The United States Empire, built after World War II, was based on its economic and military domination, which remains. But over time it has begun to fray.
The challenge by China on aspects of emerging technology and other economic fronts is one example. But increasing competition from European powers is another.
There have been two approaches the US ruling class has taken to try to defend its empire.
One was exemplified by the path of the former Donald Trump administration. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal upset the Europeans, who wanted to do business with Iran, but were prevented by his threat of sanctions against them.
Trump also scorned previous international agreements, including with Europe, and embarked on a path of seeking bilateral agreements with other countries, not multinational ones.
His “America First” rhetoric often included derogatory comments about Europe.
President Joe Biden has sought another course, attempting to shore up the US’ role as an international leader through multilateral agreements, with the expectation that the Europeans would accept, without exception, Washington’s positions.
But this, too, is not what it once was.
Foreign Affairs magazine is published by the Council on Foreign Relations — a think tank for the ruling class that includes a wide spectrum of views. A number of the magazine’s contributors have pointed out that there is no going back to the pre-Trump days.
Other countries are now wary of Washington, fearful that US elections every four years could reverse its course and any agreements, as happened with the election of Trump.
In a speech to European leaders in late January, Biden attempted to get them fully on board US plans to confront China and Russia. Biden said “America is back” and ready again to assume leadership of the transatlantic alliance with Europe.
This was reinforced by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Europe, when he demanded European nations join the US in a bloc against China. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear there would be no economic bloc against China, Blinken beat a hasty retreat.
Almost simultaneously with Biden’s January speech, the European Union (EU) announced the tentative renewal of its trade and investment agreement with China. China surpassed the US as the EU’s leading trading partner in 2020.
The new agreement would give European businesses greater access to make investments inside China by equalising each party’s allowed investment in the other. It would also streamline trade. European businesses welcomed the agreement.
The new agreement has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament. Behind the scenes, Washington is trying to scuttle the agreement by pressuring EU countries to not ratify it.
The US was aided in this effort when the EU parliament sanctioned Chinese officials in late March over Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghur. China retaliated with its own sanctions against individuals in the EU Parliament who raised opposition to the agreement.
Whichever way the debate in the EU Parliament goes, it is unlikely to affect Germany’s and France’s commercial relations with China.
According to Germany’s Foreign Office in June, China was, “once again, Germany’s most important trading partner in 2019, with a volume of trade of almost 200 billion euro.
“In the face of international crises and mounting global challenges (including COVID‑19, climate change), great importance is attached to German-Chinese cooperation and coordination under the comprehensive strategic partnership.
“China views Germany both economically and politically as a key partner in Europe.
“The regular high-level coordination of policy in some 80 dialogue mechanisms, as well as dynamic trade relations, investment, environmental cooperation and cooperation in the cultural and scientific sector, are key elements in bilateral relations.
“Germany also advocates closer relations between the EU and China and increased EU unity towards China.”
Germany does officially disagree with China’s human rights and other policies, but these disagreements are separate from its policies listed above.
France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs said: “Investment in both [France and China] is booming. France has a long-standing presence in China (foreign direct investment stock of 27 billion [euros] in 2017) in all sectors, including agrifood, industry, transport, urban development, major retail and financial services.
“More than 1100 French companies are present in China where they employ around 570,000 people.
“Chinese investment in France has grown significantly in recent years… A total of 700 subsidiaries of Chinese and Hong Kong companies are set up in France and employ 45,000 people.
“France supports Chinese investment that creates jobs and forges long-term, balanced partnerships. The economic partnership is reflected by the consolidation of structuring industrial cooperation in civil nuclear energy and aviation … [a]nd its expansion into new sectors (sustainable development, health, the economics of aging, innovation and financial services).”
It list other areas of cooperation, such as scientific and technical, combatting emerging infectious diseases and space satellites.
“Over 3000 researchers from the two countries and from 600 research units cooperate within some 60 joint public research structures. In the area of artistic and cultural exchanges, the ‘Croisements’ festival has become the most prominent foreign festival in China”.
Germany and France are not likely to join in any attempt by the US to form an economic bloc against China.
A major source of tension between the US and Germany is the construction of new pipelines to deliver natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, called Nord Stream 2.
There are already two such pipelines delivering gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, called Nord Stream 1. Nord Stream 2 would greatly raise the volume of gas delivered.
The construction of Nord Stream 2 is almost complete, and gas is scheduled to start flowing by the end of August.
The US has been opposed to the project from its beginning, and the Biden administration is frantically stepping up pressure on Germany to cancel it before it is completed.
Washington claims it would give Russia control over gas going to Europe. But it doesn’t object to the gas pipeline going from Russia across Ukraine to Europe.
Russia’s plan is to bypass Ukraine, by building other pipelines, including Nord Stream 2.
One of the reasons the US is opposed to the new pipelines is that they would cut off the rent Ukraine charges Russia to allow the gas to flow across its territory, a source of financing for the US client state. This rent raises the cost of the gas.
Getting gas cheaper directly from Russia is the main reason Germany supports Nord Stream 2.
What Washington really opposes is not that Russia could potentially cut off supplies (a far-fetched danger that would be against Russia’s interests) but Germany’s increased control over more gas flowing from Germany to the rest of Europe.
The US regards Germany as much more of an economic competitor than Russia.
The US is also opposed to Nord Stream 2 because it wants Germany to buy its liquified fracked gas. Since liquifying gas and shipping it in pressurised containers across the Atlantic comes at a cost, Germany would pay more for it than for gas from Russia.
Blinken has even threatened Germany with sanctions unless it cancels the project. Is this a bluff? Any sanctions against Germany would cause anti-Biden hostility to grow among the German people.
A possible wild card for Germany is the German Greens. The German Greens moved to the right years ago, and stand for supporting the US drive against China and Russia (and subordination to the US generally), and want Nord Stream 2 cancelled. (By contrast, the US Greens ran two socialists for president and vice president in the 2020 elections on an anti-imperialist program.)
How this struggle plays out in the next weeks and months remains to be seen.