Europe Can Moderate The U.S.-China Conflict

The Tre Oci Council convenes in Venice.

The Berggruen Institute’s Tre Oci Council in front of its namesake building in Venice, Italy. (Berggruen Institute)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

VENICE, Italy — Last week, the Berggruen Institute’s Tre Oci Council, so named after the building in Venice that anchors our European activities, met to discuss the evolving world order and, in particular, what role Europe might play in shaping it.

The group of 30, including online participants, comprises several former prime ministers and presidents, leading technology entrepreneurs and global public intellectuals.

The sense of the gathering was that the world is no longer converging as it was during the era of hyper-globalization, nor is it fully divergent. It dwells in a kind of purgatory where the extent of integration is itself the territory of conflict.

In this frame, America is no longer strong enough to impose a global order, but must persuade others to go its way. China is not yet strong enough to dominate.

One European leader described competition between these two power centers as “the new age of empires.” If Europe is to have any sway going forward, it must conceive of itself as an empire as well. Yet, despite decades of integration, it is not ready for primetime. It remains too fragmented to act as a cogent entity.

These two-and-a-half empires might be portrayed more accurately as Grossraum, or “great spaces” — distinct force fields of human energy and action that encompass moral taste, style of life, form of government and spirit of laws. In the end, the relationship among them will be determined by the overall balance of both hard power and soft power — not only military might but economic strength, internal cohesion and appealing qualities that attract the allegiance of allies.

Closely related to the notion of empire is China’s self-characterization as a “civilizational state” that rejects the universalist claims of a liberal world order in the name of the cultural legacy of its millennial past. Russia also fits into this category.

Historians at the gathering remarked on the irony of how we got to this point: Western modernity was the midwife of civilizational states because it brought the concept of the nation-state to civilizational realms that had not been delineated in that political form. As Wang Gungwu has written in Noema, the danger of clashing realms arises when national empires assert exclusive civilizational authority to legitimate their power.

Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. (Berggruen Institute)

One World, Two (Or Many) Systems

Much discussion centered around how to avoid the disintegration of one connected world into two, or many, systems by renovating the multilateral order as it presently exists. Paradoxically, it was noted that the “rising rest” these days believe more in the United Nations system than its founders in the West.

Even as it is hedging its bets by building up alternative institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, China so far still officially embraces the U.N. system as the basis of world order and provider of public goods from stable financial flows to climate.

As the place most practiced in sharing sovereignty, Europe could theoretically take the lead in renovating the current multilateral bodies so China does not depart from them.

For example, the voting quota of Europe’s post-WWII members in the World Bank and IMF is greater these days than their relative economic weight. One way of bolstering a common platform would be for those European powers to cede some of their ground to increase China’s vote quota commensurate with its place in the top ranks of the global economy. Even with such a gesture, it was pointed out, the U.S. would still have veto power over the rest when it comes to both policies and leadership of those institutions because it retains the highest single quota of votes.

Another way forward, some suggested, would to not be hemmed in by old institutions no longer fit for purpose. Instead, new inclusive multilateral organizations could be established, for example a Conference of Parties on AI not unlike the COP on climate. The technologists of the group doubted the near-term viability of this when both the U.S. and China are loathe to share sensitive information on regulating AI at this moment of high competition. Though limited to the West, the Trade and Technology Council, formed by the U.S. and E.U. to consider the terms of tech regulation, competition and cooperation, is a step down this path already in place.

Others warned that those calling for a new order to be built from scratch should be more realist. It is no easy task to construct the kind of U.N. system we already have. It would be wiser to inhabit it than abandon it. The lesson of history is that new orders can be constructed only after catastrophic events, such as the Second World War. Better to muddle through a less-than-optimal order than abide the illusion that systemic breakthrough will come before breakdown.

Generally speaking, Europe could play the role of an “honest broker” to keep both China and the U.S. true to the intent of the U.N. system as a common platform fair to all.

One salient point made was that it is not in the West’s interest to isolate China and create another Russian situation where it will strike out because it has been shut out. We should instead encourage and welcome China’s integration into an array of arrangements that retain links to the West wherever possible.

Managing Strategic Competition Between The U.S. And China

The group reviewed the idea of “managing strategic competition” between China and the U.S. as a thaw appears in the works with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Beijing. In discussions with the Chinese in other forums, however, they reject this phrase because it narrowly implies a military dimension. They prefer instead to speak of “managed competition” on all fronts, including trade and technology.

Chinese interlocutors also dislike the notion of “guardrails,” which they see as a form of containment by the West. Instead, they prefer, in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s phrase, a “safety net” to stem unintended clashes before they can occur.

What is needed from the Western side with respect to the trigger of Taiwan is “strategic assurance” to China that it will not cross its “red line” of pushing for independence. Here the most important thing for both Europe and those within the U.S. who want to avoid conflict is to tamp down reckless rhetoric, particularly in the U.S. Congress and European Parliament, that is unsettling Beijing even if the West continues to fortify the island province to make it a “porcupine” that can’t be easily swallowed.

