An interview with Bruno Maçães

Bruno Maçães talks about his book The Dawn of Eurasia – we also discuss African futures, the sincerity of Beijing’s “win-win” rhetoric, and what Europe should do about the Belt and Road.

With a doctorate from Harvard in political science, experience under his belt as Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, and fellowships at the Hudson Institute and Carnegie Europe, Bruno Maçães is already well qualified to write a book on international politics.

But, more crucially for me, he also seems to spend an absurd amount of his time travelling, talking to people, and getting a sense of the geopolitics he writes about. A lot of this travelogue makes it into his new book, The Dawn of Eurasia, which, if you haven’t read yet, I’d recommend putting to the top of your reading list.

Mr Maçães told me that this interview was perhaps more theoretical than others he had given. This is appropriate; his book is highly theoretical. Not, I hasten to add, in the sense of “International Relations Theory”.

Although “theories” have doubtless played their part in Maçães’ world view, his book is mercifully free from “isms” of any kind. The Dawn of Eurasia is theoretical in the sense that it’s a “big picture” book; we’re talking politics on the grand scale of discussing what it means to be European, what it means to be modern, and in a sense, what it means to be human and situated in time – with societies that have notions of shared history and progress.

The Dawn of Eurasia does what it says on the tin – it essentially promotes “Eurasia” as a useful concept for contemporary times. Part of the thinking is that “Europe/Asia” isn’t a useful distinction anymore because what used to define the difference – Europe = modern, Asia = pre-modern – blatantly doesn’t hold in the 21st Century. Asian countries have arrived at their own, different version of modernity, undermining the age old European assumption that “we” have a monopoly on what it means to be modern.

One of the clearest messages I got from the book was a sense of urgency about ridding ourselves (as Europeans) of this potentially dangerous superiority complex:

Jacob Mardell: There’s a quote from your book about how Europe should act towards the rest of the world, ‘not as a prophet of a world civilization, but as a European power’, what does this mean? How do you conceive of Europe projecting this power?

Bruno Maçães: I see two approaches now at the EU level.

One is to still think that the whole world is becoming European, that Europe is the best place in the world to live, and if that’s the case, maybe the only obstacle is that governments elsewhere don’t allow people to express their preference for a European way of life.

So, you keep on promoting that way of life, hoping that the world is going to become more like us, thinking that it is inevitable. As I explain in the book, I think this is a delusion and it’s becoming very obvious that it’s a delusion.

The alternative would be to retreat – to think that the European way of life is only workable in Europe. And this is almost the logical conclusion of a disillusionment with the first approach.

In the book, I try to defend the idea that it has to be something in between. It has to be a way to engage with the rest of the world, but without thinking that it’s becoming like us – we have to be European, but Eurasian at the same time.

Europe doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so we have to find our own place in this larger whole, which is becoming fully integrated, but very competitive as well, and not necessarily peaceful. Our foreign policy has to look for a way in which we fit with China, with Russia, with India. I think by the way, this is what China is doing – they are thinking constantly about how they can take advantage of our political economic system.

We never think in these terms. As the world fails to become more European, we are thinking more and more about how to separate ourselves from the world and in particular from the East.

In theoretical terms, that would be the framework. Now, in practical terms, what does that mean? I think a number of things – It means deciding what we want from Russia and from China and from India and from Turkey, and trying to go about getting it. So, to have clear goals, and to have a strategy on how to get them. To understand that this is going to be a very competitive game.

We no longer have the power that we thought we had, so we have to play our cards well and to pick our fights. In a way, we need to have a more modest foreign policy, but in a way we need to have a more ambitious one, because it’s about getting results.

We will also have to think seriously about the ways in which our own political and economic system will have to change, because what history tells us. Every time a civilisation – let’s call it that – stops being dominant, when it faces threats from abroad that it can no longer control, it changes…

This is what happened to the Ottoman empire, what happened to Japan, what happened to China in the 19th century. You either see this as an opportunity to improve what is not working in our societies, or as a betrayal of our values, and I think the first approach is much better. There are things we will want to keep, but there may also be things that we can change. This is the moment to change, because its a moment where the world is very different and the relations of power are very different.

JM: But how is it not a betrayal of values? You can try not to think of it as a betrayal of values, but how is it not?

BM: Right, but that’s of course the same story with civilisations in the past.

The debate they had in the 19th century was a debate between modernisers who wanted to adapt some things from the West. Some want to adapt only military technology, others want to adapt the whole way of life, and there are the others who think – China doesn’t have to change, it doesn’t have to sacrifice its values – I think we are now in Europe in a very similar moment.

