Is Europe ready for America’s embrace?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Max Bergmann
Max Bergmann

Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

The fate of the transatlantic alliance will be determined in November when American voters go to the polls. Should Donald Trump secure a second term, the concept of ‘European strategic autonomy’ would go from being an interesting think tank event topic to a geopolitical reality. America’s abandonment of Europe would accelerate, and Europe would be forced to fend for itself in a world consumed by geopolitical competition. But should Joe Biden win, Europe will also have to prepare itself. Not because it will be abandoned, but because it will be embraced. Europe has gotten used to American neglect. How will it cope with American attention?

The coronavirus has been politically devastating to Donald Trump’s chances of reelection. The strong US  economy, his only leg to stand on, has been taken from him. His ravings from the White House podium have unnerved wide swaths of the public – even eroding his once rock-solid support – and provided Democrats with reams of attack ad content. Donald Trump was already the most unpopular president in modern US history, having never had his approval ratings rise above 50%. The gross incompetence from his administration’s response to COVID-19 has seen his approval numbers sink into the low 40s and given former vice-president Biden a sizable polling advantage. While it would be foolish to count Trump out, he is clearly flailing, resorting to an endless drip of conspiracy theories. But Trump’s efforts to recreate the scandal magic of 2016 – ‘Hillary’s emails’ – is going to be hard to repeat. Like a sequel to a bad movie, interest in these scandals is much lower than four years ago.

There’s a long way until November and all sorts of Orban-style political malfeasance is expected. Nevertheless, Joe Biden is on track to be the next president. And while Biden is a known figure in Europe, representing continuity with past American foreign policy, he could also be a transformative figure in transatlantic relations. Biden, unlike Obama, is at his core a ‘transatlanticist’ and has repeatedly indicated that reinvigorating the transatlantic alliance will be a top priority.

This mutual dependency could pave the way for a genuine US-EU partnership

At minimum this means that, in a Biden presidency, the US will once again commit to NATO, take a strong stance toward Russia, and conduct warm personal diplomacy with Europe’s leaders, much as it did during the Obama Administration.

But a Biden Administration will seek to do a lot more than simply ‘restore’ relations. The US under Biden may see the United States engage Europe with an energy and purpose not seen since the period after World War II, when the US pushed Europe to engage on a path to integration. There are a few reasons for this newfound US engagement.

First, Europe, and specifically the European Union, now matters to Washington again. After 9/11, America largely ignored Europe. Europe’s geopolitical value was seen only in its ‘burden-sharing’ potential. But since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Washington has rediscovered Europe’s geopolitical importance. Brexit and the rise of populism demonstrated to Washington that it could no longer take European stability for granted. Moreover, geopolitical competition with China has made Europe both a key potential ally and a major theatre for geopolitical competition.

Second, there is so much to do together. A new administration will have a long international agenda for which it will need to work not simply with ‘Europe,’ but fundamentally with the EU. Most top priorities for a new administration, including climate change, economic recovery, China and Russia, require close US-EU collaboration.

Third, America is weaker now and needs Europe. America’s ability to call the shots internationally has declined both due to Trump and from the rise of challengers to the liberal international order like China. Just as Europe needs America as a security partner, America increasingly needs Europe as a diplomatic partner. This mutual dependency could pave the way for a genuine US-EU partnership, potentially even a new ‘special relationship’. A new administration will therefore energetically seek to work with Europe.

An engaged America may take an interest in and throw its weight around in ‘internal’ EU discussions

However, Washington’s patience won’t be endless. A new administration will expect Europe to step up as well, not just on defence. Despite having 450mn people and being the largest economic bloc in the world, Europe punches well below its geopolitical weight. America is not reengaging Europe for the fun of it; it is engaging because it wants something very tangible: a stronger European ally and partner.

An engaged America may take an interest in and throw its weight around in ‘internal’ EU discussions in hopes of bolstering the EU, such as the size of its budget, enlargement, or recovery funds. This could ruffle feathers, particularly in conservative Berlin and ‘frugal’ European states that seek Europe to remain as it is. But America has significant leverage. When Sweden seeks out stronger defence relationship with the US, Washington may ask it to stop being obstinate and back a larger EU budget. America may drop its old hang ups and go from fiercely opposing EU defence to fully supporting the concept, including using its leverage with Eastern EU members to get on board. Having engaged, Washington will expect results and could be disappointed.

But will Europe balk? There is a danger that a Biden administration will offer to create a genuine partnership and hold out its hand, only to have Europe not be able to grasp it. That would be a shame.

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