In the 21st century, the world has relied on a delicate balance of power, with the United States, China, and Europe playing key roles in maintaining economic and political stability. However, since the departure of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2021, Europe has experienced a noticeable absence of leadership on the global stage. The Russian invasion of Ukraine further isolated Europe politically, hindering its relationships not only with Russia but also with China and other non-aligned countries. As a result, the global post-war order and its institutions have come under attack, leaving a significant void that needs to be addressed.
The dissatisfaction with institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), G7, and the United Nations has been evident among major powers such as China, Russia, and even the United States under the Trump administration. The lack of European leadership at the WTO, for instance, has been particularly felt amidst the U.S.’s inward turn. Additionally, the Brexit vote in 2016 weakened the push for free trade, as trade negotiations between the EU and the UK became more bureaucratic and protectionist. This inward focus has driven Britain further away from its potential global leadership role.
The lack of European strength is perhaps most evident in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin explicitly pointed to Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO as significant factors that led to the conflict. Germany, a key player in engaging with Russia, faced limitations due to its dependence on Russian natural gas imports. Russia used this leverage as a threat, dissuading German involvement. Furthermore, Germany’s decision to rely on Russian natural gas after Fukushima and the subsequent cutoff of that supply diminished its economic leadership while driving up energy prices. This has placed the European economy at a disadvantage compared to emerging powers such as India and Southeast Asia.
Europe’s ability to engage as an equal partner with China has also suffered. Differences over Ukraine and internal divisions within Europe have hindered any meaningful negotiation channels with China. The divide was evident during separate visits made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron to China in April, which the Chinese used to highlight European divisions. Even the upcoming EU summit with China pales in comparison to President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. for the APEC Summit, where Europe was marginalized. Europe’s diminished role in engaging with China limits its capacity to act as a mediator or broker in international conflicts.
The lack of a clear European position and the inability to act as a third-party broker hinders Europe’s involvement in the Middle East and Africa. Internal divisions among European countries over conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas conflict paralyze the region, preventing Europe from engaging both sides or calling for a unified ceasefire. Consequently, China has stepped in to offer engagement and mediation in the region, while regional states like Qatar have taken on intermediary roles. France, on the other hand, has found itself outmaneuvered in West African relationships by Russia, which seeks influence through arms and energy sales as well as military support for governments.
The world urgently requires a more engaged Europe, capable of acting as a unified force on the global stage. Despite the shifting balance of power to countries like India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, the current multipolar world remains unstable. Europe’s historical role as a mediator, economic powerhouse, and broker of peace is indispensable. It is crucial for Europe to address its internal divisions, re-establish strong leadership, and actively contribute to maintaining global stability in the present.
The decline of European leadership has left a significant void in the global order. Europe’s absence as a political leader, coupled with the challenges faced by global institutions, has contributed to an unstable world. Europe’s limited engagement with China and its struggles to act as a mediator in international conflicts further underscore the need for a more assertive European presence. As power dynamics shift and emerging nations rise, the role of Europe cannot be undermined. It is imperative for Europe to rediscover its leadership potential and actively contribute to shaping the global order to ensure a stable and prosperous future for all.