In this essay, Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institut des relations internationales (Ifri), highlights the China-US strategic competition against a backdrop of the degradation of ecosystems and technological expansion that is likely to fan the flames of the “invisible wars” of the title, from which the Europeans often emerge weakened, due to their lack of strategic reflection. At the end of each chapter, the author sketches out the stated or hidden intentions and, in some cases, constraints of the United States, China and the European Union.
“China has stolen the European Union’s position as number 2 on the international scene and it still has its eye on first place. This can be explained by its own determination, the erratic behaviour of the United States and the naïveté of the Europeans, who have ended up believing their own narrative on globalisation, which has been presented as an irreversible process of interdependence between societies. But globalisation is also a competition fought night and day by the principal powers. This competition is currently taking a cognitive turn, with mind control as the ultimate purpose. At global level, the models of government, consumption and behaviour are competing through an intentional transformation, i.e. technological propagation, and through an unintentional transformation, i.e. environmental degradation”, the author argues, going on to stress that within five years, “there will be 150 billion digital terminals, 20 times the number of humans, including 1 billion video surveillance cameras, while temperatures rise and global diversity falls” (our translation throughout). “The Covid-19 crisis is speeding up the process by which the global economy is tipping in favour of digital platforms. It is also accelerating a reshuffle of the hierarchy of powers, to the detriment of those nations that are incapable of adapting to this new technological environment”, Gomart writes, recalling that the Chinese General Qiao Liang described the pandemic as an event that will be as decisive as the two world wars or the fall of the USSR, as it will “crush this cycle of globalisation” by weakening a West that is on the decline: “the pandemic has come at this particular moment and is the straw that broke the camel’s back”. In 1999, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui published “Unrestricted Warfare”, describing 24 modes of conflict, from nuclear war to ideological warfare, via space war, terrorism, drugs and even trade wars.
The author also points out that under Xi Jinping, the ambition of a “Chinese dream” of reshaping global governance on the basis of Chinese interests has come about. In a book published in 2010, Colonel Liu Mingfu outlined the principles of this: a prosperous nation that is capable of outstripping the United States in economic, scientific and technological terms; a powerful army that can rival that of the United States; a reunited nation, in other words one that has reabsorbed Taiwan. Within this ideological framework, the Belt and Road Initiative “reflects Beijing’s determination not to be hemmed into the China Sea and to transform itself into an amphibious power, one that is capable of acting on land and at sea, of finding hinging points far beyond its traditional zone of influence”. “The strategic patience granted to China is likely to be reflected in its use of a strategy of adding together and combining resources and taking a ‘lateral-frontal’ approach until such time as China has succeeded in permanently reversing the balance of power in its favour”, states Gomart, adding: “the way Hong Kong was brought to heel leaves no doubt as to Beijing’s intentions. For the time being, it is nibbling away strategically, island by island, with the aim of limiting its risks and instilling doubts in the allies of the United States as to their determination to protect it, with the ultimate intention of creating a sphere of influence that will eventually allow it to promote an international order that is compatible with its comparative advantages”.
“The current phase of history corresponds to ‘China’s thalassocractic development’, in other words to the switch of the centre of gravity of its economy towards the outside, towards mass investments abroad and its presence on the high seas”, the author stresses, adding: “while the United States, Europe and China attract more than half of all global trade, the rise in power of the last of these is resetting the international division of labour. A growing proportion of international trade is now in the hands of an illiberal and ambitious thalassocracy. This is a major historic break”. Within this context, ports deserve particular attention. “The world’s 20 largest ports include nine in China, plus Taiwan. Overseas, Beijing has taken control of many ports, for instance in Europe, where 10% of container terminal capacities are now in Chinese hands, a proportion which may rise to 25% and then 50% in the next five years”.
“In a single generation, cyberspace has become the principal battleground between the principles of sovereignty and universal values of democratic regimes and authoritarian governments”, Gomart writes. He adds that the “scale of the collusion between private players and public authorities is generating an ‘imperialism of interpenetration’ which only the United States and China are capable of exercising fully. China, obviously, is not the only country that supplies repressive digital technologies. The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Israel offer many public security solutions that lead to forms of urbanisation and control over public spaces – thereby redrawing the outlines of public and individual freedoms. These technologies allow six major types of activity: surveillance, censorship, harassment, cyber-attacks, network interruptions and targeted persecution – that carry a strong risk of leading to a capitalism of surveillance, which basically consists of extracting and exploiting personal data without the knowledge of users, unless safeguards are brought in”.
Increasingly, “the asymmetry of the interdependencies between those who generate them and those who are on the receiving end of them brings about conflicts without armed violence”, the author notes. “Paradoxically, invisible wars reflect a reluctance to resort to violence. There are increasing numbers of alternatives to it, such as economic sanctions, cyber-operations, corruption or manipulations of information, the effects of which should not be minimised simply because they do not involve any direct violence. These manipulations aim to acquire information superiority to be used to play on the opponent’s conscience, perception and strategic calculations. These ‘invisible wars’ aim not so much to constrain the body as to constrain the mind”.
