It was not so long ago that French President Emmanuel Macron declared Nato to be “brain dead”, that Europe was “on the edge of a precipice”, and if the continent did not “wake up”, its peoples might “no longer be in control of our destiny". He was far from alone.
Britain’s departure from the EU was widely viewed as a catastrophe that seriously weakened the bloc, while former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt criticised the EU for “always acting too little too late”. In 2020, the US-based Atlantic Council asked “Is Nato still relevant?”, and many wondered whether the alliance really would collectively go to war if one its newest members – North Macedonia, or Montenegro, say – suffered a border incursion.
Now the consensus is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united both Europe and the much-expanded Atlantic alliance as never before. Germany has managed to slough off its historically understandable semi-pacific stance, with its parliament voting last Friday for a constitutional amendment to create a €100 billion ($107bn) defence fund. "This is the moment in which Germany says we are there when Europe needs us," said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Even critics of Nato enlargement can see the logic now of Sweden and Finland applying to join.
On the back of the Aukus security pact between the US, the UK and Australia announced last September, there is now ambitious talk of a “global Nato”, with British Foreign Minister Liz Truss particularly vocal on the subject. “Nato must have a global outlook, ready to tackle global threats,” she said in a speech in April. “We need to pre-empt threats in the Indo-Pacific, working with allies like Japan and Australia to ensure that the Pacific is protected.”
US President Joe Biden may not be particularly popular at home, but it would be easy to believe that the American-led world order has found its mojo again, and is now prepared to go on the offensive to secure its dominance for decades to come. This, however, would be an illusion for two reasons. Firstly, the “world” has not come together over Ukraine. Europe, most of the Anglosphere and their allies have, yes. But much of Asia and Africa has remained essentially on the sidelines, partly because of degrees of reliance on Russian arms and the grains supplied by both Russia and Ukraine, and partly out of a sense that they do not wish to take sides too strongly over a far-away conflict that is not of their making; and anyway, both continents have plenty of their own crises to deal with.
Secondly, a US- and Europe-led world is simply not sustainable for long. By mid-century, and definitely by the end of the century, the Earth will be a hugely different place. Take Europe. According to one survey, EU 28 countries – that is, the current EU members plus the UK – made up 13 per cent of the global population in 1960, but are predicted to account for only 4 per cent by 2100. Similarly, while they accounted for more than one third of global GDP in 1960, by the end of the century that is expected to shrink to less than one tenth.
Modelling by Bloomberg has China outranking the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2035, with India overtaking Japan as the third largest by 2033, and Indonesia taking fourth place and Brazil the seventh by 2050. Multiple studies suggest that Africa’s population will triple by the end of the century, and that even by 2050, two in every five children will be born in the continent.
Now all sorts of predictions could be upended if climate change wreaks its worst.
A World Economic Forum report forecast that if global temperature rises by more than three degrees by 2100, “Australia, North Africa, and parts of the western United States might be entirely abandoned”, the equatorial belt would become “mostly uninhabitable”, Himalayan, Alpine, and Andean glaciers would have almost disappeared, resulting in acute water insecurity, more people would be starving than ever before, and “whole countries [would] suffer from epidemics of stunting and malnutrition". That is quite apart from likely wars over resources and dystopian visions of wealthier societies locking down borders to keep the hungry masses out.
If we avert disaster, however, the balance of populations, the relative size of economies, and the order of power will be unrecognisable. How could the US still be the global hegemon if it makes up only 10 per cent of the world’s GDP in 2100? If India and China vie for the top position with about 20 per cent and 17 per cent apiece, they will undoubtedly shape whatever global order exists at that point in ways almost unimaginable today.
I make no particular judgement about what that world will be like, other than the obvious one that the peoples of what are currently developing nations will have long insisted that absurdities such as having a UN Security Council that is four fifths composed of European or European-settled countries are done away with.
Europe and the US will have a different place in that world. A more equal one, it is to be hoped, based on merit, good neighbourliness and contribution to global solutions. But it will be nothing like the coalition of the victorious West that some currently appear to envision. A revived Europe and a more globally active Nato may be the course for a few years to come. But if not the very last hurrah, it is the first of the last hurrahs of the political-security order founded after the Second World War. We shall see its passing before long; the current unity and flurry of activity should not deceive anyone otherwise.