In 2019, the EU labelled China a ‘systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance’. What does that actually mean in plain English? Is it just about European democracy versus Chinese authoritarianism? Or is it about China and Europe having competing visions of the global international order? Because if the definition of ‘systemic rival’ includes any state challenging the multilateral, rules-based European approach to global governance, then shouldn’t that label also be attached to the United States?

On the one hand, it’s absurd. Systemic rivals? European states are democracies sharing core values of freedom and human rights with the United States. We’ve been partners and allies for generations. Trump may declare trade wars on Europe and gripe about defence spending, but those are surface differences. There’s more that unites us than divides us.

On the other hand, is it so absurd? The Trump Doctrine, if it can be described as such, argues that naked self-interest by all free nations will organically produce a more peaceful, harmonious world order. Well, the world certainly doesn’t feel more harmonious in January 2020. To the EU (conscious of the dark places nationalism can lead) Trumpism clearly represents a rival system. So, how is the US not a systemic rival?

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Mikko arguing that the US can be both Europe’s ally and its rival at the same time. This was also the point made by the European Commission when it labelled China simultaneously a systemic rival and a close “cooperation partner” – one does not necessarily exclude the other.

To get a reaction, we put Mikko’s comment to James Bindenagel, a former US ambassador and now senior non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund, as well as a Henry Kissinger Professor at the University of Bonn and director of the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG).

Is the US, like China, a “systemic rival” of Europe? What would he say?

No. In China, you have a commitment to state capitalism and less concentration on values. The willingness of the Chinese people to accept that, and to increase their living standards in order to better survive, means they tolerate things that we won’t in the West.

On our side, we have disagreements when it comes to things like NATO, but those are manageable issues as long as we can keep our commitments to the common values of peace, liberties, and human rights…

What exactly is Trump’s vision of the global order? And is it completely at odds with the EU’s vision? When President Trump spoke in front of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, he argued that the “free world must embrace its national foundations. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them… The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”

We had a comment from Olivier, who thinks the EU should take inspiration from Trump and adopt a “Europe first” approach in response: “I just think that Trump is not so bad. He defends American interests and the American middle class. He is doing the job American’s ask, and they want America first. That is exactly what the European middle class want: Europe first!”

To get a response, we put Olivier’s suggestion to David O’Sullivan, former Ambassador of the European Union to the United States (2014-2019). Would he agree?

Well, I think we in Europe have learned that countries putting their nation first does not always end well. Which is, I think, why we have tried to invent a new business model for the continent. We recognise the importance of national identity and culture, and our countries will always be unique – France will be France, Italy will be Italy, Portugal will be Portugal – but there are ways of cooperating which deliver better outcomes for our citizens than trying to compete or be antagonistic with one another. I think the European Union is an excellent demonstration of that.

Respectfully, when President Trump says that the future does not belong to globalists but rather to patriots, I would say that globalists can also be patriots. What is best for your country? What makes your country safest? I think it is international cooperation. It is acknowledging that our neighbours – our immediate neighbours, but also even faraway countries – have legitimate interests, and asking how we can cooperate in a way that takes account of that.

So, I think you can reconcile globalism with patriotism. Putting your country first does not mean that you see that as antagonistic to other countries; what is in your country’s best interest may well be to promote a world in which there is collaboration and cooperation rather than confrontation or even war between nations, which is where some of that thinking has led us in the past.

Is the USA now a rival of Europe? Should the EU take inspiration from Trump and adopt a ”Europe first” approach? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: BigStock (c) Dilok; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Bindenagel (c) CISG CASSIS Uni Bonn

62 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    Now? Hasn’t it been always?

  2. avatar

    Now it isn‘t. The reason we are living in wealthy countries is because of their support. Europe is turning back USA.

    • avatar

      You mean Europe turns its back on USA? No we don’t. It’s just swagger and bravado, but we ain’t actually stupid. In terms of values, we see different nuances of the same color. Today we lean to progressivism, they lean to conservatism. Tomorrow roles could be switched, who knows what’ll people vote.

  3. avatar

    It’s something worse, a bad ally/partner

  4. avatar

    “now” has been for decades.
    “now” has just starting to become evident to the EU politicians, who are sleeping at the wheel. Then again, there’s nothing much they can do. Germany is practically military occupied by USAn fores.