Perhaps you start to have people who want to adapt our societies to realities of international politics, but then you are going to have many people who are going to resist this and regard it as a deep betrayal. But that’s not specific to us – it’s happened to every civilisation that may well be convinced that it has found “the truth”. But history moves on. Different kinds of truth intrude.

You have to ask how other countries dealt with this – some dealt with it better than others. Usually it was a source of great internal disruption, and crisis, and conflict. That was the story certainly in Japan. As I say in the book, Japan was the victim of this very violent process of modernisation.

Now, I think we are not exactly in that position, because what we have seen is a kind of rebalancing. It’s not the case that China has discovered something that’s not accessible to us, what they have done in fact is to discover something that we thought was specific to Western civilization – the control and mastery of technology and of modern society. So it’s not the case that the west is collapsing, but it’s still the case that it has to undergo the very traumatic process of adapting to a complete change in the relations of power.

JM: So it’s adapt or die? We have to aggressively, or competitively, challenge Chinese mercantilism and such?

BM: It is.

Now let’s see what that could mean. It could mean trying to keep China out. Ban all kind of Chinese investments, ban all kinds of Chinese influence in our societies. I think you see a temptation to do this, in the case of China and in the case of Russia.

I think this is a very unhealthy, very dangerous instinct, because, well, first of all it’s not possible. Secondly, you get into a dynamic – which we already see in the case of Russia – of continuous suspicion. Then everything becomes a wedge through which external influences are going to come in.

We saw this in the Ottoman empire and in China. It doesn’t end well, this form of paranoia. Okay, so let’s conclude that that’s not the right approach. Let’s conclude that we are going to be influenced by these rising powers. I think the best response is, well, we need to influence them in turn. We need to make sure, for example, that the Belt and Road turns out to be something that China didn’t quite envision. That it turns out to be something different, something that is perhaps more akin to our interests and our values. Let’s try to, in some respects, hijack the belt and road, take it to places, that for China are unexpected. I think this is the healthier response.

Now what do you do in practice? Our societies will have to adapt. It is very obvious, for example now, that in some areas competition is no longer fair and square.

You have companies that are backed by the Chinese state and they are competing against Western companies, which – precisely because of our form of economic liberalism – are disadvantaged. We understand that it is better to leave companies alone, to have a very strict line separating economic power from political power.

Now, if we were to legislate for the world as a whole, that might be a better system. We know the advantages, we have read our Hayek and Milton Friedman, and so on, but if we are competing against a rising power like China, which has dominated the secrets of modern technology, and if the idea is that China is going to marshal the resources of the state and then our private sector is supposed to compete – not against the corresponding private sector in China, but against the Chinese state – then there’s something here that doesn’t work, right?

There’s something here that doesn’t fit, and this is going to be very convulsive, very unstable.

And to some respects, I think there’s an awareness now in Germany that this is not a workable solution. That sometimes what looks like a Chinese company is in fact a state owned company, financed by the state following political goals and political strategies.

In a way, we now have two completely different systems – one authoritarian state capitalism, the other free market capitalism – and they don’t fit. And clearly this cannot be left to the magic of the market to work out, when in fact, you don’t have a global market – you have two systems clashing. What this leads to is conflict. Let’s say the Germans start to suppress Chinese investments because they don’t see it as the workings of the market…

Another possibility – which I tend to think is the better one – is to reach some kind of agreement with China, which would take initially the form of a free trade agreement, where we actually try and make these two systems fit somehow. It would be very difficult, but that is another reason to start quickly.

What seems clear to me, is that if you leave two incompatible systems to clash against each other, the result is not going to be creative destruction of a Schumpeter kind, it’s going to be very destabilising. And we have already seen the start of that, in the sense that we have a clash between China’s strategy for the fourth industrial revolution and the German strategy. And things could get quite ugly, I think in the next ten years.

JM: Where are Japan and India in this picture? With regards to responding to the Belt and Road initiative, what about Japan’s strategy of limited engagement and pushing alternatives like thePartnership for Quality Infrastructure?

BM: So far we have different kinds of relationships to the Belt and Road.

We have the vast majority of countries supposing one way or another to be part of the Belt and Road. Not only the 65 or 70 that are in the official plans, but potentially the whole of South America, Africa, and so on.

And then you have the countries that are explicitly excluded from it. And here I would probably only include two: the United states and Canada, which are never mentioned, and very obviously, the United States is the target of the Belt and Road in some way. The Belt and Road is supposed to rival American power, so it would be quite absurd to include it. And the Chinese are aware or this. Canada I think China sees as a kind of American dependency, one way or another.

