There is no such thing as a story without struggle. And no struggle without sacrifice. An imposing narrator compels the audience with a challenge: the task of protecting and promoting the values that are the fabric of its communal identity against the forces that undermine it. Crucially, it explains the dues that must be paid to get there.
One of China’s signature discursive moves is to frame Europe as part of ‘the West’, tying together the European and American destinies as one. It then follows up by emphasising that the West is hegemonic, meaning uncontested in its military, diplomatic or economic might. By pointing out ‘the West’, it invokes another character: The Rest. It frames the struggle of the Rest very differently from the struggle of the West. The Rest is preoccupied with economic development and the cultivation of basic security and order, whereas the West has a far more ambitious agenda: the West works towards a universalist normative world order, in which it itself is able to stay geopolitically dominant. The Rest struggles against domination, the West struggles for it.
This dichotomy serves China well. Casting itself as the champion of the Rest, China enjoys some of the prestige of leadership, without bearing all of its responsibility. When it comes to fighting climate change, China claims a role of leadership on the one hand – a point proven by Xi’s 2020 speech to the UN General Assembly (CGTN, 2020) – and reminds the world that it is ‘merely’ a developing nation on the other, arguing that for this reason it cannot bear an economic burden proportionate to that of fully developed economies. It does the same when it comes to global trade: China must prioritise its struggle against poverty over carrying the responsibility for leadership in multilateral trade governance, and so not all WTO rules ought to apply to China. Criticism is easily framed as the hypocrisy and decadence of the hegemon.
China’s ‘the West versus the Rest’ dichotomy should be unsustainable. China is already, and will increasingly be recognised as, one of two remaining superpowers. The other superpower, Europe must confess, is not ‘the West’; it is the United States of America. Trump broke the narrative spell of the ‘unbreakable’ Transatlantic bond (Schaik & Dams, 2020), but the China factor played its part, and will continue to expose Transatlantic divergence in administrations to come. Despite pressure on European leaders to align their China policies with Washington’s push for decoupling, the EU and the US have a structurally different strategic outlook on China. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which the EU concluded with China to much American chagrin, is the latest proof of this.
Not only does China’s ascent challenge Europe to recapture the values it used to propagate as universal within a particularist narrative, but it also slowly unhinges the main narrative and power-political anchor of Europe’s self-image as a global geopolitical player: its relation to the US. Whether Europe is ready or willing to adapt to this reality is a question of real and urgent concern. This not only requires the build-up of material capacity to leverage autonomous geopolitical decision-making, but also requires European leaders to deal with the gradual untangling of the narrative of ‘the West’ (MSC, 2020).
Structural changes in the ‘narrative constellation’ (Schiller, 2019) of world politics provide Europe with opportunities too. Much depends on which struggle Europe chooses to engage in. There are at least two stories of struggle to pick from.
The first narrative will be pushed by Washington in years to come, and should prove difficult to resist for Europeans, given the standing its narrator President Joe Biden enjoys amongst European audiences. Biden’s world is divided into two blocs, along hard, ideological lines: democracies and authoritarian states. The first bloc is or should once again be led by the US, the second’s vanguard is China. Taking the moral argument for granted, that authoritarian advance must be stopped for the survival of democracies to be safeguarded and, acknowledging that the US cannot lead ‘by force’ alone, Biden concludes the US must lead the world by example and by alliance. In so doing, it will:
renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World … bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values. …
Working together, democracies can and must confront the rise of populists, nationalists, and demagogues; the growing strength of autocratic powers and their efforts to divide and manipulate democracies.
A ‘Concert of Democracies’ has been proposed many times, by many authors, ever since the early optimism of the end of the Cold War faded (Daalder & Lindsay, 2007). Biden’s play stands or falls on European leaders’ willingness to provide a supporting act, as no global alliance of democracies is fit to exert significant power on China without the EU’s support and that of its member states. This implies a number of things.