  5. avatar

    No. If USA is now a rival of Europe, what would you call Russia? EU and USA have their differences but to say that this makes them rival is simply unfounded.

    The Trump Doctrine vs EU isn’t in conflict either. As David O’Sullivan said, national identity and culture can work hand in hand with cooperation. There is nothing wrong with “USA first!” or “Europe first”. Putting your country first doesn’t mean hating other countries, it is absurd to expect a country to be a self-sacrificing saint at the expense of its own citizens.

  6. avatar
    Franz M

    No, not rivals, but we share no fundamental values with Trump. Especially if he is re-elected we will have to assume that the American electorate or the electoral process respectively is not reliable seen from a liberal democracy stand point.

    In any case I would welcome an EU indepenent frum the US in terms of defens and foreig policy. Akigned as often as possible, but nkt dependent anymoere.

  7. avatar

    No of course not. EU should stand with the USA. They are protevting já for a long time. I dont trust Europian polítics

  8. avatar

    USA interferes too much and violates privacy of people One country itself cannot control the world Sh*tdogs Sh*t on everything what’s beautiful

  9. avatar

    As one of my friends from Europe told me, thank heavens US presidents only get two terms tops. Keep calm and ♥️

  10. avatar

    It’s Europe’s rival, but it’s EU master. Here’s the point.

  11. avatar

    Another sign of europe’s preoccupation with itself.
    Europe and – especislly EU is becoming less and less relevent to the USA..the last decade and a half has seen the inexorable rise of China and the equally inexorable decline of europe. terms of growth…share of world trade…political engagemrnt and influence in all the fast growing economies (eg Africa).
    USA retains its leadershio position due to its economic and military strength…but its focus is increasingly eastwards…not westwards.

  12. avatar

    Why “Now”?! Obama and Trump are 2 sides of same coin when it comes to the effect of their politics on the EU, no matter which of the two is more direct in speaking. Actually concerning american influence, the EU is currently influenced mostly by the effects of what happened during Obama’s times (check rise of anti-EU right wing parties), and less by what Trump is doing. The effects of Trump administration are yet to come.

  13. avatar

    No, not rivals, but we share no fundamental values with Trump. Especially if he is re-elected we will have to assume that the American electorate or the electoral process respectively is not reliable seen from a liberal democracy stand point.

  14. avatar

    Rival in a negative sense?-No, rival in a normative ‘want to better yourself/nation/team… yes’. Does not every country want the best for its citizens?

  15. avatar
    Corrado Pirzio-Biroli

    I agree with David O’Sullivan. But I wish to add that a new factor : Populism It has spread in the US and several European countries and may continue to do so for some time. The internet of things should have helped democracy, but has made it more difficult to manage. Manipulating the internet helps autocracies. Populists steer public opinion by playing on its darker instincts. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back. Populism currently feeds national rivalries. Trump will have a lasting influence in the US, in contradiction with its check-and-balances system, as well as in the World with his opposition to multilateralism and his unpredictability, uncontrolled by Congress. As long as leaders attach priority to personal (reelection) interests ,and politicians to party interests, democracy is in question and loses out to populism. This is no model to convince autocracies to change their ways. In economic matters, notably trade, Trump is the most dangerous leader today. Lets hope that his paranoia and unpredictability does not engender worst conflicts. Where is the EU in all this? In political matters, the vanity of its politicians prevents it from having a common defence and a common foreign policy and the lack of financial integration with an Eurobond prevents the Euro from playing a larger role as a world currency, leaving the US capable, through the dollar system and connected sanctions, of imposing their will on everybody else’s trade. This is one reason why Trump can be so dangerous for the international economic system. But weakness, and tradition, keeps European criticism in check and allows to keep up the illusion that Europe can continue to leave its further integration,for tomorrow.

