All change in the White House, but in the transatlantic relationship too?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Perhaps even louder than the cries of joy on the streets of US cities this past weekend following Joe Biden’s election were the sighs of relief emanating from the chancelleries of Europe. Four years ago, soon after President Trump’s inauguration, Joe Biden came to the Munich Security Conference, the annual conclave of the transatlantic security elite, and reassured his anxious audience that “America will be back”. He has kept that promise and over the past few days, a spate of telephone calls to the US’ key European allies has suggested that, even if Trump will still be in office for two more months, transatlantic relations already seem back to business as usual.

Biden has said that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the World Health Organization. He has also hinted that the US could rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), if Iran returns to full compliance. Moreover, he intends to lift the travel ban on Muslims, treat illegal immigrants more humanely and put climate change and human rights much higher up the US foreign policy agenda. On top of this, the national security experts on Biden’s transition team have said that the incoming administration will review Trump’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, before the local situations have stabilised, alongside the decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany.

Biden’s commitment to NATO is well known. In the 1990s he led the debate in the Senate on NATO enlargement and was an early US advocate of NATO intervention in Bosnia. He has described the alliance as a “sacred duty” and made clear that for him the European allies will be “the partners of first resort”. This language will be music to the ears of those allies (with a few notable exceptions in the eastern half of NATO) but it also seems to reflect the consensus of the Washington foreign policy establishment. This week the Centre for a New American Security conducted a straw poll of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, and 77% said that rebuilding relations with allies should be the number one. As opposed to only 20% who put dealing with China first.

Woody Allen famously said that “80% of success in life is just showing up”. Biden will certainly change the tone of the conversation and be at the table, ready to listen as well as talk. One of my most depressing days as a NATO official was being at the NATO summit in July 2018 when Trump came late to the meeting, used his intervention to castigate the allies for not paying their bills, and then abruptly left the room. There was nothing on how the allies could or should work better together to meet all the multiple security challenges or what spending tens of billions of extra dollars and euros on defence could usefully do to improve our common security. Financial compensation seemed to be Trump’s only interest. So having a US leader who is comfortable in a multilateral meeting and interested in outputs as well as inputs will already be a big step forward.

Yet a real dialogue will not dissipate all the pent up frustrations that Europeans have had with the Trump administration overnight. Allies have their views as well and the world has changed in a major way over the last four years. Trump will leave behind a controversial but deep mark on international relations which means that the clock cannot be turned back to where it was on the day Obama left office. Many Americans have willingly embraced nationalist populism and the 70 million-plus votes that Trump received in the election demonstrate that half of the country would like to continue this experiment (notwithstanding the concrete results) for at least another four years. This makes it hard for Europeans, who are confronting many of the same manifestations of nationalist populism at home, to see the US as the predictable leader of the liberal democracies in the way that they were accustomed to doing.

There will be foreign policy challenges too where Europe will have a special interest

The question of whether the US can surge back and heal its society and democracy (as it has been able to do in the past) or is now in accelerating decline will haunt Europeans for years to come, even with a Democrat in the White House. In the shorter term, they will also wonder how effective Biden can be with a divided Congress, as much of his foreign policy platform was predicated on the assumption that a ‘Blue Wave’ in the elections would recapture the Senate for the Democrats. Biden may have to wait for the midterm elections in two years’ time to have another shot at achieving that.

Moreover, the new US President was not elected because of his foreign policy track record and Rolodex of international contacts. His first priority will be combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which is surging in the US as in Europe and protecting the Obamacare health insurance programme from the predations of the Republicans, business interests and possibly also the Supreme Court. He needs to revive the faltering economy and jobs market and tackle the racial divide glaringly shown up by the death of George Floyd and multiple other incidents.

Yet this domestic agenda is also key to the future of the multilateral liberal order. For if the US cannot heal itself, it cannot save the rest of the world. The best antidote to China’s more vociferous authoritarian narrative is a US which delivers the goods as a democracy, a successful free market economy, an open society and giving opportunity to all its citizens. So in helping the US to get back on track in achieving these objectives Europeans will also help themselves.

Yet there will be foreign policy challenges too where Europe will have a special interest.

The first is trade and calling a halt to the tariff war between the US and Europe. Paradoxically, at the same moment that Biden was elected, the EU announced $4 billion of tariffs on US goods permitted by a WTO ruling against US government subsidies to Boeing. The US recently levied tariffs on European products subsequent to a similar WTO ruling against subsidies given to Airbus. Trade always has been a difficult issue in transatlantic relations and Biden will be no less keen than Trump to protect American jobs, companies and markets. Yet it makes sense for Europe and the US to call a time out on further trade restricting measures and to backtrack on the most recent round of tit for tat moves.

