As Europe and Asia draw closer together, will the US become irrelevant or can it find a role as deal maker?
Bruno Maçães says the emergence of a Eurasian supercontinent need not leave the US out in the cold if it can capitalise on its outsider status as well as secure control over the connections across the new geopolitical landscape
A new supercontinent is emerging: Eurasia, the combination of Europe and Asia, stretching from Lisbon to Shanghai or Jakarta.
The ties binding it are partly about infrastructure, with new land and sea connections multiplying all the time. They are also about ideology, with the clear lines of separation drawn during the cold war now abandoned. And they are about trade, too. Most readers will be surprised to learn that trade between Europe and Asia – let’s call it Eurasian trade – now vastly exceeds transatlantic and transpacific trade. In most years, Eurasian trade amounts to nearly three times the volume of transatlantic trade.
Above all, the change is civilisational. For centuries, Europeans thought of Europe and Asia as two opposing worlds. Europe was modern, technological, fast-moving and fast-changing. Asia was the opposite: static, backward, undeveloped and hopelessly retrograde. Is this still the case? Hardly.
These days, you would be forgiven for thinking the roles have been reversed. In Brussels, people still need to learn how to use credit cards, while the Chinese look at credit cards as relics from the past. Beijing today looks increasingly like a city out of Blade Runner, simultaneously dark and gleaming.
Eurasia is fast becoming an integrated whole, but it still needs to be politically organised. China was the first to volunteer for the task. The Belt and Road Initiative is a mammoth project that could organise the supercontinent according to Chinese ideas. Almost limitless in its ambitions, it is bound to be followed by many other competing projects. India, Russia, Japan and Europe will have their own ideas.
What a time to be alive, you might say. Nothing quite compares to the scale of the endeavour. The effort to create a Europe-wide political order after the wars of religion in the 17th century pales in comparison, successful though it was. The development of the idea of the “West” after the second world war, also remarkable for what it was able to achieve, was smaller in scale.
Where does this leave the United States? As the central piece in the existing world order, you might think that it would have an interest in the continuing efforts to redesign the map of the world. The Belt and Road Initiative is openly presented as an attempt to replace the “West” with something new.
The threat is that the US will become an island in this new map. An integrated Eurasia would host three-quarters of the world’s population and more than two-thirds of its economic output. It would be home to most of the world’s resource-rich regions and concentrate most its high-tech development areas. World trade would be anchored in Eurasian trade, even more than is already the case.
In a world in which all of Eurasia came under the hegemony of one power – China – the US would indeed become an island, and a small and vulnerable one at that. If all the major Eurasian powers were drawn together and reached a loose form of association, the situation would be less desperate, but America would nonetheless become marginal and peripheral, both politically and economically.
You might say that none of these scenarios will materialise because Eurasia is and will remain deeply divided. Its major blocs espouse very different ideas, from the rigid liberalism of the European Union to the state capitalism of China and the corsair adventurism of the Kremlin, with endless variations in between.
That is true. There are many different and competing notions of how Eurasia should be organised. It is impossible to exclude the possibility that this great game will end in conflict, exactly as happened in Europe in the past when a similar question of political order needed to be solved.
But would that be better for the US? Of course not. In some respects, America is already an island on the shores of Eurasia. It cannot hope to isolate itself from the affairs of its larger neighbour, and its economy, at least, would find it impossible to delink from a war-ridden Eurasia.
If America is looking for a new mission, then that mission is staring it in the face. Just as it took up the task 70 years ago of building a new Western order, it alone seems capable of building a new political order for Eurasia as a whole – the most ambitious, the most exacting political project mankind has ever embarked upon.
By developing a new role for itself as the power behind the main political and economic projects connecting Eurasia, the US could hope to preserve its current power practically intact. In practice that would mean acquiring some form of control over the fundamental connections holding the supercontinent together: the companies operating across its geographies, the infrastructure and the political agreements providing for stability and cooperation.
If this Eurasian order is to be built, then it needs to be built by an external actor, one that can at least aspire to some form of impartiality between the parties. Which country could be better qualified for the task than the custodian of the previous system, separated from Eurasia by two oceans, the nation more powerful than any of the Eurasian blocs by itself but less powerful than their sum?
Under US President Donald Trump, Washington started to oppose China’s belt and road, but that should not be the endgame. That opposition can only make sense if America feels it can do what China has proposed to do better than China, and on a more durable basis.
Bruno Maçães, a former Europe minister in Portugal, is a senior adviser at Flint Global and the author of the Dawn of Eurasia