The Dawn of Eurasia

Eurasia is a new political reality. Even a determined effort to trace its history and prehistory will not take us more than a century back. We are perhaps celebrating its first centennial, but the suspicion is that in the century now beginning the Eurasian world will play the critical role for which geography has no doubt prepared it.

There have always been attempts to bring the whole supercontinent together. The stirrings of Alexander or Genghis Khan were basic expressions of the longing to break the divisions between east and west. Even Columbus wanted to reach the Far East by sailing west. Vasco da Gama had the same dream and tried a third route.

With the age of European imperialism, there was a move both closer to and further away from a combined Eurasia. For the first time it became possible to think of the supercontinent as a single political whole under a common rule. Had Europeans included China in their orbit and had they developed a stable system of power in Europe—an effective Concert of Europe—a vast Eurasian empire would have become possible for the first time.

From the very moment when European rule was established in the old Asian lands, the image of its future collapse was already visible, provided one wanted to see it.

It was not to be and for obvious reasons. The European conquest of Asia—the European empires in India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East—was rooted in a fundamental, intractable division between Europe and Asia. Europeans arrogated for themselves the right to rule Asia because they considered themselves different from and superior to Asians. As Tocqueville put it, “we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind what man himself is to the lower animals: he makes them subservient to his use, and when he cannot subdue he destroys.” It was not as Eurasians that Europeans wanted to rule Eurasia, so the effort was doomed to failure. The contradiction could not be overcome.

The Weakness of European Imperalism

Historians now understand much better how weak and fragile European imperialism truly was. Everywhere its challenges and failures were contemporary with its successes. From the very moment when European rule was established in the old Asian lands, the image of its future collapse was already visible, provided one wanted to see it. In this respect, the European imperial adventure was remarkably similar to the Mongol empire, whose dissolution into different regional spheres started with the death of Genghis Khan, the man who built it.

In their expansion European empires were also sowing the seeds of their future fall, as they spread the secrets of technology and organization which alone had granted them concrete advantages.

This is nonetheless insufficient and perhaps unfair. The European domination of Asia was much more consequential than Mongol rule could have aspired to be. The Mongols were able to conquer a vast section of Eurasia because they developed one or two innovations in the art of war, but the technology to hold Eurasia together was much beyond them. Not so for Europe. One can endlessly discuss whether Europe was able to build large empires in Asia because it was technologically so advanced or whether it became technologically advanced in order to conquer Eurasia.

I myself incline towards the latter hypothesis but be that as it may what cannot be doubted is that with modern science and technology Eurasia could for the first time be thought of as a single unit. Shipping, rail, instant communications, banking, insurance and the Suez Canal made it possible. Education, scholarship, the historical and human sciences, the study of languages, even archaeology—all these were critically important.

An Unquestioned Rebuilding of Asian Societies

As it happened, Europeans were so convinced of the superiority of their way of life that they eventually tried to export it. Their ability to shape and rebuild Asian societies from the ground up was unquestioned. The influence travelling from west to east was for the first time breaking the barriers of distance and even political borders. But paradoxically, in their expansion European empires were also sowing the seeds of their future fall, as they spread the secrets of technology and organization which alone had granted them concrete advantages. One day, if and when the influence started to flow in the opposite direction, Europe might even lose its individuality, just as Asia has lost hers with the onslaught of European civilization.

Tangible change arrived in 1919, exactly one hundred years ago. As the historian John Darwin showed, this was a year of momentous endings and beginnings. We are still experiencing the late and final developments of what started in 1919.

In March, British officials reported riots in Cairo, the city linking Europe and Asia. In India, a new rebellion had to be crushed at Amritsar. After the massacre, it would never again be possible to defend the legitimacy of British rule over the supercontinent. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal shook off European power from the dying Ottoman state. It was the second of the three twentieth-century revolutions by which long-living Asian nations affirmed their ambition to build a new global order: Russia first, then Turkey and finally China. The May Fourth movement of 1919 in China was a national uprising against Western influence—cultural and political—and the initial impetus from which the last century of Chinese history took off, practically in a straight line.

China is a European Power

What could be witnessed in 1919—if only one had the ability to see the future as soon as it appears on the scene—was the initial attempt to build sovereign and autonomous political nations in Asia. The genie was out of the bottle. Europeans had built a system of power that crisscrossed the full extent of the Eurasian supercontinent.

The change is more drastic as China is active in Europe from the opposite end of Eurasia. It draws many European countries to its major geopolitical initiative creating new internal European divisions in the process.

Asians would, of course, be unable to close those dams again, but they could try to make them work in both directions, by using the same tools that had been used against them. This could be seen in 1919. Kemal, after all, built a state along European lines in order to better resist European power.

Now, a hundred years later, the prophecy has been realized. China is a European power.

