Europe’s fight for multilateralism: With or without the US?

Regardless of the US election’s outcome, Europe will face some difficult choices on how far liberal states should cooperate with illiberal ones in shaping the international order.

Image by Gage Skidmore

US President Donald Trump’s disdain for international rules and institutions has been a nightmare for Europe. Almost all European policymakers see multilateral cooperation and an open, rules-based international system as essential to their interests. But Trump has pursued a foreign policy that is transactional, erratic, and hostile to international cooperation. He moved to pull the United States out of a series of multilateral institutions and deals, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Human Rights Council, and the Iran nuclear deal. Trump also paralysed the dispute settlement process of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by blocking the appointment of judges to its appellate body. He told the United Nations that the future belonged to patriots rather than globalists, saying the free world “must embrace its national foundations”.

Europeans have tried in various ways to fill the gap left by Trump’s retreat from multilateralism, striving to keep processes alive and compensate as far as possible for US retrenchment. They have also proposed a series of reforms to international institutions in response to US concerns about these bodies (which Europeans largely share). But such initiatives have essentially been part of a holding operation. While Europeans debate what they can do to sustain their vision of international order, they are also waiting to see how long the Trumpian revolution in US foreign policy will last. After November’s presidential election, they will have to make a more definitive choice about moving forward with or without the US.

Prospects for a Biden presidency

If Joe Biden is elected as president, the US will return to its role as a leading actor in the multilateral system. In an article published earlier this year, Biden said he would put the US “back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats”. The concrete steps he would take include immediately rejoining the Paris Agreement and calling a halt to America’s projected withdrawal from the WHO. In these ways, a Biden presidency would be hugely reassuring to Europeans. But it would still leave some areas of disagreement between the US and Europe over the future of the international system.

The extent of that disagreement is unclear, because there are some unresolved questions about the approach that Biden would take. At times, Biden sounds like a traditional post-cold war American internationalist, who wants the US to lead the world in a broadly liberal direction. Long a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was at the centre of the US foreign policy establishment in the 1990s and early 2000s, when this kind of hegemonic liberal internationalism was an article of faith. But the world has changed since then. And many Americans now think that the US must mobilise more explicitly against a resurgence of authoritarianism led by China. A group of thinkers aligned with the Democrats are calling for a foreign policy that prioritises the defence of the free world against assertive illiberal powers. Biden has also gestured in this direction, calling for a summit of like-minded democracies to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”.

Difficult choices on global cooperation

The problem for Biden is that there is tension between the goals of renewing global cooperation on shared challenges and of pushing back against resurgent authoritarianism. In a world where illiberal powers are increasingly influential (and where some democratic countries are also drifting in an illiberal direction), one should not assume that global cooperation will take place on liberal terms and under American leadership. The gamble of international liberalism after the cold war – that global interconnectedness would lead to a convergence on liberal political values – did not pay off. That leaves both Europe and the US with some difficult choices on how much they should cooperate with illiberal powers, and how much they should build structures and alliances to contain them.

Neither of these approaches to the international system – which one could call “collectivist” and “like-minded” respectively – provides an exclusive template for liberal countries’ foreign policy. Most supporters of an anti-authoritarian orientation recognise that the world is more interconnected than it was during the cold war, and that effective responses to global problems such as climate change or pandemics require countries to work on a collective basis. Nevertheless, there are trade-offs involved in striking a balance between the collectivist and like-minded approaches. While it is unclear how Biden would make those trade-offs, he is more likely than most European policymakers to focus on cooperation between like-minded partners. And Biden might find that his notions of US leadership do not match his European partners’ views, particularly after four years of Trump.

The gamble of international liberalism after the cold war – that global interconnectedness would lead to a convergence on liberal political values – did not pay off.

In some areas, Europe and a Biden administration would be broadly aligned on a like-minded vision. Biden would take a similar position to the European Union on the promotion of human rights, possibly seeking to rejoin the Human Rights Council, and would coordinate with European allies to fight China’s efforts to water down human rights norms across the UN system. He would also join efforts to define liberal global standards for cyberspace and combat disinformation. There would be differences between the US and European approaches – including on privacy rights and the taxation of digital services – but these would be small in relation to the gulf between the liberal and illiberal approaches. Europe and the US would have strong incentives to compromise with each other. Biden would also likely return to a like-minded approach to security affairs, combining strong support for NATO (while pushing European allies to increase their defence spending) and a return to disarmament negotiations, initially by trying to extend New START.

However, the US and the EU would remain at odds on at least one human rights issue, the International Criminal Court (ICC). Trump imposed sanctions on the ICC’s chief prosecutor and another senior official in response to the court’s investigation of US actions in Afghanistan, as well as its consideration of Israeli actions in Palestine. Biden would not have taken that step, but he would continue to oppose ICC investigations into US citizens. While the US could minimise the risk of prosecution simply by refusing to cooperate with the ICC, and while Biden would likely lift the sanctions at some point, he might look for another way to demonstrate resistance to the court’s investigations.

