As of this writing, the outcome of the US election still looks uncertain. But, even as we focus our attention on the counting rooms of Phoenix and Philadelphia, it is not too soon to think about what a Biden presidency or a second Trump term would mean for Europe.
It is tempting to talk in terms of specific policies: whether Biden would be better for NATO or eastern Europe; whether Trump would start a trade war; or which of them likes or hates British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And we should: those issues are important (except for the Johnson one). But maybe we first need to understand the broader changes over the last four years in the way Europe and America understand each other, and what the transatlantic alliance is for.
This is because, beyond all daily struggles, the US-European alliance means something. It is the real-world expression of the West – of a sense that both sides of the Atlantic are in it together; that they share a common set of values and interests that mean they are uniquely suited to working together and protecting each other from common enemies.
This meaning is what we have lost over the last four years. Focusing on discrete policy issues – US troops in Europe, contributions to the European Deterrence Initiative, or sanctions against Russia – misses this fundamental point. President Donald Trump does not see allies as important to the US-European security relationship and does not believe in the West or in this meaning of the alliance. His casual disregard for the symbols and rituals of the alliance, his consistent attacks on its pillars such as NATO and the European Union, and his constant degradation of allies in favour of authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin – who oppose the very existence of the alliance – all send this message very clearly to European allies.
For Trump, America’s contribution to European security is merely a point of leverage, a tool for securing advantages in trade wars or satisfying his ego by denigrating those who depend upon America’s protection. Allies are not partners – they are more like distant relatives who show up at your mansion and use your pool all day.
Trump would no doubt use a second term to reignite a trade war with the EU, with the narrow and questionable aim of reducing or even eliminating the US trade deficit with Europe, particularly Germany. To do that, he would seek to divide Europe, telling US partners in the east that, if they valued their security relationship with America, they needed to deliver Brussels on trade. The resulting internal splits within the EU could well paralyse the organisation. One suspects that there would be a similar dynamic within a putative US-UK trade deal: the long-standing alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom would not protect the UK from the Trump administration’s determination to ensure that every Brit could exercise the god-given right to eat chlorinated chicken and genetically modified organisms.
Joe Biden, by contrast, believes in the idea of allies and the value of European partners. Under his leadership, there would continue to be trade and security friction across the Atlantic, no doubt. Debates about defence burden sharing, privacy, aircraft subsidies, and whatever else would hum along as they have for decades. Europeans would continue to worry that America was losing interest in them and pivoting to Asia or returning home. Some disputes might even get worse – a Biden administration would certainly be forcefully protective of the Good Friday Agreement and more insistent on a UK-EU compromise on Brexit than the Johnson government would like. It might take a harder line on democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary than their leaders have had to endure from Trump.
Those issues would roil transatlantic relations under Biden and perhaps even inspire me to write another withering polemic on the future of transatlantic relations for some obscure German journal. But they would not call into question the very nature of the alliance as Trump has done. They would not threaten the meaning of the relationship.
So, many in the EU and the UK may feel that a Biden administration would be worse for them on certain policies that matter deeply to them. And maybe they are right. But, even if so, they are missing the broader picture and the deeper meaning of the transatlantic alliance. Only a Biden administration can preserve this notion of the West that both Europeans and Americans desperately need.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.