In between these two extremes, you have two interesting cases – Japan and India. Japan is different from the other countries, because it has, as you said, a strategy of countervailing or rivaling the Belt and Road, but it is potentially involved in the Belt and Road too, so it’s a country that is both inside and out. Then you have India, which is also very peculiar, because it no longer appears as part of any plans, but it is not, like the US or Canada, a target or an adversary. It seems to me a country whose place in the Belt and Road is not decided yet. If China played its cards better it might be able to involve India, if it doesn’t, then India might join the US and Canada.

And India and Japan, you are right, they are very specific cases, and for the time being they seem closer to the US block – they are seen more and more as obstacles. Now I’ve heard in the last few weeks, from rumours and private conversations, that China is trying to change the Indian approach to the Belt and Road, so we will have to wait and see. I don’t think it was the original plan for India to be kicked out, but it was just a matter of how politics plays out and it is probably something that can still be corrected.

Now, was your question, what do I think is the best approach form all of these? Actually none of them, because as I told you – and this would probably be the best approach for Europe – is an approach where you are involved in it, you are part of it, but you try and take it in your own direction. Hijacking if you want – maybe not the best word – but trying to reshape the Belt and Road in ways that you find more congenial. Being a part but not necessarily receiving instructions from Beijing about what it should be. I don’t see anyone that is taking this role yet and I think it would be a very good role for the European Union.

I don’t think the role of opposing the Belt and Road is something that suits the European Union. It may well suit the United States, it may well suit Japan and India, we’ll see, I don’t think it suits the European Union. But at the same time, the EU has to become more and more, actually a co-owner and a co-actor of the Belt and Road, whether China likes it or not.

JM: What about China’s win-win rhetoric? To me, it contrasts very much the reality on the ground, but people also sincerely believe in it – Chinese academics and politicians – they believe in the community of common destiny. That’s conjecture but, I wondered what you thought about that?

BM: That’s an interesting question, and I hesitate myself.

It is true, and it is undeniable, that there is a very long tradition of Chinese reflection on these issues which is different from the Western one – unsurprisingly so – the whole tradition of Tianxia, etc., which is different from our tradition going back to the Greeks, and then Machiavelli, which is much more interested in the question of sovereignty and conflict.

So I think that is true, and should be taken seriously. What sometimes I end up talking with friends in Beijing about – and they seem open to this possibility – is that even though China does not intend this as a geopolitical project, as a project of state rivalry, it may turn out to be this way, against China’s wishes.

And then, another possibility is to think this is all just a form of false consciousness and the Chinese know very well that this is about hegemony and power, but they simply try and disguise that fact because – as Machiavelli will teach you – your rise to power works better if you hide it from everyone else…

Now – this may be politically useful way of thinking about China sometimes. But I don’t think it’s the way they think about it. And you know, I quoted Machiavelli – this is our tradition of thinking about politics – it’s not the Chinese tradition. In the book I mention this conversation, which I think is quite funny, where someone, probably already a bit tired of listening to this argument, said – well, how can there be a secret doctrine on the Belt and Road? It would be impossible, because China is too big, and you can’t have this much of, of an almost a deep state, where someone in the background is pulling the strings.

I think that this is the wrong way to look at it, but, as I also said in the book, even if you think in more traditional Chinese terms, it doesn’t mean that they will be benign or acceptable to many parts of the world – including the West – because, usually the traditional model is a model of dependency, it’s a model in which the centre is in China, in the middle kingdom, and then there are different peripheries, which are supposed to be dependent – it’s a model of Confucian society that is very much based on gratitude, and dependency, and respect, for those that are more powerful.

This is very antithetical to Western values. So, even if China is not pursuing a Machiavellian strategy but a Confucian strategy of some kind, applied to world politics… they seem to think that this makes it alright, and that the whole world should go along with it, but this is very naive… We have our own kind of naivety – not understanding that the world is different – but the Chinese also do.

Because, what for them might be seen as the beginning of a new age in the history of mankind – of relations of cooperation rather than conflict – is going to be rather unpleasant for the rest of the world.

We would certainly not want to live in a Confucian world where everything is based on relations of piety, of respect for authority and where there is a centre and there are different kinds of periphery. It would be a system in which many parts of the world, and the West before any other, could not accept. Let’s be honest about that.

