A Strategic Feasibility Test: Is the Old European Dream of Peaceful Multilateralism Dead?

CSDS In-Depth 

Miriam Katharina Heß, Roderick Parkes, Florence Schimmel, Elisabeth Suh


Any big strategic shift requires due diligence by the EU. Given the war in Ukraine and gridlock in global institutions, mainstream opinion in Europe expects the world to polarise, forcing the EU to decouple itself (or at least diversify strongly away from) a China-led bloc of authoritarian regimes and invest more heavily in coercive forms of international interaction in support of the United States. But there are still sceptical voices, not least in Germany. To them, the diagnosis of a “new Cold War” seems deterministic and might underplay the scope of traditional EU attempts to localise and regulate power politics. These sceptics are yet to flesh out an alternative path, and yet that should be the core of any due diligence exercise. Agnostic about whether the EU should brace itself for bipolarity, we here test the feasibility of what we term “the German alternative”.

The evidence does indeed show that globalisation is giving way to contestation and confrontation, and the EU must take a ruthless eye to its past assumptions about the path of future progress. Global bipolarity is of course one path for world affairs – but not the only one. Global order is currently structured around messy multipolarity. We explore an alternative focused on building (inter-)regional norms of mutual constraint. In judging the feasibility and desirability of this path we focus less on “passive” indicators – global megatrends – than on identifying political opportunities for the EU as an upper-middle power to actively steer events. We do find scope for the EU to localise and regulate power politics, exploiting the vulnerabilities of China, Russia, and the US when operating in each other’s neighbourhoods. But it is harder to fulfil this than to line up behind the United States.