A Call to Action: Europe in a Post-American World

August 2, 2020

The transition to a multipolar world has long been underway and the current crisis symbolizes a milestone in that process [1]. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most significant global crisis in recent history, cutting across every sector of society and affecting all corners of the globe in swift succession [2]. As the United States steps back from its leadership position as a defender of the multilateral rules-based order, the pandemic represents the first major global crisis of the post-American world.

With global leadership and coordination waning, the crisis risks generating greater and longer lasting repercussions. Geopolitical competition and a lack of mulitlateral dialogue threaten to accelerate existing trends, such as heightened tensions within the UN Security Council. International cooperation and institutions risk being undermined even further [3][4]. The EU and its Member States must take action to promote multilateral cooperation as a way to overcome common challenges.

An Absence of Global Leadership

In recent decades, the United States’ readiness to engage multilaterally enabled global coordination to limit the negative consequences of any given crisis. At the height of the global financial crisis in 2008, the US shaped the collective international response through the G20 while making sure to include China in the process. In 2014, Washington managed to rally a multilateral effort to stem the spread of Ebola in West Africa before it became a worldwide threat [5]. As the former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt notes, even if the U.S. was “leading from behind, it was still leading”[6].

Today, little remains of America’s desire to lead the world in facing collective challenges. President Donald Trump has hastened the United States’ withdrawal from its role as the primary defender of the multilateral rules-based order, a framework that aims to temper geopolitical tensions by promoting global cooperation via agreed-upon rules and international institutions [7]. For example, Trump’s abandonment of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement and repetitive attacks on the World Trade Organization (WTO) have left the EU without its critical ally to defend multilateral cooperation and key elements of the rules-based order [8].

Amidst the threat posed by the current crisis to health systems, the global economy, international stability, and multilateralism, the United States’ unwillingness to bring together an international coalition to fight the coronavirus and its wider impact is evident. As Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, argues, we are witnessing “the biggest global crisis of our lifetimes with truly no global response” [9].

More Troubles Looming

The global order was undergoing significant realignment before COVID-19, as global influence shifted and countries, such as Russia and China, demanded a larger role within the international system [11]. The absence of global leadership during the pandemic has already begun to accelerate these trends [12]. State actors are engaging in a soft power competition by deploying resources to aid countries in the hopes of increasing their own influence within the international system [13]. At the same time, governments are increasingly mistrustful and blaming one another for lacking transparency, which obstructs efforts to fight the virus collectively. As outlined in a report by the International Crisis Group, intensified geopolitical friction, particularly between the US and China, has complicated multilateral crisis management cooperation [14].

Persisting geopolitical tensions, aggravated by the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19, will not necessarily lead to increased militarism, with states relying upon their military capacity to defend their national interests. It will, however, reduce the likelihood for cooperation, rendering the international system less efficient in maintaining peace and stability [15]. For EU Member States, which have benefited tremendously from the rules-based international order and have come to serve as the primary example of the pooling of sovereignty to face common challenges, this represents a significant challenge and time for action. With growing mistrust, there is heightened risk of misperceptions, which work to complicate diplomatic dialogue and could enflame ongoing conflicts in the EU’s neighborhood [16]. Conflicts in Libya and Ukraine, for example, would likely intensify if international peace efforts broke down [17].

Europe’s New Role in the Post-COVID World

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the interdependent nature of our international system in the most brutal of fashions. Considering that the current crisis will likely have a deep influence on the framework of the emerging multipolar order, EU Member States should come together to play a more significant role in shaping a multilateralism fit for this new era.

This process should start with the EU addressing the immediate health and socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 at home and by demonstrating solidarity, particularly towards those that have suffered tremendously during this pandemic. Ensuring there are no discrepancies when it comes to the robustness of national recovery plans, which otherwise could result in the widening of the north-south or east-west economic divides, is one possible way forward. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Europe’s role in the world can only be meaningful “if we can successfully promote solidarity among Member States” [18].

