The beginning of a new school year is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Over the summer holidays, friendships break and new friendships bloom. At the sound of the morning bell, students scramble to find the best seats in the classroom, placing themselves close to their new buddies and far away from their old acquaintances. This year at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, we expected to see a staff meeting of world leaders. But instead, we were given a group of anxious school students scrambling to find their place in the classroom of international power.
On July 7 and 8, nineteen world leaders and the European Union came together to discuss issues such as climate change, free trade and security. High profile summits such as the G20 are usually remembered by the results achieved from the major agenda items. This year’s Summit will be remembered not for its achievements, but as a marker in history of the turning point of a new era in international relations. Although we’ve been given signs of a transition throughout 2017, the July Summit clearly demonstrated that the European Union is gearing up to succeed the US as the most influential leader on the international stage.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was the most powerful continent in the world. It had history and status, was economically superior and boasted its military strength both at home and abroad. This of course all came crashing down in 1914 with the breakout of the First World War, and again in 1939 at the dawn of the Second World War. While Europe suffered on every level after two horrific and gruesome wars, the United States became the true beneficiary of Europe’s suffering, emerging from the two world wars as the victor of international relations and as Europe’s saviour.
The United States has reaped the rewards of the two world wars for decades, taking on the role of ‘leader of the free world’. What’s certain after the G20, however, is that although the United States may have been the victor of two world wars, Europe, and Germany and France, in particular, have capitalised on the fallout from Brexit, the 2016 US elections and the defeat of Marine le Pen in France in an attempt to restore Europe to its pre-1914 status.
For instance, on 8 July , newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron made a Facebook post with the caption: ‘Optimistic and determined to work together on our common challenges; environment, trade, technology and terrorism’. This caption accompanied a photo of Macron and Prime Minister Modi of India seated at the G20 table, with Merkel standing and leaning towards the two men, and all three smiling in cheerful collaboration. Meanwhile, having been rejected by their European counterparts, President Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to be scrambling to make new friends, at the rejection of their former classmates.
President Trump proudly boasted the new American-Russian relationship on Twitter, stating: ‘We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia’. There may be many reasons for this new alliance, but it’s clear that as Europe gains bargaining power, America is increasingly excluded from the core friendship circle of powerful states.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is not to say that Germany, or France for that matter, have taken America’s place as the ‘leader of the free world’. What is significant, however, is that Europe—particularly Germany and France—have emerged from two years of political uncertainty and hostility, stronger and more powerful than ever. The pendulum certainly could have swung the other way, had American and British anti-establishment sentiments managed to penetrate mainland Europe.
Although Europe should not be too quick to claim ‘victory’, given the uncertainties of today’s political landscapes, there is no doubt that there’s been a rupture in American world power and that Europe has stepped in to fill the remaining void. In the scramble to find the best seat in the international classroom, Europe, and in particular Germany and France, have certainly placed themselves in an ideal leadership position to strengthen Europe’s bargaining power on the world stage.
Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.