  16. avatar

    I do not believe that the USA and EU are rivals. I think that these two have been partners and allies for years, and have maintained a good relationship with each other. In the beginning of the article it was debated whether the EU and China were systematic rivals. The EU and China have many competing opinions and different methods of government. The EU and the USA are nowhere as close to being rivals as the EU and China. However, I do believe that after Trump’s election the Americans have become more self-interested, and Trump has aided in the progression of the American’s nationalization. At the United Nations General Assembly Trump said, “The future does not belong to the globalists. The future belongs to the patriots.” This is a perfect example of American ideology, and though it is bold I do not think that is opposes the EU’s beliefs: The EU is made up of countries, and like the USA all the leaders of the countries in the EU put their country first. Putting your country first does not mean hating other countries. If this were true all countries would be rivals with each other. I agree with David O’ Sullivan, the former Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, that the EU has a progressive and advanced way of thinking that the USA does not possess. As well as looking for what benefits their citizens, the EU is also looking for what benefits the globe. They recognize individual and cultural identity, but also know that there is a way through collaboration that everyone can benefit. The EU is looking to expand in terms of Globalization which I think that the USA should also adopt. David O’ Sullivan said, “When President Trump says that the future does not belong to globalists but rather to patriots, I would say that globalists can also be patriots.” I agree with this statement and think that the USA will greatly benefit from realizing that it is possible, through international cooperation to continue to put your country first, while actively seeking to better the world.

    • avatar
      Jay Emcee

      Again, I as an American will site an example of harmful nationalism using the metric system. Mainstream Americans are discouraged from using this elegant, universal and rational system that we are the outliers in for the SOLE purpose of sticking our tongues out to the rest of the world. That’s not patriotic – That’s raw stupidity.

  17. avatar
    Jay Emcee

    Hey Europe –
    If you’re ok with American influence, can you return the favor and help get us off of our god awful medieval measuring “system” here? I truly HATE not having access to the metric system.

  18. avatar

    Look up: What does the US do for Nato? on BBC

  19. avatar

    Yes. The EU must cut its dependency from the US. The US is no longer reliable and it is our biggest enemy. As long as Trump is gone, the EU should try to normalize the relationship, but nothing will be the same from this point.

  20. avatar

    USA has been a rival to Europe at least from 1941 and probably even from 1916.
    The EU doesn’t cover all of Europe, by the way, but should still be able to manage it’s own business just like e.g. China and Russia do.

    • avatar

      EU won’t be capable of managing its own business until it can prevent local interests from engaging in obstruction (like what occurred in 2008), and can actually act in a unified way (like what failed to happen in 2015), and can prevent foreign interference in its internal affairs (which Russia amd China have been able to demonstrate that Europe cannot manage).

  21. avatar

    Reverse the order and you would get a big like. EU dreams to rival the US but doesn’t have how to do it.

  22. avatar

    No. Rivalry is when you have two equal sides. The average Western European lives better than the average American but the USA is still the most powerful nation in the world second to none in terms of military power, science and technologies, medical research, space conquest, economy, GDP per capita and many other things. The only thing we Europeans are better than Americans is the better education, affordable healthcare and separation of religion and state. If the USA had a welfare system and irreligious population they would have been untouchable on the top and no country would be able to even come close to them ever. The EU is subordinate to the USA. The most powerful nation in the world is the USA and the most powerful union is the British Commonwealth.

    • avatar

      A rivalry is the state of two people or groups engaging in a lasting competitive relationship.

    • avatar

      British Commonwealth?! Serious? It may exist..but only on paper

    • avatar


  23. avatar

    The relations between the USA and Europe have been at their lowest during the Obama presidency. Under Trump, relations are honest and fair.

    • avatar

      ever heard of diplomacy? Honest and fair ? Stupid!

    • avatar

      I don’t think it makes sense to argue. Have a nice day.

    • avatar

      i didn’t argue. And the stupid is not you . Have a nice day you too, thanks

  24. avatar

    No and never has been. Europe aspires to be a rival of the United States. It will get there when it is a federal state.

  25. avatar

    USA has been a rival of EU markets ever since EU markets were about to have closer ties with Asia and become larger and stronger than USA.
    A few coups followed – like in Ukraine and in HK.
    USA demanded EU place sanctions on Russia and China (for the chaos they themselves caused), and the EU market growth crumbled, and it was no longer threat to USA.
    All that happened as UK was a big part of it.
    Now as UK are gone, we should put EU’s interests first again.

