Does a deterrent Europe pave the way to war between the US and China?

Near-peer competition, Large Scale Combat Operations, war for global hegemony: America First hits China Above! The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military and economic rise poses a nascent threat to US global supremacy. But why now? China is not a typical emerging threat. Its current capabilities are the result of a continuous, long-lasting development. How come the US itself fueled this growth for the last about 50 years? Is China rather a near-term competitor or a long-term challenge?

In his book “Over the Horizon”, David Edelstein sets out the thesis that nations generally prioritize near-term issues over long-term problems. Today’s problems overlap with tomorrow’s foreseeable catastrophes. Edelstein refers to examples such as the German and the British Empires. The urgency deriving from the German expansion led to the British Empire deprioritizing any American hegemonic challenge to an undetermined long-term future. German expansion brought with it two world wars. However, the transfer of hegemony from the British Empire to the US took place peacefully in the background of these wars. But what does that mean for contemporary challenges? And what is Europe’s role in this game?

The geostrategic chess-board

According to former US President Trump’s US National Security Strategy, the US faces two main competitors, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Digging a bit more into the details, one can learn that Russia needs, from a US perspective, to be countered by NATO. The alliance’s deterrent effect is to contain Russian expansionism towards Europe. This deterrent effect depends heavily on US deployments, financial and material support to the alliance, starting with the strategic nuclear deterrence down to maritime assets. On the one hand side, this alleviates the pressure on European nations to boost their defence expenditures. Europe is in the supporting role when it comes to deterring Russia on its own continent. On the other hand, propping up Europe’s defense distracts the US from the emerging competitor: the PRC.

Edelstein’s theory in practice

So what if Europe was capable of defending the European continent without external support? The US would potentially gain a “Blank Check” to counter its designated main adversary. In Edelstein’s words, the political decision-making time-horizon would extend toward countering the PRC. Available capabilities and forces, political freedom of maneuver, backed by a Europe emboldened with self-confidence: the scene is set for hegemonic competition between the US and China. Theoretically, a strong and self-sustainable Europe could be the next great power competition’s facilitator.

Back to reality

What can we Europeans learn from Edelstein’s concept? Would it not be legitimate for a pacified Europe to restrain from power politics in order to prevent a Chinese-US “Clash of Titans”? I beg to differ:  The probability of unleashing the US against the PRC cannot be a figleaf to maintain dependence on the transatlantic partner in security- and defence-related questions. An economically strong and autonomous Europe requires adequate armed forces capable of securing European interests independently. A dependent Europe might delay the great power competition between the US and the PRC, but it might also make “the old world” a wealthy but helpless victim. Unfortunately, the geopolitical chess-board equals a boxing-ring: you’re in it; you cannot just not stand there without fighting! So, let’s play the game for real!


Matthias Wasinger, Ph.D., is an Austrian Army officer. Besides, he is Editor in Chief of The Defence Horizon Journal. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Austrian Armed Forces, the Austrian Ministry of Defense, or the Austrian Government.

The Article is the sole work of the author. It does not represent the views of the Atlantic Community Blog or the Atlantische Initiaitive e.V.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash


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