JM: Right, it does strike me as naivety, but it also has that slightly sinister edge – where win-win is held up against cold war mentality and, without there even being this deliberate false consciousness, there’s this opposition – they’ve used it in the South China Sea, where opposing China is cold war mentality, whereas working in China’s interests is win-win – it’s an automatic thing.

BM: That’s right, and we’ve seen in the past two or three years that in fact, some of these relationships have taken a turn which is very obvious turn towards dependency. It’s very obviously a turn where smaller countries are expected to follow Chinese wishes, and if they do they are rewarded, and if they don’t they are immediately punished. I think that is undeniable, if you look at the cases of, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and others. And we should be aware of that.

JM: I just wanted to fit in one more question – it’s about the image on the cover of your book. It’s striking to me because of the gap left by the entire African continent. I know you can’t incorporate everything, but I wondered, in this new Eurasian century, what role does Africa play?

BM: Right, good question – maybe this interview is going to be very theoretical. But maybe that’s a good thing.

So, let me give, also a very theoretical and tentative answer to that question. I’ve been thinking a bit about it because Africa is going to figure in the next book in a way that doesn’t in this.

Okay, so there are different ways to think about it. First of all, it is very difficult to see Africa assuming a central position in the world in the next fifty years. The demographics are in a way in its favour, but… there hasn’t been – there’s nothing happening in Africa that isn’t happening at a faster pace elsewhere. In that sense it is still very difficult for me to go to Africa to see the future, you know what I mean? If I want to see the future – I go to other places. And in some respects, I go to China, but I also go to India, and I go to Indonesia.

So that’s the first point, and the second – where does it fit in a system where it’s not – let’s assume it’s not – in the centre – where does it fit? I think parts of Africa obviously fit in with Eurasia as I describe it in this book, because they are deeply connected, even historically and culturally, with Eurasia, more obviously in the Horn of Africa, where I’ve been travelling recently. There are the cultural influences from Islam, obviously, but also from Arabia specifically, where many of the clans in Somalia came from. Thirteen centuries ago, but that’s still where they trace their beginnings, and the culture is very influenced by Arabia, in Yemen and other places.

Economically and politically they’re also very important for Eurasia. One of the crucial connecting nodes between Europe and Asia is the Red Sea and the Suez Canal – and it will remain so. That’s really where Europe and Asia come together – they come together more obviously there than in Turkey, or in Russia, or in the Arctic. I think that’s pretty obvious, even in terms of trade and energy flows. So, that part of Africa – Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia – is going to be part of Eurasia.

I think it’s entirely possible that Africa… which is… it’s already very difficult to think of Africa as a single continent, a single unit, and in a way, we think of Africa as a single unit as the result of the fight against European colonialism and racism, in the sense that Africanism arose out of that. But again, as European colonialism recedes into the past, that identifying trait of not being European disappears as well and perhaps we will see Africa fracture a bit. I can imagine many different Africas – five, six different Africas, that, by the way, have very little in common with one another already, and may have even less common with each other a few decades from now – that’s one possibility.

It’s entirely possible – and let me speculate a little bit – that Africa will come under the influence of different superpowers, it may already be true to some extent that East Africa is under deep Chinese influence – very obviously in Ethiopia – and then West Africa is more under the American influence, simply because of the facts of geography and even history. So, why not, 20-30 years from now, a map of the world – almost like Europe divided between Soviet and American spheres of influences, one could have Africa divided between American and Chinese spheres of influence – it’s not impossible… it’s too early to know.

So those are a few ways to think about Africa. None of them particularly put Africa at the centre. But, a third point – Africa is still going to be very important. Resources, population – to give you an example – Ethiopia has one hundred million people. Egypt, close to that, Sudan, forty, Kenya, fifty, and so if you add just those four countries, you have a universe, that in a way, is already quite similar to the European Union. It’s in the same order of magnitude and it’s only four countries. These are important countries, economically they will become so. In the list of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2017, some of these countries in that region – Djibouti, Ethiopia – are in the top five or six. So, they will become important, just not central.

Final thing on Africa, I saw some forecast that Lagos, in Nigeria, could within 30 years have a population of around 90 million people. So this is a city – if you can call it a city – that is on a different order of magnitude. So far we’ve known cities – and they are already almost beyond the human imagination, of 25, 30 million people. So what does this tell us about Africa? Because a city like this has never existed and it is beyond imagination, would this be the moment we go to Africa to see the future?

Bruno Maçães’ book, The Dawn of Eurasia, was published in the UK earlier this year with Allen Page, and in the US with Yale Press. His new book, Belt and Road: The Sinews of Chinese Power, is coming soon. You can follow him on Twitter @MacaesBruno.