Given the political and protectionist mood on both sides of the Atlantic in the midst of a recession, reviving the old proposal for a TTIP or transatlantic free trade and investment zone will probably be a step too far. The more modest one between the EU and Canada was held up for months in the parliament of Wallonia. Yet there can be deals in more limited areas such as a tax on the tech giants, harmonising data privacy and exchange regulations across the Atlantic and things like spare parts, components, rules of origin and standards and mutual recognition. The EU should put something on the table here. Usefully it has recently opened up its PESCO defence cooperation and capabilities programme to potential participation by US companies.

Biden may be able to build some bipartisan cooperation around the theme of values

Another area is burden-sharing. This was Trump’s favourite topic in talks with allies but the commitment to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence was agreed by all NATO members and during the Obama administration. Biden will be careful that his softer tone is not misinterpreted by Europeans as a signal that they can ease up on their efforts to all achieve this goal by 2024. The US has too many commitments of its own to be able to compensate for gaps in NATO’s force posture left by insufficient European forces – either in quantity or quality.

Yet what Biden can do is change the narrative to talk more about how this effort benefits Western defence overall rather than only the US Treasury. He could also talk more about outputs, capabilities and technologies rather than only dollar inputs, and make clear that he will assess NATO in a broader perspective embracing contributions to all security tasks of the alliance rather than just headline defence budgets or money spent buying US equipment.

Third will be values. Biden is likely to be tougher on Russia and keen to help the emerging democracies on Russia’s doorstep, such as Ukraine and Georgia. Although Trump often proclaimed his appreciation of Putin, many Republicans were also highly critical of Russia. So Biden may be able to build some bipartisan cooperation around the theme of values. This will undoubtedly go down well in Eastern Europe, where distrust of Russia runs deep. Other Europeans will want to see that a tough push back against Russia for its aggressive behaviour and hybrid warfare activities can go hand in hand with pragmatic cooperation, for instance in arms control and prolonging the New START nuclear weapons treaty.

Taking a more assertive stand on human rights (and not only vis-à-vis China) and rejoining the UN Human Rights Council would be welcome US moves. Yet dealing with EU and NATO members, for instance Turkey, Poland and Hungary, where values have become problematic, will be more delicate, given the US security interests at stake. Here too a common US-EU approach would be useful, especially when it comes to the harmonisation and application of sanctions or Magnitsky Act measures against individuals involved in human rights abuses and democracy transgressions.

Finally, there is of course China. Despite Trump’s campaign criticisms that Biden would be soft on China, Democrats have been just as alarmed about the more negative aspects of China’s rise as Republicans. China is seen across Washington as a systemic rival calling for a comprehensive US long-term national security strategy. Biden appreciates more than Trump that the US has a better chance of constraining China if it builds a common stance with its allies, both in the Asia-Pacific and Europe, than if it goes it alone. China is good at bullying individual countries that dare to criticise its actions. Only a joint approach can steer its behaviour towards the adherence to norms and cooperation.

Europe should not wait until the inauguration to put its ideas on the table

Yet once Biden engages Europe on China, the allies need to seize the opportunity to convince the US to take a balanced approach mixing competition and a robust defence of values and economic interests with cooperation, for instance on pandemics and climate change. China is present in too many domains to be contained in the manner of the Soviet Union. Ultimately we have to out-perform it and out-compete it. How we do that, and starting from which strengths and weaknesses, is what the new transatlantic dialogue must be all about.

Europe should not wait until the inauguration to put its ideas on the table. Once it starts governing at the end of January the new administration will, like all others, get fully absorbed in the daily news cycle and crisis. Now is the time to input ideas into the Biden transition team as it charts its course. The current review of NATO’s future to be reported to the NATO meeting of foreign ministers in December is an early opening to be seized. That report can be used to convene a NATO summit early in the new year with Biden to start work on a new alliance strategic concept. This new concept, which is badly needed given that the old one dates back to the pre-Crimea times, must determine how the alliance can handle the challenge of China, step up its dialogue with the democracies in the Asia/Pacific and better manage all the threats that come under the broad headings of hybrid warfare and resilience.

A US-EU summit with a complementary agenda, and with NATO and EU officials involved in both meetings to cross-reference the discussions, could take place back-to-back with the NATO session. This would demonstrate to the wider world that the transatlantic relationship has moved from introspection and mistrust to solidarity in action. So the mood across the Atlantic is lifting just as we are heading into winter. Yet there is one important lesson of life: it is never to indulge in an excess of pessimism or optimism. A strong transatlantic relationship is vital for Europe’s security and a more orderly world. Yet it is something over which Europeans have only limited control. On the other hand, European Strategic Autonomy and the ability to stand on their own feet in global geopolitics is something over which they have full control. So they need to continue to develop it energetically and with deeds not just words, and in good times as well as bad.

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