The EU must also continue to look outward and be at the forefront of a reformed approach to multilateralism as argued by French President Emmanuel Macron [19]. This will involve demonstrating leadership and reaching out to the US, China and other powers to help ease the transition to a multipolar system. Deeper European engagement to uphold multilateral institutions such as the WTO, while also pushing for their reform so that they are more effective at addressing today’s challenges, would be a positive step [20].

The world of tomorrow will be more fragmented and complex, but its challenges will be increasingly interconnected. In the absence of US-American leadership, the EU can contribute to offsetting the threats posed to multilateralism by engaging in deeper cooperation internally and taking on a greater role externally to foster collective solutions to promote peace and stability.


Picture by © European Union, 2020 on Flickr

[1] Jacob L. Shapiro, “Is a Multipolar World Emerging?,” Geopolitical Futures, May 2, 2018, https://geopoliticalfutures.com/multipolar-world-emerging/


[2] Nouriel Roubini, “This is what the economic fallout from coronavirus could look like,” World Economic Forum,  April 6, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/depression-global-economy-coronavirus/.


[3] Michel Duclos, “Is COVID-19 a Geopolitical Game-Changer?,” Institut Montaigne, March 24, 2020, https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/covid-19-geopolitical-game-changer


[4] Richard Gowan, “Three Troubling Trends at the UN Security Council,” International Crisis Group, November 6, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/three-troubling-trends-un-security-council


[5] “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch,” International Crisis Group, March 24 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-covid-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch


[6] Carl Bildt, “Welcome to the Post-American World,” April 28 2020, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/covid19-ushers-in-post-american-world-by-carl-bildt-2020-04


[7] “Challenges to the Rules-Based International Order,” Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2015, https://www.chathamhouse.org/london-conference-2015/background-papers/challenges-to-rules-based-international-order.


[8] Stewart M. Patrick, “The Corrosion of World Order in the Age of Donald Trump,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 13 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/corrosion-world-order-age-donald-trump


[9] Tracy Wilkinson, “Global response to coronavirus stymied by lack of leadership from the U.S. and Trump.” Los Angeles Times, April 15 2020, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-04-15/global-response-to-coronavirus-stymied-by-lack-of-u-s-trump-leadership-on-world-stage


[10]  “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch,” International Crisis Group, March 24 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-covid-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch


[11] “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch,” International Crisis Group, March 24 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-covid-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch


[12] Josep Borrell, “The Post-Coronavirus World is Already Here,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 30 2020, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_post_coronavirus_world_is_already_here.


[13] Michel Duclos, “Is COVID-19 a Geopolitical Game-Changer?,” Institut Montaigne, March 24 2020, https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/covid-19-geopolitical-game-changer


[14] “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch,” International Crisis Group, March 24 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-covid-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch


[15] Thomas Wright, “Stretching the International Order to Its Breaking Point,” The Atlantic, April 4 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/pandemic-lasts-18-months-will-change-geopolitics-good/609445/.


[16] Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, “Saving European Defense From the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Carnegie Europe, April 30 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/81699.


[17] Florence Gaub and Katariina Mustasilta, “What if…Covid-19 leads to an escalation of conflicts?,” European Union Institute for Security Studies (podcast), May 22 2020, https://what-if-the-euiss-foresight-podcast.simplecast.com/episodes/s02e05


[18] Josep Borrell, “The Post-Coronavirus World is Already Here,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 30 2020, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_post_coronavirus_world_is_already_here.


[19] Emmanuel Macron, “Emmanuel Macron tells the FT coronavirus is Europe’s moment of truth,” Interview by Roula Khalaf and Victor Mallet, Financial Times, April 16 2020,



[20] Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, “The Path Forward on WTO Reform,” Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs, May 7 2019, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/path-forward-wto-reform.

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Matthew T. Jabłoński

Matthew T. Jabłoński holds a masters degree in European Affairs from Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include the EU’s foreign and security policy, particularly the European Neighbourhood Policy, as well as the history and political future of Central and Eastern Europe.