With the election of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as 46th President of the United States, diplomats, policymakers, and analysts across Europe breathed a long held sigh of relief. It was no secret that President Donald Trump was no fan of America’s postwar trade and security arrangements with Europe and his vocal (and sometimes material) opposition to such stalwart institutions as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations sparked several crises of confidence in Europe. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron famously declared NATO “brain dead” due to a lack of U.S. leadership and leaders across have publicly and privately decried America’s abandonment of their continent.
But, despite President-elect Biden’s chops as a foreign policy buff and a committed Atlanticist, many European analysts do not see Mr. Biden’s election as a harbinger of renewed American interest in global leadership. Europeans do expect that a Biden administration will be more supportive of multilateralism and more willing to stabilize international institutions, but many Europeans see an American electorate for which Europe is no longer a priority and do not expect Mr. Biden to recenter Europe in American foreign policy.
The savviest of analysts will point out that this development has been a long time coming; Europeans have been burned by the vicissitudes of the American presidency for the past three administrations. Starting with President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, America’s go-it-alone attitude and French President Jacques Chirac refusal to take part in the war resulted in a significant deterioration of U.S.-EU relations. It was only when the committed amerophile Nicolas Sarkozy was elected French president in 2007 that the frosty Franco-American relationship began to warm again.
In President Barack Obama, Europeans found a kindred spirit when it came to support for multilateralism, but that seemed to be where the similarities ended. On issues of great strategic importance to the United States, such as Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. and Europe found success in the multilateral approach. But, Mr. Obama’s responses to Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine were met with disappointment in Europe. In a wide ranging interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in 2016, President Obama justified his relatively feeble response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea peninsula by arguing that America had little strategic interest in Ukraine compared to Russia and it therefore did not merit escalating a fight that Russia would never back down from. President Obama’s inaction against Europe’s longtime adversary shocked European leaders and signaled that America was no longer interested in defending Europe.
These signals ballooned in strength under President Donald Trump. As America’s international retrenchment intensified, the institutions that had guaranteed European security and stability since the end of the second World War have begun to strain under the pressure. Most notably, without America to lead it, NATO has grown weaker and weaker, which has further emboldened both NATO’s historical rival, Russia, and NATO’s revisionistic insider, Turkey. For the first time in its history, the potential for war or armed conflict between two NATO allies (be it Greece and Turkey or France and Turkey) seems increasingly likely with the Mediterranean Sea’s southern coast and eastern gas fields becoming hotbeds of competition between the region’s movers and shakers. Furthermore, Mr. Trump has pursued an antagonistic trade policy against Europe, levying tariffs on everything from French wines to German cookies and reviving old grievances about restrictions to the European single market.
Because of these constant shifts in American policy, many Europeans have come around to the idea that the U.S. simply cannot be trusted to consistently pursue Europe’s interests and, as such, a more muscular European Union is needed to better advocate for Europe’s interests and values on the world stage. This is the position most notably championed by Mr. Macron in France. He has called on his colleagues across Europe to strengthen the EU Commission’s capabilities in the realms of trade, immigration, defense, and finance. According to his view, Europe needs to be a third world superpower alongside the U.S. and China. In this role, the EU would be able to use its status as the world’s largest common market to mediate trade relations between the U.S. and China and offer a third way to developing markets in Africa’s booming economy who are wary of the Americans and the Chinese. Despite Macron’s advocacy, this vision of Europe has yet to gain majority support in the bloc. But, support for further integration seems to be on the rise in Europe and few would discount the impact of America’s retrenchment on this trend.
Despite America’s political oscillations, one might be wont to assume that Europeans who do not share Macron’s vision would be eager to hand the reins of leadership back to the U.S. And, while many Europeans (particularly German policymakers) eagerly anticipate a more active U.S., most European diplomats recognize that America’s priorities in the realms of trade and security have changed and now diverge more sharply than ever with Europe’s. After the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and much bellyaching over the negative consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, European analysts see an American electorate and an American political class that are much more protectionist on trade than they were four years ago. As such, European firms are bracing for Mr. Biden to leave many of Mr. Trump’s tariffs in place and to take a much more aggressive stance on eliminating some of the EU’s barriers to entry for the single market.
So, what does this all mean for the future of the Euro-American relationship? It will undoubtedly be different than before and likely more contentious as European and American interests diverge. But, the U.S. and the EU both have a vested interest in stabilizing the postwar liberal world order and European leaders are eager to create multilateral coalitions with the United States once more. So, once the Biden administration begins, one can expect Europe and the U.S. to work more closely together on matters of shared interest, particularly when it comes to limiting China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region and holding the Communist Party accountable for its rollback of liberties in Hong Kong and its project of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. But, one should not expect Mr. Biden to reverse America’s insular trends; NATO will likely continue to be leaderless and free trade agreements will continue to be shunned. With that being said, some europhilic analysts see a silver lining: as Europe battles exterior threats from Turkey and Russia and interior threats from illiberal governments in Poland and Hungary, some are cautiously optimistic that this state of affairs will provide the push Europe needs to undertake structural reforms to her institutions and become the world power that her economic clout warrants. So, the Euro-American relationship will not be the same, but, depending on how Europe responds, the world could end up having two superpowered defenders of liberalism. And even most Americans would find that to be a favorable outcome.