By Jamie Dettmer
With days to go before the inauguration of Joe Biden as America’s 46th president, America’s European allies are preparing for the new administration.
For Europe’s leaders Biden’s return to the White House, which he left four years ago as Barack Obama’s vice president, along with familiar faces in key foreign and security jobs, is reassuring.
And it is even more so in the wake of last week’s violence against Congress by agitators supporting U.S. President Donald Trump, focused on deep-state conspiracy theories, who sought to reverse the result of Biden’s presidential election win. It is an assault that has left Europeans as disoriented and shaken as Americans.
At a security conference two years ago in Munich, European leaders were tugging at Biden’s sleeves in the margins, urging him to run for office. After enduring a rough-and-tough “America First” speech from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, their nerves were soothed by Biden, now seen as the most pro-Atlanticist president since George H.W. Bush, when he quipped in his address: “This too shall pass. We will be back.”
Biden and his team of top advisers, his nominee for U.S. secretary of state, Tony Blinken, and his picks for top jobs at the CIA and in the National Security Council, including Jake Sullivan and Amanda Sloat, are known quantities on the other side of the Atlantic, having served in the Obama administration. Sloat, a former senior State Department official, will lead the NSC’s European desk. “Amanda is a great professional who knows Europe well,” says David O’Sullivan, a retired Irish diplomat and former EU envoy in Washington.
Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are now determined to repair frayed relations and to steady democracies roiled by unprecedented domestic political turmoil and challenged by authoritarian powers. There will be quick agreement on a range of issues with both Brussels and Washington eager for close collaboration, according to analysts. Biden already has committed to rejoining the Paris climate accord and says he will reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization.
Washington and Brussels are likely to move quickly to shape an initiative on how the moribund World Trade Organization can be reformed and rules-based multilateral global governance generally strengthened, say analysts. They also expect a bid to iron out trade disputes. Last month, the European Commission called for the U.S. and the EU to “work closely together on solving bilateral trade irritants.” There is some hope in Brussels of Biden lifting Trump-era tariffs imposed on EU steel and aluminum imports.
That could pave the way to settle a longstanding dispute over subsidies to airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. The EC also laid out a wish list for cooperation, including on the pandemic, climate change, technology, security and defense. The list was designed to demonstrate how in tune Europe is with some of Biden’s priorities. It also was, though, an early pitch of EU positions where there are differences, readying for negotiations.
Additionally, individual European countries have been courting the new administration. Biden has said he wants to convene a global summit of democracies to forge common goals that serve the cause of freedom and rally democracies to counter authoritarian alternatives. Victoria Nuland, a veteran diplomat slated for a top job at the State Department, recently said: “It’s time to stand up and defend it [democracy].”
She added: “We’ve got problems not only dealing with the autocracies out there … we’ve got backsliding countries all over the world who may have elections, but they’re not behaving like democracies in terms of protecting free press and free judiciaries and upholding the rule of law. And we have problems inside our own societies.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Saturday: “We are ready to work with the United States on a joint Marshall Plan for democracy,” a reference to the U.S. campaign launched in 1948 to rebuild 18 war-torn Western European nations. Maas said there were “no better, closer, more natural partners in the 21st century than America and Europe.”
Britain, too, is ratcheting up outreach to Washington with four top cabinet ministers slated to visit the U.S. capital in the next few weeks. With an eye on the possibility that Biden would defeat Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson started advocating in June for the establishment of a D-10 group of leading democracies.
Last week, Johnson appointed a cabinet minister to take charge of the COP26 climate change summit, which Britain will host in November in Glasgow. The appointment came after Biden aides warned London it needed to ramp up summit preparations or risk not being taken seriously by the new administration.
Johnson’s government has been quick to outline how well-aligned it is with many of Biden’s key priorities, including strengthening NATO, especially in cybersecurity. It also is boosting its own defense spending. And last month it backed off reneging on parts of a year-old Brexit withdrawal agreement. That could have resulted in border posts being established on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a breach of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Peace deal.
Both moves were “responses to Biden’s victory,” says Lisa Nandy, the foreign affairs spokesperson of Britain’s Labor Party. She told VOA: “It has been made very clear and not just by Biden, but by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats, that Britain needs to start repairing relations with the EU. Britain has lot of work to do to show that we are still relevant post-Brexit.”
While there’s much to uniting the two continents, a simple return to how things were before Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t likely, policymakers and analysts agree. Major adjustments will have to be made because of domestic political developments both in the U.S. and Europe—and because of changed geopolitics.
Since Biden was last in the White House, China has become even more assertive and the Kremlin has amended the Russian Constitution, paving the way for Vladimir Putin to remain in power in Moscow for the foreseeable future. Both China and Russia have been accused of waging hybrid warfare against the West in a bid to unravel Western democracies by meddling in democratic elections, launching invisible cyber hacks against both the U.S. and Europe, and running online disinformation campaigns.
As Americans and Europeans swap their to-do lists, they say there are many crossovers but also concede differences, as well.
“A lot of commentators focus on how America has changed under Donald Trump. But Europe has also changed,” says Hans Kundnani of Britain’s Chatham House. He cites the growing debate in Europe about the bloc developing “strategic autonomy” with the goal of increasing EU self-sufficiency and independence at a time of growing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China.
Biden aides say they don’t fear a more autonomous Europe, saying a marriage is strengthened when both partners are strong, as long as they don’t start going separate ways.
But EU ambitions to become a bigger global player are likely to expose some frictions—especially when it comes to handling China. Kundnani says Europe is likely to bristle at Washington’s efforts to draw the EU into alignment with the U.S. on China. He predicts there’ll be resistance with efforts to get Europe to decouple from China and to take more seriously the geopolitical and security implications of European companies trading with Beijing. “I’m thinking here particularly of Germany,” Kundnani says.
Biden wants a “united front” when it comes to China to increase leverage on Beijing. But to the disappointment of Biden aides, the EU last month struck an investment deal with Beijing, which on paper appears to open up China to more European investment hedged with fewer barriers.
Days before the agreement was sealed, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, urged the Europeans to delay the agreement, calling in a tweet for “early consultation with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic say the deal will give China preferential access to European markets while Beijing continues to tamp down Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and maintain detention centers in Xinjiang province, where China’s Communist government has interned more than a million Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group, according to rights groups.
Even before Trump was elected, there was a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Europe needs to take more responsibility for its own security, but several countries have been dragging their feet. Biden will continue to push, say his aides, for equitable burden-sharing, but he won’t engage in the episodic questioning of the very value of the transatlantic defense pact President Trump did in bruising encounters with European leaders. European slowness in rebalancing NATO may remain a source of transatlantic tension, experts assert.
NATO aside, Biden has highly ambitious foreign policy goals, which may stretch the EU’s capacity to move fast and secure agreement among its 27 members.
“It’s going to take a lot of knitting and a lot of coordination to deal with the many things coming at us, from health to economy to China to tech, all of these kinds of things,” Nuland cautioned at a research group event last month. She said the U.S. will embrace Europe tightly, adding, “Maybe too tightly, so we’ll have to see how that goes.”