Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.
PARIS — “We will be back.”
With those four words, uttered at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, Joe Biden warmed the hearts of Europeans despairing at the erratic, indifferent and at times openly hostile foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump.
But even if the Democratic presidential contender wins the election (an increasingly likely “if” should Biden prove able to maintain his advantage in the polls), it’ll take more than warm feelings to get the transatlantic relationship back on track.
With or without a reliable partner in the White House, the European Union and Europe’s leading powers will have to learn to live in a world in which Washington may still be the ultimate guarantor of the Continent’s security, but won’t have the bandwidth to fix all the region’s many problems. And in which they will be required to do more to prove the utility of the transatlantic partnership.
Like Trump, Biden will expect Europe and NATO to carry more of the security burden in the Middle East.
“We can’t just wait till Biden arrives. We need to have a plan,” says David O’Sullivan, who was the EU’s ambassador to Washington until last year. “What’s our offer? The United States is our indispensable partner for the foreseeable future. It is in our interest to bolster American leadership rather than undermine it. What price are we prepared to pay to achieve a balanced agenda?”
In his speech in Munich, Biden called for a reform of NATO to meet threats unique to the 21st century and promised “serious coordination and consensus-building.” In recent speeches and articles, he has vowed to return on “day one” of his presidency to the Paris accord on fighting climate change and to the World Health Organization. He has also pledged to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal torn up by Trump if Tehran resumes full compliance, and to reaffirm unequivocally NATO’s mutual defense clause.
All that will be welcome news to European policymakers looking to rebuild one of the most successful partnerships in history and respond to global challenges alongside the U.S., instead of reacting defensively to pre-dawn Twitter storms from the irascible tweeter-in-chief.
But while a Democratic administration in Washington can be expected to consult allies more, be more active diplomatically and be more supportive of international institutions, a Biden presidency will not mark a return to the post-World War II era in which Europe could afford to live comfortably under the American umbrella.
Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, argues that Trump’s nationalist isolationism is not an aberration. On the contrary, he says it is deeply rooted in historic U.S. suspicion of foreign entanglements. And whoever ends up in the White House in 2021 there will be no return to liberal interventionism or to global American hegemony.
“Trump is following in the footsteps of [former U.S. President Barack] Obama, who understood the exhaustion of the American people with overseas involvements,” Araud wrote in his book “Diplomatic Passport,” published late last year.
“Style matters, and [Trump’s] approach is brutal, unilateral and non-cooperative, but the common thread of a relative disengagement from the international scene is probably irreversible.”
Would a Biden administration be more willing to step in if Turkey used force to press its continental shelf claims in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean? If Lebanon descended into civil strife and famine after the Beirut port catastrophe, prompting a flood of refugees? If the proxy war in Libya pitting the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia against Turkey and Qatar escalated? Or if Russia intervened in Belarus to crush protests following a disputed election?
Washington’s strategic pivot toward East Asia and away from Europe and the Middle East, which began under Obama, entails a permanent redeployment of military power and economic focus in response to China’s accelerating ascent as the main challenger to U.S. global dominance.
Like Trump, Biden will expect Europe and NATO to carry more of the security burden in the Middle East. European governments might be more inclined to help if U.S. policy on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reverted from Trump’s unilateral pursuit of regime change in Tehran and of a peace deal overwhelmingly slanted toward Israel. But whether the Europeans have the means or the political will to tackle any of these challenges is highly doubtful.
The real litmus test of U.S.-European cooperation under a Biden administration is likely to come over China, on which the Europeans are far from united among themselves but are eager to avoid being dragged into a new Cold War by Trump.
Tony Blinken, one of Biden’s senior foreign policy advisers, says how to handle Beijing is the most important question a Democratic president would face.
“There’s no more important relationship in the world than U.S.-China. We have to work together to get it right,” he told a recent Chatham House videoconference. A Biden administration would approach it by working with allies and “showing up in institutions instead of going AWOL.”
Given this new reality, it will take more than hope or wishful thinking, which abound in the corridors of Brussels, to put the transatlantic partnership back in gear. In short, Europe needs to stop treating the U.S. as a protective Big Brother it can always count on to scare away the neighborhood bullies — and more like an equal in a partnership in which both sides carry the burden.
If Biden makes good on his day-one promises, Europeans should be ready to respond with “deliverables” of their own, to borrow the ghastly bureaucratic terminology.
A more self-confident Europe should offer a President Biden a grown-up partnership, but not subservience.
They should offer to work with Washington to reform the World Trade Organization and renew transatlantic trade talks with new flexibility on agriculture and aerospace subsidies if Washington scraps punitive tariffs on EU goods.
European countries, including France, should agree to hold off on implementing digital taxes if the U.S. reengages in a good faith negotiation of corporate taxation principles at the OECD with a fixed deadline. They should also step up their common defense efforts to complement NATO with a stronger European pillar, and get firmer with China by insisting on investment reciprocity and the protection of critical infrastructure and technology.
The EU should also suggest a permanent transatlantic consultative forum on sensitive issues of technology transfer and investment — open to partners such as Canada, Japan and Australia.
In exchange, it should seek a U.S. commitment to forgo the kind of extraterritorial secondary sanctions used by the Trump administration that weaponize the dollar’s dominance of the international payments system to penalize foreign companies accused of breaching U.S. national sanctions against Iran or other targeted countries.
It is not certain that Biden would be willing or able to end this constant irritant in transatlantic ties, which is often spearheaded by Congress. But EU governments should make clear that this is a condition for good faith cooperation among allies in addressing the strategic challenge of China and others.
A more self-confident Europe should offer a President Biden a grown-up partnership, but not subservience. In a dangerous and uncertain world, rebuilding transatlantic ties after Trump’s wrecking spree must be the foundation for the post-COVID recovery, which is the top priority on both sides of the Atlantic.
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