  26. avatar

    The EU shouldn’t be afraid of the USA. We have a bigger population, a bigger GNP, more solidarity and hence more equality, we have a higher level of free press as well, etc. The only thing the USA has, is an offensively oriented army, but when they will need to face China for instance over Taiwan, they can have as many aircraft carriers as they have, they cannot beat the Chinese defenses in their own backyard. All the world knows already that there has been a power shift towards the East, the Americans cannot or don’t want to see this reality. Hence the EU should federalize further and build an own military power, that can function independently from NATO. Now the English have left us, this will be finally possible. Most probably, Scotland will join us again and later the English as well, but then they will need to accept our terms, being a member state of a federal EU. Our guture looks bright…

  27. avatar

    EU is trying to become United States of Europe.. No thanks.

  28. avatar

    No,the U.S. isn’t, but Trump is.

  29. avatar

    Yes. The US together with its little sister, the British Empire is our foe

  30. avatar

    Thanks to orange man everyone is against everything bravo

  31. avatar

    I think it’s also a question of mindset: the US sees rivalry in everything, in their eyes, everyone is a competitor and a potential threat. But the EU is always more collaborative, with the US and with most other countries, and that is smarter and better for everyone, particularly in these days of global threats, whether it’s a virus or the climate, rivalry is the threat and cooperation is the key. As Johan Smet argued, the EU has a bright future, if we can manage to contain the US bully.

  32. avatar

    It has always been… Do you discover that… In the 60 s US À backed all the décolonisation movements to replace France everywhere in Asia and, Africa. In Egypt during the suez crisis they stopped British and French but increased their influence in Middle East.. They always prevent Europe to be a diplomatic and military force… Germany depends on USA for their de fence and never opposed to USA. UK did the same for historic reason…. It’s time to make Europe a military diplomatic and economic power… I consider that USA is our worse friend and Russia our best enemy…

    • avatar

      to be fair, lots of the decolonisation to undo the French empire was backed by the Soviets and the communist bloc more broadly. Algeria wasn’t us. Ho Chi Minh wasn’t one of ours. And Carlos the Jackal definitely wasn’t one of ours.

    • avatar

      right.. But usa always supported décolonisation movements to finally take over..

    • avatar

      they always play with the devil ‘. They create Ben Laden to fight Russia. They supported Ho chi min they supported FNL. Definitively they like to put the world in fire..

    • avatar

      No. Not always. In Vietnam, we supplied the French with arms. In Indonesia, we backed the Dutch. In Malaysia, we backed the British.
      The most famous place we didn’t back the colonial power during the cold war was during the suez crisis.

    • avatar

      the “play with the devil” thing was not unique to the US. The British backed pretty much everybody (including the Saudis) to get rid of the turks from the middle east. The the Germans did exactly the same during wwii. Meanwhile, the soviets were backing Mao who ultimately turned against them. And Mao backed the Vietnamese, who also later turned into strategic rivals.

    • avatar

      yes.. Then I feel more friend to Russians than to americans

  33. avatar

    Always have been. Trade wars. Each country wants what is best for it. The EU makes commercial competition arduous for countries it has no agreement with or countries which aren’t part of big trade regions or customs unions

  34. avatar

    Obama’s TTIP implies that they are allies and not rivals. Take Trump away and everything will fall into place

    • avatar

      thats the point

  35. avatar

    Fortunately that’s true. But 1. the US was never part of the EU. In relationships this matters. In 2 generations perhaps not anymore but now it does.
    2. Trump wont stay forever and the positions of the USA and the EU in the world are changing.
    3. A new trade agreement is necessary to the well functioning of both unions.
    4. The evolution of Americans and Europeans is less close to eachother as it used to be. A popular example is use of guns or equality.

  36. avatar

    Hm…it seems western Europeans have very short memory… If there was no USA, Nazis or Communists would swallow whole Europe… If there was no USA, western Europe would not be able to stand on feet! Do not be ungrateful! USA is not a rival nor enemy, but Russia and China are! Europeans need to wake up before it is too late!

  37. avatar

    USA is not a rival of Europe for it is the puppeteer.

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