The end of the year gives space to reflect on the events and trends that have shaped them. In 2021, it was again the COVID-19 pandemic, recently revived by the Omicron variant, an ongoing process of climate change that intensified pressure to achieve net zero emissions and geopolitical tensions, particularly the rivalry between US and Chinese powers. On all these fronts, 2021 was a year of decline.
Although the year 2020 was difficult, it ended with reasons for hope. Effective vaccines against COVID-19 were deployed, the United States had a new president who, unlike its predecessor, recognized the danger of climate change and the value of American alliances, and NATO was preparing its new strategic concept. Active action to address the challenges facing the West seemed a viable option. However, over the past year, these challenges have escalated and multiplied.
The unprecedented global social experiment caused by the pandemic, including confining people to their homes, has put severe strains on businesses. Deepening polarization is ripping apart democracies.
Nor does it help that, even in countries where liberal democracy has taken root, governments have seized extraordinary powers, a trend whose pernicious effects are likely to persist long after the state of emergency has ended. In addition to the unquestioned psychological tax of obstruction, abuse of power can have lasting consequences for future public support, including citizens’ perceptions of the social contract. US President Joe Biden recognized the threat to democracy around the world and recently held a virtual summit on the topic (with a questionable list of guests). However, as some experts have noted, restoring democracy will require something more fundamental.
On the economic front, the recovery has been quite asymmetric, with some economies making significant progress, while others are desperately trying to survive. Supply shocks and sharp fluctuations in energy prices, along with the new wave of travel bans and blockades, are generating a lot of headwinds. Amid rising financial risks and inflationary pressures, regulators and international financial institutions are being forced to strike a delicate balancing act.
The lack of effective multilateral action during the pandemic, which has manifested itself in the vast differences in access to a vaccine, has further underlined the global system’s lack of capacity to meet common challenges. The disappointment at COP26 in Glasgow completes the sad picture.
The decline in confidence in international cooperation could not have come at a worse time. Russia is massing its forces near its border with Ukraine. And as China acts with increasing assertiveness, the risk of conflict in the western Pacific continues to grow.
A series of virtual summits failed to ease tensions. The new security mechanism, the Free Alliance of the Four Major Democracies in the Indo-Pacific and the AUKUS Defense Agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, lacks the clear vision and comprehensive approach needed to ensure stability.
In this context, more asymmetric wars and geopolitical turmoil can be expected in 2022. The Chinese Communist Party is preparing for its 20th National Congress in October, and its leaders will likely continue to offer cooperation in addressing common challenges such as climate change, while vigorously resisting Western efforts to deal with influence growing country.
Transatlantic relations are far from improving. For example, the Biden administration did not announce last month that it would lift tariffs Trump has imposed on European steel and aluminum. According to the latest Transatlantic Scorecard, published by the Brookings Institution, US-European relations have fallen from an average of 6.6 (on a scale of 1-10) at the end of June, to 5.3 at the end of September.
It is up to Biden to demonstrate his administration’s determination to restore transatlantic relations. But that is unlikely to happen soon. American political tradition dictates that presidents focus more on foreign policy in their second term, when they do not face re-election. Biden remains preoccupied with low popularity, the parliamentary elections in November, and the possible return of Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
That is why Europe must revive its pressure in 2022 to ensure greater strategic independence from the United States. Although a growing sense of vulnerability could help unite European minds in this regard, success is not all that easy, not least because European foreign policy has not been driven de facto by long-time German Chancellor Angela Merkel 16 years later. .
Merkel’s successor, Olaf Schulz, recently met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, and they formally confirmed their shared ambition to strengthen the “strategic sovereignty of the European Union.” But the gap between saying and doing is often wide in Europe, and France and Germany may no longer be the main drivers of the European Union. In post-Brexit Europe, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has made shrewd maneuvers to highlight his country.
Despite the importance of Europe’s strengthening of its strategic independence, it should not turn its back on the United States. It certainly should not try to locate a middle ground between China and the United States. Europeans cannot forget that securing peace through prosperity and prosperity through open exchange is a basic paradigm. But this model relies on flexibility, and there is little room for ambiguity or negativity.
There have always been some disagreements between the United States and Europe, and that will not change. However, they share common values, similar institutions, and the challenges they face are more complex than ever. Sincere reflection, including recognition of the West’s democratic failures, is required for us to move forward together.
The writer is Ana Palacio, former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank Group.
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