Polls in Taiwan show that the extremes — those either calling for independence or for relinquishing autonomy to Beijing — are small minorities. The majority of Taiwanese want the status quo. In this context, those who are most loudly bent on defying China’s red line are putting the Taiwanese they want to help in the most danger. Better to leave well enough alone.

To cite one example given, China has felt it necessary to rapidly build up its anti-aircraft carrier defenses and its own active carrier fleet of two vessels to better balance America’s 11, some of which now regularly sail the Taiwan Strait. Insecurity about intentions is driving military expansion on both sides.

Taking the longer view, one participant argued that Washington fails to grasp Beijing’s fundamental perspective. Going back to the 1985 Plaza Accord that depreciated the dollar at the expense of the Japanese economy when it was approaching U.S. levels of GDP per capita, China’s leaders see a record of the U.S. trying to keep any power in Asia from rising to the point where it can challenge American dominance in the western Pacific. This, the Chinese will never accept. That perception stands behind the rivalry more than anything else.

Fareed Zakaria, Shashi Tharoor and Kishore Mahbubani. (Berggruen Institute)
Temasek Trust CEO Desmond Kuek and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. (Berggruen Institute)

Europe As Moderator Of U.S.-China Conflict

Overall, Europe cannot successfully “mediate” between the U.S. and China, but it can help “moderate” tensions. As one of the most globalized regions in the world, Europe could be a pivotal player if it took on such a moderating role. Though allied with America, the E.U. needs China’s market and China in turn needs Europe’s market. China further needs Europe to avoid total isolation from the non-U.S. West. Both give it unique leverage at this point in time.

A recent poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that most Europeans believe that the continent should remain “neutral” in the U.S.-China conflict. While they regard Russia as an adversary, they do not see China in those same terms.

For China’s part, it could recover some of the soft power it has lost by not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine through proactive cooperation on a key global issue, creating some confidence about future possibilities.

Here, as the Ukraine war heads toward a battlefield stalemate that many see as ending in territorial division like the Korean Peninsula, China could help broker peace by pressuring Russia to agree to an accord when the moment is ripe. Such an accord would not amount to “appeasement” on the part of the West since it has clearly pulled out all the stops with a massive armament of Ukraine to push back against Russian aggression. As a major creditor, debt resolution for the Global South is another area where China could initiate positive action.

Censorship In All AI Large Language Models

When the discussion turned to the geopolitical impact of generative AI, the question arose as to whether China’s censorship regime would distort its large language models from accurately reflecting reality. It was noted that LLMs will indeed carry the imprint of cultural-political values, not only in China, but everywhere. Different cultural zones with different values will censor different things. While the Chinese state might censor any criticism of the Party, in the West there is a kind of culturally driven “woke” censorship over sensitive speech on race and gender. In the Islamic world, there will be censorship over blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Each “great space” will align what is acceptable or not in its LLM algorithms according to their sensitivities.

The rapid acceleration of generative AI capacities has surprised even the technologists creating it. One concern raised is that too much regulation in Europe will kill innovation. Since generative AI is a “foundational technology” that will affect every realm going forward from medicine to defense to clean technology, falling behind in AI would be to fall behind across the board.

Yet, AI does need regulation as some, not least its creators, worry about an “extinction event” ignited by nihilistic players seeking to do general harm to society. That could come from self-programming and replicating AI or from a cult like the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan that gassed the Tokyo subway system in 1987.

One way to do this at the global level would be to establish the equivalent for AI of an International Atomic Energy Agency that aims to blunt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The problem with this analogy is that nuclear technology is highly capital-intensive and complex to build. And the IAEA system entails intrusive regular inspections at identifiable sites. In contrast, generative AI is widely distributed and available to virtually anyone with a laptop through open-source software.

A more viable immediate path would be self-regulation by scientists and technologists, such as happened at the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. It set a threshold of no irreversible intervention in the human germline above which they should not reach. In the case of AI, that threshold would focus on programming that could potentially lead to an extinction event. Beneath that threshold, innovations would generally not be inhibited. Here too, the problem is rogue players who now have a ready capacity to deploy potentially harmful technology even if there is mainstream approbation.

Considerations For Action

On the basis of this discussion, several recommendations were offered for consideration:

First, renovate the U.N. system to create a more sustainable balance of power within the present multilateral institutions to avoid breaking up into “one world, two systems” and prevent the isolation of China.

Second, given the unviability of establishing an IAEA-type organization that could successfully control a distributed technology, the place to start is an Asilomar-type conference that convenes the leading AI technologists in the U.S., Europe and China to establish consensus on a hard threshold that should not be crossed. On that basis, a Global Technology Commission that expands the purview of the limited TTC could be set up to monitor AI developments around the world.

Third, Europe should endeavor to act as a “moderator” of conflict between the U.S. and China. This must be preceded by Europeans arriving at a consensus about exactly what “de-risking” versus “decoupling” from China means in practical terms. This summer, the European authorities are preparing a strategy paper as the first step in forging a common strategy among its diverse members.

Finally, a concerted effort should be initiated to make the case for the “common threads” of convergent interests that resists the anti-internationalist political constituencies who promote nationalistic approaches at the expense of others as the solution to challenges that can only be met by common global action.