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Transatlantic Webinar - Why the cold war paradigm is false and what binds the US and the EU on China


In cooperation with the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University


Reinhard Bütikofer, MEP; Chair, EP Delegation for Relations with China
Ellen Laipson, Professor and Director for the Center of Security Policy Studies, Schar School of Policy and Government (GMU)
Ming Wan, Professor, Associate Dean, Schar School Program Faculties, Schar School of Policy and Government (GMU)
Introduction by Mark J. Rozell, Dean, Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Moderated by Joseph Dunne, Director, European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC


In a joint event on US and EU relations with China, MEP Reinhard Bütikofer and Schar School of Policy and Government scholars Ming Wan and Ellen Laipson rejected a simplified cold-war paradigm, giving instead nuanced perspectives into the rise of US-China tensions and the EU’s relations with both countries. It was noted that the EU is in the best position to lead cooperation on global issues like climate change and pandemic response. Despite asymmetries between US and EU interests in China, panelists agreed for the need to reaffirm shared transatlantic values and identify common interests for future cooperation on Asia-Pacific policy.



After a brief introduction to George Mason University and its academic programs by Schar School Dean Mark Rozell, Professor Ming Wan began by explaining the complexity of recent developments in the triangular relationship. While some scholars refer to eroding US-China relations in the simplified terms of a “cold war,” Wan believes it is a huge mistake to adopt a cold-war mindset or strategies like mutually assured destruction. China outwardly criticizes this mindset and inwardly expresses feelings of entrapment. In the US, consensus is China started current tensions and it should have pushed back against Beijing earlier. As the foreign policy community looks for direction, it is falling back on strategies from the last war of great power competition with nostalgia for its sense of common purpose and moral certainty. Unlike during the cold war, the US is stepping back as a global benefactor and decreasing foreign aid on a bipartisan basis. China is also burdened by debt but has better growth opportunities and is trying to expand its influence.

In terms of EU-China relations, “the next six months will be interesting to watch.” Wan assumes Merkel will want to leave a legacy as Germany takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU, and he was impressed by the June 22 EU-China Summit. We should see US-EU-China relations in the global context, i.e. including other countries and global issues like climate change and the pandemic. Of these three players, the EU is in the best position to lead cooperation on these global issues. 

Professor Ellen Laipson was less optimistic, stating “it’s not a new cold war yet.” The current conflict is regional rather than global and not deeply ideological; neither country views the other as an existential threat. Laipson also sees the Chinese as opportunistic, not asserting that their government should be the dominant world order. While the US miscalculated the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union, it is clear China is not a US peer in security/military power. However, Xi’s increasing confidence and Trump’s hawkish security strategy and unpredictability could lead them to decide conflict is inevitable. There is potentially a peaceful path to Chinese domination, i.e. becoming an important player in international institutions.

Laipson sees an asymmetry of interest with the EU and US in regards to China. Europe’s increasing responsibilities at home means it may not want to be the junior partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific. Given historical context and geographic proximity, the US has unique responsibilities in balancing Chinese assertiveness in the region. Europe could be a supporting player through its own relationships with Australia, Japan, etc. While the US will have greater responsibilities in the security domain than Europe in the Asia-Pacific arena, the EU and US could be close partners on peace and security issues. On technology, the EU will be more agile than the US in managing China as a technological threat.

MEP Reinhard Bütikofer agreed the Cold War paradigm doesn’t fit the current conflict. We’re witnessing the weaponization of policy and sectors not traditionally understood in a security perspective, such as economic policy and technology. China is trying to pin this paradigm on the EU-US to play to its advantage: (1) “cold war thinking” is negative and synonymous with dated perceptions, framing the US-EU position in the least advantageous terms, and (2) the term implies only two camps of thought, even though the EU has a different view from the US.

Bütikofer insisted the US and EU take a closer look at where our interests do and do not intersect. He sees the most overlap in (1) human rights, referencing Hong Kong’s new security law, (2) international institutions, where the US and EU could support the same candidates, (3) WTO reform, (4) climate change, and (5) global reach, mentioning “the world doesn’t exist in the shape of a triangle.” One of the weaknesses of western policy is not reaching out to third-party countries, referencing the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The EU and US models of civilization can only thrive under conditions upheld under US-EU cooperation.

In her final remarks, Laipson noted the US approach would change under Biden’s leadership. Wan cautioned that even if Biden wins, the political dynamic is such that the US may remain more isolationist. Bütikofer concluded that the US and EU cannot create a beneficial economy without looking at its geopolitical context and called for investing in Nokia and Ericsson to develop European 5G infrastructure. The US’ best ally in these issues is the EU, not individual member countries. In an institution of 27 member states, making progress is “zig-zagging,” but progress is being made, pointing to Merkel and Macron’s support for a pandemic recovery fund. He closed with the Benjamin Franklin quote: “Either we hang together or we hang separately.”

Watch a recording of the event