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?
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.