A Biden victory could reset transatlantic relations

Many European pundits seem to think that a Democratic administration in the United States wouldn't change much about how the US has treated Europe since 2017. But, if Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump in November, the sceptics will find themselves pleasantly surprised.

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In his opening address to the European Council on Foreign Relations’ annual meeting, German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas claimed that, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election this November, Europeans “will have to think about how to better contain the conflicts in Europe’s vicinity, even without the US”.

His view is a popular one. Many European pundits, such as Janan Ganesh and Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times, have argued that US-EU relations would not change significantly even if a Democrat were to defeat US President Donald Trump. A Democratic president, the argument goes, would still be protectionist on trade, sympathetic to the American public’s supposedly isolationist instincts, and equally unenthusiastic about writing checks to defend Europe. This description was initially applied to senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, despite their strong support for international cooperation and human rights. Now, some Europeans are extending it to Joe Biden.

But the idea that Biden would bring no real change to US policy on Europe beggars belief. Biden has always been a staunch transatlanticist – and, over the course of his decades-long political career, he has forged close relationships with key European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As vice president from 2009 to 2017, Biden was always available to provide personal diplomacy when President Barack Obama was not.

While European pundits are correct to doubt that the old transatlantic alliance will simply return to its pre-Trump state, they are underestimating what a Biden victory would mean for US foreign policy. The Democratic Party is still a party of values, and a Biden administration would pursue a full reset after four years of Trump, restoring America’s historic commitment to responsible leadership on the world stage.

Whereas Trump has spent his time in office starting fights with Europe over climate change, trade, and human rights, Biden would bring America back to the diplomatic table. The United States would rejoin the Paris climate agreement, pursue new trade deals, and participate in cooperative efforts to ensure that technological innovation conforms with human-rights standards.

In the European Union, America’s image is at an all-time low, thanks to the Trump administration’s slow, incoherent, and ineffective response to the covid-19 crisis, a major part of which comprised blaming other countries, rather than cooperating with them. Instead of combating the crisis using the resources of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other multilateral organisations, the US banned travel from Europe without warning and announced it would defund the WHO. One of Biden’s first foreign-policy objectives would surely be to rectify this and to treat covid-19 as the global crisis it is. That means leveraging international cooperation to protect Americans from the pandemic (and its attendant economic devastation), as well as leading global efforts to combat the threat.

With Biden in the White House, European telecoms firms such as Nokia and Ericsson would be recognised and supported as the transatlantic alliance’s 5G champions, and the US would help Europe wean itself off Russian gas as it worked on a clean-energy transition. A Biden administration would also recognise the wisdom of negotiating a renewal of the New START nuclear-weapons agreement with Russia when it expires in 2021. And it would pursue other forms of arms control to advance European and US security interests and prevent a new arms race.

Whereas Trump has spent his time in office starting fights with Europe over climate change, trade, and human rights, Biden would bring America back to the diplomatic table.

More to the point, a Biden administration would uphold its end of any bargain, and would be trusted to maintain America’s commitments to partners and allies around the world. The only question is whether Europe, too, would be prepared to make the tough choices needed to reinvigorate the alliance.

Trump has allowed Europe to avoid such choices, because his outlandish behaviour has distracted attention from most other issues. For example, with all eyes on the intensifying Sino-American feud, the EU has become more accommodating to China. In early June, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, declared that Europe does not regard China as a military threat. And while US political leaders from both parties have loudly condemned China’s imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, the EU’s reaction has been relatively meek.

Lest we forget, the EU is the world’s largest trading bloc. With enough determination, Europe, working closely with the US, could have considerable leverage when it comes to promoting a rules-based multilateral system. But, to do so, it will have to expend political and diplomatic capital.

The same applies to issues closer to home. Europe has much to gain by working closely with the US to strengthen Ukraine’s independence and resilience in the face of Kremlin aggression, not least by upholding the recently renewed sanctions regime against Russia. The EU also has an interest in clearing an accession path for Western Balkan countries and ending the stonewalling that has long played into the hands of Russia, China, Turkey, and other powers. In bringing the Western Balkans into the transatlantic fold, Europe could count on the support of a bipartisan majority in the US Congress.

Pursuing any of these objectives would require the EU to place its values above political and diplomatic expediency. Doing so would show the American public that Europe is not the freeloader that Trump has made it out to be, but rather a confident, reliable partner. In fact, Americans already often look to Europe for policy ideas, from taking on Big Tech and protecting privacy to providing healthcare and other critical elements of the social safety net. A revived transatlantic relationship might well bolster the flow of European ideas to the US.

To be sure, a transatlantic reset would also require America to stand up for human rights and democracy, which would mean taking a tougher line on the current Turkish government. Fortunately, this should not be difficult. Polling by National Security Action has consistently shown that most Americans worry about Trump’s mismanagement of US relations with other countries, and would prefer to see the US government stand up for America’s professed values, including human rights.

Over the past few years, Trump’s made-for-TV tirades against the transatlantic alliance have given Europe every reason to turn inward and throw up protectionist barriers. But survey data from ECFR show that many of those Europeans who now support protectionism are disenchanted former supporters of the transatlantic alliance. With a change in US leadership and a more familiar approach from Washington, their disappointment may begin to lift.

By all means, European pundits can keep skewing the facts about Biden, the Democrats, and Americans’ views on foreign policy. By lowering expectations, they will have made it easier for a future Biden administration to outperform in the eyes of the European public. Relationships and alliances are about perception as much as anything else.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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