Biden’s Europe Problem

This week I was asked to comment on U.S.-European relations for MSSU’s school newspaper, The Chart. This got me thinking about how the United States has treated Europe during the Trump Administration and how that might affect Biden’s foreign policy in the region. The America First foreign policy stance was essentially a retreat from the traditional U.S. role in international politics.

After World War II, the U.S. took the lead in developing the Bretton Woods international system. Institutional mainstays created a systemic bulwark of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that can only be described as a new international order. These included the new Gold Standard, the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization), and the United Nations. Moreover, the beginning of the Cold War brought with it the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend Western Europe against Soviet Communist expansion. To top it all off, the U.S. was instrumental in helping Europe form the European Coal and Steel Community, which would eventually become the European Union. There is no doubt that between 1945 and 1989, the United States took the lead as the “defender of the free world.” This also meant that the United States was active in multilateral international politics, even if that meant that the hegemon would exert its will on its allies from time to time. Historically, the United States has maintained a leadership role in world politics and these institutions. When the Cold War ended, the first Bush Administration expanded U.S. leadership, heading the U.N. effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait in the early 1990s. Fukuyama considered the end of the Cold War to be the end of history, as liberalism prevailed over communism (although he has reconsidered the issue).

After 9/11, the second Bush Administration definitely pursued a more unilateral foreign policy. However, they still tried to utilize these institutions even if their requests were denied, such as the failed U.N. resolution to invade Iraq in 2003. The Coalition of the Willing, and the Iraq War, soured relations with much of Europe and the world. President Obama brought multilateralism and international cooperation back to the foreign policy agenda. He participated in the Paris Climate Accords, even though President Bush refused to implement its predecessor (and it was not ratified by the Senate), the Kyoto Protocol. Obama partnered with Europe to pursue the controversial Iran Deal. He rejoined the UN Human Rights Council. He engaged nations in free-trade and tried to create and join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This multilateral approach ended with the Trump Administration.

The Trump Administration immediately began an assault on free-trade, which resulted in the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), replacing NAFTA. He had a trade war with China, which eventually ended with another weak agreement. President Trump eventually (after several court battles) instituted a broad-reaching travel ban on mostly Muslim nations. He continually criticized NATO for not contributing enough to their own defense, and worst of all threatened to undercut the U.S. resolve to respond to threats abroad. He criticized the United Nations on similar grounds, pulled out of World Health Organizations (WTO) during a global pandemic, and left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Trump Administration’s disdain for the WTO was never concealed, as he threatened to leave that institution as well. His immigration stance was never welcoming, and many of his policies completed ignored the United Nations Convention of Refugees. Trump encouraged the UK to withdraw from the European Union, and appluaded the Brexit referendum in the name of sovereignty. But America First has consequences.

One of the biggest consequences of pulling back from world affairs is allowing rising nations to fill the power vacuum left by the United States. We are entering a multipolar world. No longer is the United States the sole hegemon. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a rising power. It will eventually eclipse the U.S. in economic and military power (the debate on whether China is as powerful or more powerful than the U.S. still rages in international relations – see here and here). Less powerful nation-states are also exerting more influence in world affairs. Russia has become more belligerent, especially in cyber-operations. North Korea is now considered a nuclear power, which gives that nation a powerful deterrent. Specifically, though, America First has allowed China to fill the power vacuum. The PRC has used the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to invest in the Indo-Pacific region. With their newfound power, China has also exerted influence to press for sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. They have also consolidated power over Hong Kong, continuing to restrict civil liberties there in the face of massive protests. China has even taken a leadership role in stopping climate change, investing heavily in solar and wind power. China has embraced the Paris Accords, even while being one of the world’s largest polluters. However, this has also meant that U.S. allies – Europe in particular – have had to approach foreign policy differently.

When thinking about Biden will approach Europe, the past four years of disengagement are vital to understanding this new relationship. For example, just before Biden’s inauguration, he asked that the European Union refrain from signing a new trade deal with China until after he became president. The European Union ignored his requests. Trump’s abandonment of Europe forced them to reformulate their foreign policy and part of this new European perspective is that the U.S. no longer needs to be consulted. Europe no longer peddles to U.S. interests when making foreign policy. In fact, a new article by Krastev and Leonard from the European Council on Foreign Affairs uses survey evidence from Datapraxis and YouGov to show that Europe is questioning whether the U.S. can still defend Europe. Majorities in key EU member states think the U.S. political system is broken, and that the U.S. has been placed in a weakened state. The bright side is that Europeans have generally welcomed the new Biden Administrtion and see it as a complete contrast to President Trump. The authors summarize the survey as follows:

“Our survey showed that Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change. Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them. They are drawing radical consequences from these lessons. Large numbers think Europeans should invest in their own defence and look to Berlin rather than Washington as their most important partner. They want to be tougher with the US on economic issues. And, rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China.”

The survey also showed that,

“Across the 11 countries covered by ECFR’s poll, 53 per cent of respondents believe that Biden’s victory makes a positive difference to their countries, and 57 per cent that it is beneficial for the EU. Even in Hungary and Poland, whose populations have been among the most pro-Trump in Europe, more people say that his electoral defeat is good for their countries than the opposite.”

So, what does this mean for the Biden Administration? First, there is a lot of repairing to be done. The United States will have to demonstrate that it is ready to take the lead in international politics again. However, even if the Biden Administration can make in-ways with Europe, there is no guarantee that in four years another anti-global administration won’t be elected. The survey cited above revealed that,

“Looking at the results for Europe as a whole, 32 per cent of all respondents to ECFR’s poll agree that, after voting for Trump in 2016, Americans cannot be trusted – and only 27 per cent disagree with this statement (the rest do not have an opinion on the issue). Most strikingly, 53 per cent of German respondents say that, after Trump, Americans can no longer be trusted – making them clear outliers on this point.”

This means that Europe will continue to tread its own path, even if that means the United States does not approve, such as in the recent EU-PRC trade deal. This new relationship may result in a further polarized world, where the United States does not wield much soft power within global IGOs or with its allies despite efforts to the contrary. Europe will not be consulting the U.S. before pursuing foreign policy goals. This also means that Biden will have to contend with an even more powerful China that has taken an increased global role since 2016. Things are not perfect for Europe either as they contend with the fallout of Brexit and a fragile confederation with rising far-right parties that put national sovereignty first. Biden will likely have to support Europe even as Europe struggles to trust the United States. A more rocky U.S.-EU relationship may even see a continued waning of U.S. support of military defense, which may spur the EU to develop its military capabilities beyond the paltry Common Security and Defense policy it currently has. But in the face of a rising China that continually desires to extract benefits from the international system to match their economic and military power, the struggle to figure out U.S.-EU relations could be problematic.

All this is to say that the new Biden Administration has their work cut out for them in foreign policy, which might take a back-seat as the U.S. continues to struggle with COVID-19. However, COVID-19 may also be a way for the new administration to show that the U.S. is ready to lead again. Rejoining the WHO was the first step, but much more needs to be done. The U.S. needs to lead the global vaccine effort. They need to show that their decision-making is based on sound science again. Most of all, the Biden Administration has to get the domestic epidemic under control. Even though Trump is no longer president, his policies will have a lasting impact. Even if Biden can convince the world that a return to Obama-era multilateralism is a priority now, it will be more difficult to trust that U.S. foreign policy will remain consistent. The next few years of American politics will have a significant impact on the multipolar global order. It will be interesting to see how Biden deals with the PRC, as it tries to mend its relationship with Europe and the world.