For large parts of history, Europe was the dominating power in international politics. Since World War II, most of Europe has continued in that role as part of the U.S.-led Western world. Now, this basic historical truth is slowly coming to an end, and a new scenario looms: one where Europe is not a pillar of world affairs but a territory that risks being pulled asunder between the United States and Asia.

Most Europeans have no political instinct for what it means to be in such a geopolitical quagmire. But with the emergence of a new world order that takes its cues more from the power games played out in Asia than from those in Europe, they might soon be forced to rethink. How can Europe avoid ending up in the undesirable position of being trapped between two rival blocs struggling for dominance?

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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Europe can learn from its own history and from its politics of today. Being part of a geopolitical buffer zone is the most dangerous and most politically volatile position a country can be in. Poland knows this better than most. Germany, too, has memories of being a disputed territory during the Cold War (and, much earlier, during the Thirty Years’ War).

Most recently, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have been feeling the pain of being squeezed between Europe and Russia, two blocs that are not just rival powers but also representatives of different mentalities and political cultures.

Historically, resilient countries, such as Poland and Georgia, have typically tried to get out of their geopolitical traps, with mixed success. Less resilient states, such as Ukraine and Moldova, have often aligned themselves with the status quo, partly because they have lacked the power to make their own decisions, and partly because that has allowed them to keep the internal peace in societies that are economically and culturally on the brink.

What does this mean for Europe in the Asian century? As China emerges as a new political center of gravity in Asia, its desire to influence European affairs increases. That is because it is politically interesting for Beijing to have a say in a rich, innovative, and productive market such as Europe. But it is also because stronger Chinese influence in Europe weakens the U.S. empire and Washington’s normative (and military) dominance of world affairs.

At the same time, the United States, while still keen to preserve some basic stability across the Atlantic, has less and less interest in its cousins in the Old World. America needs to focus more on Asia, and Americans have a decreasing understanding of the strange ways of the Europeans, who refuse to be the transatlantic partners America thinks they should be.

In the emerging power rivalry between China and the United States, Europe could become a territory torn between the economic lure of Asia and its own traditional ties with America. In the worst case, Europe could end up being a very big Ukraine. And just like Ukraine, Europe could then be forced to make terrible choices between two blocs that would tear it apart.

To be sure, such a scenario is perhaps simplistic, and it is certainly not just around the corner. But some of its building blocks are already in place: a weakened U.S. interest in European affairs, an increased Chinese presence and political investment in Europe, and diminishing European aspirations and capabilities on the global stage. Domestically, Europe suffers from weak demographics, stalling economic strength, vanishing military power, and more and more signs of political atomization.

For two generations now, since the end of World War II, Europeans have no longer been in a position to decide autonomously where they belong in world politics. Luckily, they found a fairly benign hegemon after 1945, the United States, who would go to great lengths to keep them safely protected in the Western camp.

Europe has made substantial contributions to this geopolitical positioning, not least by pacifying itself at home through the European Union. But as an independent player at the geopolitical level, it has long ceased to exist. Europe depends on the United States for its security, and even for its internal stability, whether it likes it or not.

The trouble is, of course, that America itself is relatively weaker today and finds the massive subsidy it pays into the European security market increasingly burdensome. If that subsidy disappears or becomes too weak to make a decisive difference, Europe’s position in the free Western world is at stake.

So, if Europe wants to avoid becoming an in-between territory in the foreseeable future, it must start to fight for its attachment to the West. Luckily, it has many tools at the ready to do so.

Europeans can invest in closer economic ties with the United States by embracing transatlantic free trade, or in closer military ties by engaging through NATO. Europe can relieve America of some of its duties as a global provider of stability by becoming a more capable foreign policy player in its wider neighborhood. Europeans can increase their own resilience by reforming their sclerotic economies and their budding but flawed democracy.

Europe can prepare itself psychologically for future conflicts by developing a strategic mind-set for the Asia-dominated era the world is entering. And it can prepare geopolitically by investing in Asia’s political architecture and by realizing that Asia is more than just China.

So far, Europeans have not taken any of these steps decidedly enough. Europeans do not yet feel the pain because the transatlantic relationship is still halfway functioning and China’s political investment in Europe is in its early stages. The future of China itself is also much less certain than it looks, with domestic stability increasingly at risk.

Yet Europe should take a good look at its own history and at its Eastern neighborhood today to understand the dangers of being in an in-between position. In Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia today, just as in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere in the past, there are lessons to be learned for the geopolitical struggles that Europe might face soon enough.