Why European Power Still Eclipses China

How often do we read that China and the US, or perhaps China, the US and India, are the sole superpowers? Of course the “rise of the rest” is an important phenomenon of our time. Yet most pundits and politicians who advance such geopolitical speculations exaggerate the power of China, while underrating the power not just of the US, but also of Europe.

By almost any measure, Europe stands alongside the US, and far ahead of China, as a global superpower today—and it will remain so until at least the mid-21st century. To understand why, we must start by understanding that a 21st century superpower must be able to project dominating power and influence intercontinentally, in more than one region at a time, by deploying the full range of military and civilian instruments. In contrast to the outdated Cold War definition, this definition treats power as multi-dimensional:  both military and civilian, both unilateral and multilateral.

Let us consider the enduring advantages of Europe (as well as the US) over China.   In most aspects of global power projection it is enough to simply list these forms of potential power and influence—and then run the numbers. The results are surprising.

First, consider traditional military power. The US and Europe dominate global military expenditures. The US spends 43% of the global total and Europe 21%. Add Japan and Korea, and the “West” totals 64%. China spends 5% of the total. The result is that Europeans have far more military capacity than China. France and Britain have, together, have air forces and nuclear arsenals larger than China’s. China aspires to its first aircraft carrier; Europe has had them for decades.

Today European militaries are active around the globe, with nearly 100,000 combat troops engaged outside their home countries. Recently European nations have lead military operations in Libya, Lebanon, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, the Balkans and elsewhere. China has fewer than 2000 combat troops engaged in operations outside China. Indeed, China may not even have the capacity to project sustained military power against serious opposition 50 miles off its own shore – only about twice the distance of Catalina Island from the California mainland.

To be sure, China has become more capable of defending its immediate regional interests in recent years, but that is hardly the sign of a great power—even Afghan rebels can claim that. And this probably won’t change soon. At current growth rates, military spending in all of Asia will only match US military spending rates in 2070!

But Europe’s real comparative advantage – over both China and the United States — lies in the projection of “civilian power”: economic, regulatory, institutional, legal and normative influence.

Consider that Europe is the world’s largest economy, with a gross domestic product is $17.5 trillion. The U.S. figure is $14.8 trillion, while China is less than a third of Europe’s, at $5.4 trillion. Were China to continue to grow at its current rate, which most analysts doubt, it still would take about a quarter century for it to match Europe.

Even this underestimates Europe’s power, because global influence requires high per capita income, which generates the surplus required to fund expensive foreign influence, as well as the social spillovers that constitute civilian power.  Today China ranks in the global “top 5” of aggregate income, but in per capita income it ranks number 94, just after Angola, Algeria, and Macedonia, and just before Bosnia, Tunisia, and Belize. Per capita income takes far longer to catch up; even at current growth rates, in 25 years it will still lag behind Europe.

Europe, on the other hand, can leverage its high per capita income, economic openness, and large size to great advantage. Accession to the EU is the single most powerful policy instrument Europe possesses. Since 1989, Europe’s “power of attraction” has helped stabilize the polities and economies of over a dozen neighboring countries. The effects are visible well beyond the 12 members that have joined most recently, with European influence powerful in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and even Turkey.  No other government in the world possesses an equally powerful international policy instrument as European enlargement, which touches on 10-15% of national laws.

Europe pursues an active “neighborhood policy,” intervening diplomatically to resolve conflicts and promote political and economic reform in its neighborhood, backed by Europe’s economic, financial, legal, and military might. Even where membership is only a distant possibility, as with Ukraine, Moldova, or Albania, or an essentially nonexistent possibility, as with Morocco, Libya, and Israel, there is evidence that EU initiatives have had a major impact.

Europe dominates global trade policy. Europe is the world’s leading trading power. Its trade is twice the size of China’s, even if we eliminate all intra-EU trade. Indeed, China only just surpassed Germany alone as an exporter.

Look into those trade numbers, and Europe’s advantage is even more dramatic because China remains, in essence, a global subcontractor. Most of Europe’s exports are produced by European companies; three fifths of Chinese exports (and nearly all high-tech exports) are produced by foreign-owned companies. Much of this is re-export trade, involving reprocessing of semi-manufactured goods. China’s trade statistics may seem huge —the full value of that laptop, assembled in China out of American, Japanese and South Korean components, counts as an import into and an export out of China— but its actual export production is far less impressive than Europe’s.

Europe’s control of its own export production of access to its own markets also makes it the world’s leading regulatory superpower with particular power in the food, environmental and competition policy.  It is no wonder that China has adapted to Western norms by joining the WTO, an organization still dominated by the US and Europe.

And Europe also provides 60-70% of the global foreign aid, compared to less than 20%. From the U.S. and a total Chinese amount over the past 60 years ($38.54bn) roughly equivalent to the US foreign aid budget in 2010 alone. Similarly, Europe is the world’s major creator and sustainer of international organizations, from the UN to the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, and, of course, the European Union itself—the world’s most successful and ambitious international organization. In multilateral policy areas like climate change, Europe is the only area of the world capable of delivering significant reductions in carbon output.

Two years ago the European single currency seemed to be on the rocks. Now nearly all analysts agree that Europeans are willing to do what it takes to maintain it—because it is in their self-interest to do so. They have deepened, rather than dismantled, European financial and monetary institutions.

Finally, both polling and practice suggest that European social and political models are more attractive worldwide than Chinese or US alternatives. Democracy continues to be the world’s most popular form of government. And when publics think about what sort of democracy they want, they favor generous social welfare and health policies, parliamentary form of government, adherence to international human rights standards, and a smaller role for money in politics—all associated with Europe. Very few countries in the so-called third wave of democracies have copied major elements of the US or Chinese constitutions.

Almost none of these power projection capabilities require that Europe be more unified than it is today. Since the preferences of major European countries are almost always convergent enough for effective policy to proceed. The Bosnia crisis and the Iraq War, constantly cited by critics of Europe, are once-a-decade exceptions. In modern interdependent highly-networked, hierarchical international organizations are not required to enforce cooperation.

Taken in combination with its appreciable military power, Europe’s unmatched civilian capacity is essential to world order in the 21st century. When we think of today’s major international challenges—global development, eliminating poverty and economic inequality, establishing well-performing markets, global climate change, managing globalization, combating epidemics, fostering democratic transformation, combating terrorism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, spreading human rights, nuclear non-proliferation—how many will be solved primarily through the use of US military power or Chinese-style authoritarian government?  European civilian power is the instrument of choice for the 21st century.

No wonder that over the last year the US has set the goal—in the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review—to restructure the US government so as to augment its global civilian power. Should it succeed, it may someday become as powerful as the world’s “second” superpower: Europe.

By Andrew Moravcsik
Professor of Politics and International Affairs
Princeton University