At some point, as we know, Russia became a European power. Perhaps that was already the case with Peter the Great, perhaps it came to pass later in the eighteenth century with Catherine. The European system of power changed after that.

Populist parties now competing for power in many European countries should immediately remind us of populist movements in developing countries, where their support was closely connected to the sense of dependence.

Today, however, the change is more drastic as China is active in Europe from the opposite end of Eurasia. It draws many European countries to its major geopolitical initiative, the Belt and Road, creating new internal European divisions in the process. It has launched a new association of states including a dozen members of the European Union and five countries in the Balkans. Recently, the British Secretary of Defense was forced to resign in an affair involving a decision by the Prime Minister not to ban Huawei from the British telecommunications infrastructure.

Europe Should Enlarge the Sphere

If before the modern age, different units across Eurasia could be understood in isolation—the Habsburg, Ottoman and Mughal empires are probably the last illustration of such a system—and if with the age of colonial empires only Europe could afford a form of splendid isolation—being able to shape the world without being influenced by it—now Europe is part of the Eurasian system and perhaps only the United States can aspire to inhabit a world all its own.

What I call the dawn of Eurasia—the title of the book where I attempted to announce this series of developments—is first and foremost a call to enlarge the sphere. Today no major question in Europe can be understood in strictly European terms. Take the growth of populist parties. There is, of course, an intellectual fashion to see it as a result of internal developments: growing inequality, the eurozone crisis, a fall in public investment, neoliberalism and the financial elites.

It is reassuring to believe that the causes of political radicalization are internal because in that case they can be addressed and the solution will leave us with a fairer and more equal society. In reality, populist parties now competing for power in many European countries should immediately remind us of populist movements in developing countries, where their support was closely connected to the sense of political and economic dependence—often formalized by colonial relationships—towards Europe and the United States.

A World Where European Nations Are in Danger

Listen to what populists in Italy or Poland or Hungary are saying. There is remarkably little about the ills of the existing social and economic structure. In countries such as Hungary or Poland, the ruling parties have actually deepened those structures and appealed to foreign investors with the prospect of favourable labor laws and tax incentives. Their electoral appeal and the tangible core of their proposals is something else. They describe a world where European nations are in danger of disappearing, swamped by external forces they cannot control: immigration, terrorism, trade and the power of global bureaucratic elites.

Their promise is to return us to a world where Europe felt protected from external influences. It is the rise of the repressed that frightens populist leaders and those who vote for them: Islam and terrorism, China and economic dependence, and above all the fear of what they see as a form of colonization in reverse, with the arrival of successive waves of immigration and the irreversible transformation of European societies. Even their view of the European elites reminds us of the old nationalist movements in the Middle East, China or Japan, where local Westernizers were invariably accused of serving obscure foreign interests, to which they would readily sacrifice their own peoples.

We shall understand very little of populism in Europe today until we replace European politics with a much wider framework of reference. The loss of relative power by European countries created the new political reality of a Eurasian field of forces—influence now increasingly flows from east to west and no longer just from west to east—and the corresponding perception that Europeans are dependent on forces they cannot control. Populism is the reaction to these facts.

A Long Holiday from History

The same could be said of the intellectual and political debate on European integration. Again, the determinants are said to be internal: the dynamics of agreement and disagreement between Germany and France, the persistent lack of convergence between core and periphery or the impact of special economic interests. Overlooked are the much more decisive facts of power competition across the Eurasian political landscape.

A political union in Europe has so far remained a distant promise and perhaps the reason is that the most basic ingredient of political unity was lacking: the fear that brings people together to face an external threat.

The United States played a critical and often overlooked role. By extending an unconditional security guarantee to its allies, it ensured that the Soviet Union would never become an existential threat to Europe. At the same time, American society and politics were too similar for Europeans to feel genuinely threatened by the extent of American power. The geopolitical limbo was comfortable enough and Europe took a long holiday from history. A political union was postponed more or less indefinitely. Now the stage for a great historical drama is set—a Eurasian stage from Lisbon to Shanghai. The United States does not seem to have either the capacity or the willingness to replicate its role during the Cold War and China has started to appear as a much greater threat to Europeans than the Soviet Union ever did.

A political union in Europe has so far remained a distant promise and perhaps the reason is that the most basic ingredient of political unity was lacking: the fear that brings people together to face an external threat.

The fears may well prove to be overblown, but one way or another Europe and China are now so closely linked that their political destinies can no longer be understood in isolation. Whether Europe moves towards a genuine political union is a story where China—not Germany or France— will play the main role.

Bruno Maçães

is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and a Senior Advisor at Flint Global in London. He was the Portuguese Europe Minister from 2013-2015. He received his doctorate in political science from Harvard University. He has written for the Financial Times, Politico, The Guardian and Foreign Affairs, and appears regularly on CNN, the BBC, Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera and CCTV. His latest book on the new geopolitics, The Dawn of Eurasia was published in 2018 in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

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Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

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