By way of conclusion, Gomart expresses his hopes that France will adopt a major strategy, recognising that “drawing it up will require intellectual efforts, particularly in terms of how it dovetails with the European project”. (Olivier Jehin)
Thomas Gomart. Guerres invisibles – Nos prochains défis géopolitiques (available in French only). Tallandier. ISBN: 979-10-210-4687-0. 316 pages. €20,90
Un Européen contrarié
The most successful portraits are of those to whom it is impossible to be indifferent. By choosing Boris Johnson as his subject, the journalist Tristan de Bourbon-Parme picked the perfect candidate, as frustrating as he is frustrated, a cheerful buffoon, a conqueror and, of necessity, a strategist and also, even, a European… in his own way! This portrait, woven into a story of Brexit, is a cracking read and even succeeds in generating a kind of empathy for ‘BoJo’. Nobody, not even those who already know the story, will be indifferent to this much-documented biography.
The author’s intention appears to be to show us a sincere evolution behind the contradictory positions of a Boris Johnson who said in May 2003 that he was “not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it”. In 2012, he stated that in a choice between staying in the EU and leaving to seek a glorious independent future outside, he still tended slightly towards ‘remain’. “There’s only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says no. The fundamental problem remains: that they have an ideal we do not share. They want to create a truly federal union, e pluribus unum, when most British people do not”, he wrote on 21 February 2016, announcing that he would back Brexit. Can an observer reasonably see any evolution in this other than one dictated by his quest for power? He is the only one who can answer this question. But how far can anyone trust a man who, during his time as a journalist, spent all his time either exaggerating the facts or making them up altogether? (OJ)
Tristan de Bourbon-Parme. Boris Johnson – Un Européen contrarié (available in French). Editions François Bourin. ISBN: 979-10-252-0513-6. 312 pages. €20,00
L’Europe et l’esprit
“Major events have occurred: mass destruction has taken place in Europe. Europe woke up one day having consumed all of its potential. But this combustion did not come without casting light on many realities that had until then been shadowy or indistinct. Amongst other things, it has noticed that it is just a small country, a nation condemned to becoming even smaller and to an increasingly humiliating comparison to the great lands of the East and West. The European nation is caught between these two vast empires of the East and West, one inhabited by these Asian peoples who are in some ways like the fathers of our civilisation, the other inhabited by the rejects of ours… For some of us, for those I would call people of spirit, the aim is to communicate and serve Europe, the awareness that there is something to say, to prolong, to bring to the high point of its power and lucidity” (our translation throughout).
This text, written in 1926, is part of a series of unpublished writings (conferences, articles, draft essays and speeches) of Paul Valéry, brought together in this edition by Paola Cattani (University Roma Tre). These texts speak of Europe, but also the European spirit, such as this one from 1933: “when we try to find out what in us as Europeans, we find such a complex and intimate combination of elements from all the nations of Europe, from all of the European races, that we are forced to observe, irrespective of our personal feelings or our national sentiments, for instance, that there is a certain sensitivity in us, certain resonances in us, certain intellectual responses, that cannot be explained and can be described only in European terms. We carry two men in us and, depending on the circumstances, it may be the national man or the European man who steps forward and responds…”. (OJ)
Paul Valéry. L’Europe et l’esprit – Écrits politiques 1896-1945 (available in French only). Gallimard. ISBN: 978-2-072-88740-6. 312 pages. €22,00
Sécurité européenne: la fracture
In the latest edition of Futuribles, Jean-François Drevet stresses that the “organisation of security in Europe continues to flow from Moscow’s revisionism and NATO’s prevalence as the principal defence organisation” (our translation throughout). The author laments the threefold powerlessness from which the EU suffers: – in Brussels, from the inter-governmental management of the Council and all the disadvantages of the rule of unanimity; in Washington, from the American disengagement; in the Mediterranean, from NATO’s inability to make one of its members, Turkey, see reason, describing it as “abusively called a ‘valuable ally’ by the organisation’s secretary general”. “The EU’s weakness is leading it down the road of abandoning its principles more and more conspicuously. Unlike the affirmations of the EU Global Strategy prepared in 2016 by Federica Mogherini, it is to be feared that the defence of the values of Europe will not remain among the principal priorities of the CFSP”, argues the former European civil servant, calling for a European security and defence policy with an operational military element and that is capable of meeting current challenges.
The same edition also features an article on the principal failure scenarios up to 2040-2020 drawn from the 2020 Vigie Report. It is accompanied by a map positioning these failures from the point of view of four major areas and six trajectories for the evolution of the global economy and geopolitics. There is also a fascinating article by biologist Gilles Bœuf (Sorbonne University) on the biodiversity of the oceans. (OJ)
Jean-François Drevet. Sécurité européenne: la fracture (available in French only). Futuribles no.440, January-February 2021. 140 pages. €22,00