European leaders can leverage their support for the ‘Concert of Democracies’ storyline to their advantage, as Biden seems to acknowledge that he needs his European partners most of all. Then again, China will counter such a strategy by arguing that a Concert is merely decoupling in drag: an attempt by the US to force third countries into a new Cold War against China, supposedly on ideological grounds, but really driven by the West’s will to maintain power. This could alienate the democratic countries of the world that do not want to decouple from China. A storyline of diametric-ideological confrontation goes against the EU’s chosen strategic ambiguity, which frames China simultaneously as a cooperation partner, economic competitor and systemic rival (European Commission and HR/VP, 2019). This framing suits the EU’s priorities well, as fighting climate change and a strong post-COVID-19 economic recovery make close cooperation with China a necessity. More fundamentally, American and European narratives on China’s ascent diverge, because European and American narratives of ideological, systemic confrontations in times past differ far more than we like to think. From Washington the Cold War looked quite different than it did from Berlin, or indeed, Beijing.
The second narrative of struggle Europe may choose to adopt is far less obvious but all the more interesting. It recasts Europe as the champion of the Rest. It argues that European civilisation has for centuries been the playground of empires battling for hegemony. The EU is the institutional embodiment of the idea that power can be used to defuse, rather than dominate, great power strife.
In our time, the world is yet again confronted with an episode of tragically escalating battle between two hegemons. Most of the world, however, consists of countries like the European member states that would be painfully torn in a new Cold War. Most European societies have no interest in, nor longing for, a world dominated by hegemonic confrontation, split along ideological lines. Much the opposite is true. After the second world war, the United States had two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves, three-quarters of its capital and more than half of its manufacturing capacity, while the USSR had effectively cut its economy off from the world, and the European economy was devastated (Leffler, 2019). Now, China is the world’s biggest economy, with deep ties to Europe.
In 2019, an ECFR survey (Dennison, Leonard, & Lury, 2019) asked EU citizens ‘if the European Union were to fall apart, what would be the biggest loss?’ After the benefits of the single market, the most common answer was ‘the existence of a European bloc to counter superpowers like the US and China’, followed by ‘EU countries working together on climate change’. A Eurobarometer survey (Schulmeister, 2019) of the same year reported that two-thirds of EU voters believed that membership had been positive for their country, and yet, most Europeans believe that the European project could collapse within the next 10-20 years. The most recent Eurobarometer survey points out that two-thirds of EU citizens believe that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the Coronavirus pandemic, and that an absolute majority support a larger EU budget to overcome the consequences of the pandemic, which should be spent on public health, economic recovery and climate change (Schulmeister, 2020). Europeans have no problem pointing out the struggles they want their leaders to fight and seem increasingly aware of the sacrifices needed.
Referring back to Brooker (2004), the literary world is structured around several basic plots or narrative structures. The Quest is one, the Iliad being the prime example of a storyline in which a hero set outs to find treasure, facing temptation and obstacles along the way. The Monster story is another, Beowulf being a famous example of a hero who sets out to defeat and destroy an evil enemy. The European struggle against hegemonic strife ought to be framed as a quest, a heroic hunt for treasure – in this case, a future of peace. This implies two things: a strong narrative of struggle refers to history – and European leaders could do that far more – but always reaches for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; the EU’s narrative of struggle must be strongly focused on the future. Here, it must explicate the dangers of hegemonic strife and warn against the obstacles and seductions on the way forward.
As the next chapter will show, Europe would limit itself needlessly if it adopted a storyline of ‘fighting monsters’. Rather, by virtue of its historic example, and by force of alliance, the EU could brand itself as a linchpin of leverage for the Rest to curb the rivalry of the Two, countering both American and Chinese narratives that push European countries into a position of ideological conflict and pooling efforts to fight the global crises that are at the top of European citizens’ worried minds. The aforementioned surveys show a call to action, as well as a cry for narrative, that European leaders would be wise to heed: proselytise the value of the EU in its struggle against global threats and hegemonic strife. Explicate, furthermore, the costs of ‘strategic autonomy’ in terms of the collective sacrifices needed to defend the European way of life, and viscerally explain the treasure that lies waiting at the end of Europe’s quest: peace.