The trade dilemma

Trade relations with China would be a complex issue for Biden, and possibly a point of contention between his administration and the EU. Most Democrats agree with the Trump administration that China has benefited from its participation in the WTO by gaming the system through the maintenance of a state capitalist model. Kurt Campbell, a former Obama administration official, recently said that many Democrats recognise that “Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices”. The Obama administration shared the concerns about the operation of the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism that led Trump to shut down the appellate body. On this specific issue, a deal might be within reach, following the suggestions of a review led by New Zealand’s WTO representative, David Walker. But Biden is unlikely to simply go back to Obama’s relatively open trade policies. The EU will hope to win Biden’s support for reforms of the WTO to better constrain China’s actions. Nevertheless, in the likely event that this did not quickly produce results, Biden might want to leave some of Trump’s tariffs in place as an additional way to pressure China.

Europeans broadly agree with the US about Chinese trade practices, but they tend to see the issue largely in economic terms, seeking to draw a line between it and the security challenge posed by China. US policymakers, by contrast, are more inclined to view trade with China as part of a broader geopolitical struggle. Europeans are likely to prioritise the continued functioning of the WTO system above confrontation with China. Some members of a Biden administration might be tempted to regard the EU’s orientation towards negotiated reform of the WTO as process-driven and politically naive. While a united front of liberal states might win some concessions from China in areas such as transparency, it seems unlikely that such a coalition would persuade China to fundamentally change its economic model of state capitalism. Moreover, many European countries have shifted towards a greater role for the state in the economy in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, amid concerns about strengthening domestic production across a range of key sectors. Under these circumstances, there might be a split between Europe, which wants to maintain and reform its trade relationship with China within the WTO framework, and the US, which is ready to bend WTO rules to offset what it sees as China’s strategic economic advantage.

Confronting global challenges

Other areas of multilateral policy would be less contentious but might also lead to a transatlantic divergence over the scope for a collectivist approach. On global health, Biden will keep the US in the WHO, but will retain a strong impulse to treat China’s failure to disclose information during the early stages of the pandemic as a systemic problem. The US and the EU are likely to take a broadly similar position on WHO reform (as is clear from a position paper that the US prepared under Trump). But there is a limit to the effectiveness of such technical fixes. The fundamental problem is political – that many countries would be reluctant to give greater power to the organisation in ways that overrode the wishes of its member states. In these circumstances, the US might be more inclined than Europe to treat global health as part of its strategic confrontation with China. China’s recent move to join the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme – which, predictably, Trump refused to take part in – increased its credibility for Europe as a multilateral partner on global health.

On climate, too, Europeans will be eager to explore the possibility of further cooperation with China following President Xi Jinping’s pledge to reduce his country’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2060. Europeans’ climate agenda would lead to an interest in consulting on the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on carbon emissions in partner countries and the role of carbon border-adjustment taxes. Despite their frustration in dealing with China on climate change so far, Europeans will want to keep trying, given the country’s importance to the issue and the fact that this policy area is a key EU priority. A Biden administration would also look to cooperate with China on climate change, but their ability to work together might be limited if the US pursued an agenda more clearly focused on strategic competition.

On all these global issues, the advent of a Biden presidency would likely lead to parallel processes of collective action across different political systems and deeper coordination among like-minded democracies. But it is easy to imagine that Europe and the US would have different views on how to pursue this twin-track approach.

Prospects for a second Trump term

By contrast, if Trump were to be re-elected, there would be little prospect of transatlantic cooperation on multilateralism. In a second term, Trump might weaken American guarantees to NATO allies and step up pressure on Europeans over trade. At the same time, he might intensify his attacks on China, possibly using sanctions to try to force Europe into the US camp. In effect, Trump rejects both the like-minded vision of coordination between allies based on democratic values and the collectivist approach of institutional cooperation on global challenges, in favour of a more blatantly power-based strategy.

In this case, the EU would be caught between a unilateralist US and a China that, while it espoused a set of values that Europeans did not share, had nevertheless taken a series of multilateralist steps on climate change and global health. On top of this, Trump might try to create divisions between eastern members of the EU – which are highly dependent on US security guarantees and, in some cases, resistant to action on climate change – and the rest of the bloc. European policymakers would still try to support multilateralism, but they would have less ability to withstand China’s campaign to shape the evolution of international institutions, and less scope to build effective like-minded alliances. Europe’s fight for multilateralism would continue, but in a much more difficult context.

This commentary was supported by Hablamos de Europa, an initiative of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union, and Cooperation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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