Erik Brattberg / Oct 2020
After four tumultuous years under President Donald Trump, the overwhelming instinct among America’s European allies will be to turn the page should Joe Biden enter the Oval Office in January 2021. They have good reasons to expect a Biden administration to bring positive energy to the battered transatlantic relationship. But even with a more cordial tone from Washington and the return to a more predictable U.S. foreign policy, structural changes will endure Trump. The real question facing European leaders is therefore not how to restore transatlantic relations to its pre-Trump days, but rather how to craft a new vision for the future—one where Washington may not always be in the driver’s seat and Europe is capable of taking on more responsibility.
A Biden administration would mark a welcome return to more familiar grounds for European leaders, many whom are still confounded with Trump’s “America First” agenda. Joe Biden, who has a long track record of supporting American engagement in Europe, would be one of the most pro-European American presidents in decades. He is on record of viewing the European Union as an “indispensable partner of first resort” and has pledged to “work more with allies”. Even though reestablishing trust in U.S. leadership will take time, given the enormous European dislike with Trump’s leadership a new Biden administration may not actually have to do very much initially to earn Europe’s good graces.
As one European diplomat described it in private, the transatlantic agenda under Biden “would almost write itself”. European diplomats expect that a President Biden would be quick to reassure NATO allies about the enduring U.S. commitment to article 5 and reestablish support for European integration. They also expect that a Biden administration would reverse Trump’s decision to quit the Paris climate accords and would reengage diplomatically on the Iran nuclear issue—both are seen by European diplomats as deeply symbolical of the overall U.S. commitment to multilateralism.
In addition to restoring some these Obama-era agenda items, European officials are keen to develop new lines of cooperation with a Biden administration. Examples of areas where they see opportunities to engage Washington include green tech and renewable energy, the global response to covid-19 and reform of the World Health Organization, democracy and human rights, and technology issues likes data privacy and digital taxation.
Even in areas where Biden is expected to bring more continuity than change, European diplomats are still hopeful that engagement with Washington could become more constructive than under Trump. One crucial such area is China where Europeans are keenly aware of the bipartisan shift in mood in Washington in recent years. Even so, they still expect that a Biden administration would be less ideological in its approach toward China and more keen on working together with partners. They also anticipate that Biden would engage Beijing on issues such as climate and public health—an approach that corresponds well to the EU’s own approach of viewing China as a “systemic rival”, a “competitor”, and a “partner”.
On trade, European officials have more modest expectations. A return to the TTIP trade negotiations is ruled out and there is also some wariness over Biden’s protectionist “Buy America” domestic economic agenda. Even so, European officials are hopeful that a Biden administration would at least remove Trump’s unilateral steel and aluminum trade tariffs, take car tariffs off the map, and reengage with the EU and Japan on reforming the World Trade Organization to modernize its rulebook and address illegal Chinese subsidies.
Of course, not everything is expected to be smooth sailing even under a Biden administration. Many Europeans believe long-standing U.S. complaints about the need for greater European defense spending and burden-sharing will continue and perhaps become even more demanding under a Biden administration. Given pressures facing U.S. defense spending and shifting strategic priorities toward the Indo-Pacific, some also expect Biden to continue Trump’s efforts to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Germany. Moreover, the declining U.S. interest in patrolling Europe’s neighborhood—a trend that predates Trump—is likely to continue under Biden. Still, some European diplomats see Biden’s approach to the Middle East as being more in line with the Europe’s own.
In some other areas there is far more uncertainty about what a Biden administration’s approach would actually entail. On Russia, for instance, European diplomats expect a hard-nosed approach and fewer mixed messages from a Democratic administration, but also more willingness to engage Moscow on arms control issues. On sanctions, Europeans except that even if a Biden administration takes a more balanced approach and opts for a broader toolbox than just unilateral pressure, Congress will continue to actively use this instrument. European leaders also recognize that Biden’s first year will be dominated by domestic issues such as addressing the covid-19 pandemic, fixing America’s broken healthcare system and restoring the economy, and healing societal divisions fueled by Trump.
However, despite the likelihood for occasional hiccups and flare-ups in the relationship, European diplomats are confident that a Biden administration would be more inclined toward working allies and partners, more predictable and effective than the chaos that has characterized the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and that it would be easier to manage disagreements with a new Biden team. Many of Biden’s closest advisors are already familiar and trusted interlocutors by European officials.
Should Joe Biden win the election, European leaders will once again have a keen American partner in the White House. If so, they must not do the mistake of merely waiting for a new U.S. administration to take the initiative. Instead they should seize the moment and immediately come to the table with new ambitious and creative proposals. The starting point for a reinvented transatlantic relationship in the 2020s is to recognize that times have changed since 2016 and that the center of gravity in the transatlantic relationship has shifted.
Consequently, a more confident Europe that is more able to lead on its own is also ultimately a more valuable partner to the United States. The trick for European leaders is accordingly to build out European strategic autonomy in the coming years in such a way that reinforces rather than detracts from a strong and healthy transatlantic partnership—this is likely an agenda a Joe Biden administration would embrace.