about the Kremlin’s adventurism, a malaise had already been rising in Moscow when the pandemic increased it tenfold. Vladimir Putin had to indefinitely postpone the constitutional referendum from which he was expecting a political rejuvenation. There is no longer any solid political presence in Moscow, neither institutional nor presidential. Ambulances are queuing up in long lines in front of hospitals incapable of receiving the victims of Covid 19 because this regime has allowed the collective equipment and first of all hospitals to fall into disrepair. The popularity of this team has not increased and, at the same time, the prices at which a barrel of crude oil, Russia’s principal resource, fall, are emptying the coffers while the difficulties of the Iranian theocracy are currently depriving Vladimir Putin of the only ally he has in Syria.
In Moscow, all the lights are turning red and this is why the Europeans may well soon have a choice to make: either to seek a security and cooperation agreement with Russia or let its president, first option: seal an alliance with China; second option: move closer to Washington over our heads or, third option: press ahead with further interventions outside Russia’s borders.
This will not be an easy debate among Europeans, since Paris, Berlin and the whole of Western Europe would like to reach a new Helsinki agreement with Moscow, but this prospect alone terrifies all those countries of the Union that have emerged from the USSR or the Soviet bloc.
Then there is China. The dominant point of view is that China is strengthened by its victory against the virus and by the relaunch of its industry, that it is far ahead of Europe and the United States in these achievements. These facts are not debatable but, apart from the fact that China is no more protected than anyone else from a second wave of the epidemic, it will have to face four problems at once. The first is the loss of prestige of the Communist Party and its leader who are guilty of having thrown in prison or making disappear the doctors who wanted to sound the alarm. The second is the decline in its exports due to the slowdown in the economies of its main customers. The third is the hostility of candidate Trump, who is looking for a scapegoat to point out to American voters. The fourth is the desire of the United States and the European Union to relocate strategic production in order to ensure their sovereignty.
That is a lot. Many elements of instability persisted already in the “Chinese pact” under which the party retained a monopoly of power in exchange for the continued enrichment of the population. This does not mean that this regime is under threat, but it needs to regain ground and if its difficulties increase, it would not be inconceivable that it would want to flatter Chinese nationalism by asserting itself in the South China Sea, Hong Kong or even Taiwan.
In that case, it could not be ruled out that Washington and Beijing would engage in a power struggle, that Chinese exports would be severely restricted as a result and that the German and, by extension, the European economies would suffer. China, once a country of the eternal ascent, has ceased to be one since the start of this pandemic. This is the deepest and most uncertain of the three changes ahead of us.