To Europeans, America is back. The US wants something in return

If it is not possible to renew transatlantic vows under Biden, chances are that it will not happen under his successor either.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Maja Hitij/Getty Images

For much of Europe, Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election was a relief. Although the transatlantic relationship has gone through many ups and downs, Trump was an exceptionally challenging partner for Europe: he called the EU a “foe”, scolded allies for failing to meet Nato’s defence spending target, questioned America’s commitment to defend its allies, and acted impulsively in foreign policy. 

Biden, on the other hand, is the type of traditional Atlanticist that Europe is comfortable with. For him, repairing America’s relationship with Europe is a key foreign policy priority. In February, Biden told the Munich Security Conference that the US is determined to re-engage and consult with Europe to earn back its position of trusted leadership. His administration’s Interim National Security Guidance also underlines that vital national interests compel the US to deepen connections with Europe, and that Washington will forge a strong common agenda with the EU and the UK. 

The administration’s early foreign policy activities clearly reflect this: Washington has re-entered the Paris Climate Agreement, requested to participate in the EU’s military mobility defence cooperation project, increased foreign policy coordination with Europe, and reassured Europeans in different forums that America is back. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has also reconfirmed America’s commitment to Nato, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has highlighted Washington’s commitment to raise the ambition of its relationship with the EU. 

This is music to Europe’s ears. However, Biden is not seeking to revitalise America’s relationship with Europe out of pure nostalgia: Washington is expecting concrete support from Europe when it comes to dealing with challenges such as boosting the resilience of the rules-based international order, defeating Covid-19, fighting climate change, revitalising the global economy and solving the Iran nuclear question.

In addition, Biden is expecting Europe to step up on more sensitive issues, notably on China and Russia. Washington sees both China and Russia as revisionist great powers, geopolitical competitors, and as threats to democracies around the world. This is also why Biden’s flagship project, the planned Summit for Democracy, is driven by a desire to bolster the resilience of democracies around the world against authoritarian pressure.

EU ambiguity over China and Russia

Europe is far less clear about how it wants to deal with China and Russia: some European countries see them as direct threats, some as economic partners, others as both. Although Europe’s Russia policy has become more hawkish since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, the economic relationship with Russia continues to condition it, as demonstrated by the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Equally, although the EU sees China as a systemic rival, the fact that Beijing is a major trading partner for the Union means its China policy is a difficult balancing act between values and economic interests.

This complicates Europe’s ability to respond to Biden’s calls for greater cooperation. On one hand, Europe knows it needs the US to advance many of its foreign policy priorities, and to contribute to Europe’s own security through Nato. Europe also understands that Biden’s election has opened a window of opportunity to revitalising transatlantic relations. On the other hand, Europe wants to maintain its freedom to pursue an autonomous policy, especially towards China, to avoid having to make trade sacrifices and being dragged into potential Sino-American conflict. This has been labelled the EU’s “Sinatra doctrine”.

The EU’s ambiguity over China and Russia has already created transatlantic tensions. Biden’s foreign policy team also became frustrated and irritated with the EU over its decision to sign a trade deal with Beijing only weeks before Biden’s inauguration. 

Extending a hand to Biden 

Despite these differences, Europe needs to respond to Biden in a meaningful and substantive way: a failure to do so could harm transatlantic relations for years to come. Biden represents a diminishing group in American politics that still sees engaging Europe as a vital US national interest. Due to changes within the American society and the rise of China as a peer-competitor, the centre of gravity of US foreign policy has been shifting away from Europe for years. If it is not possible to renew transatlantic vows under Biden, chances are that it will not happen under his successor either, whoever that may be.

The EU in particular should do everything it can to extend a hand to Biden. In December, the Union put out a paper on a new transatlantic agenda that included positive proposals such as enhancing EU-US cooperation on the fi ght against authoritarianism and creating a new EU-US security and defence dialogue. This paper should be followed up ahead of the planned EU-US summit later this year to underline to Washington that the EU is equally interested in raising the ambition of its relationship with the US as Washington is with Brussels. 

The EU should also use the ongoing development of a new “Strategic Compass”, a document that will guide its security and defence policy until 2030, to sharpen its approach towards Russia and China. It also creates important synergies between the Strategic Compass process, which will conclude in spring 2022, and the forthcoming process that Nato is expected to launch to develop a new “Strategic Concept” for itself. Given that both processes seek to clarify the roles and aims of the respective organisations, this could boost EU-Nato cooperation. 

In addition, the EU and the US need to keep up the process of showing goodwill to each other. In this respect, Washington’s desire to participate in the EU’s military mobility project, the suspension of tariffs in the Airbus-Boeing dispute, and the coordinated sanctions on Russia following the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny are positive steps. However, this goodwill may disappear if the US decides to use secondary sanctions to punish European firms involved in Nord Stream 2, or if Washington and Brussels cannot come to an agreement on the EU’s proposed carbon border tax. 

Finally, the EU should fully endorse Biden’s Summit for Democracy and develop proposals on how it could contribute to it. The overall message coming from Europe needs to be positive: it is not in Europe’s interest to come across as apathetic towards the flagship foreign policy initiative of a strongly pro-European US president.


Dr Nováky is a research officer and deputy editor-in-chief of the European View at the Martens Centre

14th April 2021