If Joe Biden were to win the White House, transatlantic relations could return to default or be transformed—with much depending on how Europe reacted.
A political cliché is rehearsed every four years in the United States: ‘This is the most important election of our lifetime.’ Yet it is hard to think of a more important election in US history—rarely, if ever, has the country faced two such sharply divergent paths.
All its deep-seated divisions have been exposed in 2020. Covid-19 has foregrounded the jaw-dropping inequality, the frailty of a for-profit healthcare system and the impact of a generation-long, conservative effort to weaken the functioning of government. When Americans needed the state, the state couldn’t cope.
Economically, Wall Street hasn’t missed a beat but queues for food banks grow and ‘for lease’ signs populate vacant shop fronts. Socially, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and the subsequent protests—believed to be the largest in US history—brought into the mainstream a conversation on systemic racism and exposed the abusive nature of law enforcement, militarised and immunised from public sensitivity after ‘9/11’.
Globally, as Covid-19 struck, the US withdrew from the world, failing to lead or even participate in a transnational response. Indeed, in the midst of a pandemic, the administration led by Donald Trump pulled out of the World Health Organization, its ineptness an international embarrassment.
This does make the coming election existential. If Trump were to be re-elected president, all these trends would worsen—with dire implications for the transatlantic alliance. If not, it might be thought an incoming Democratic administration, facing such domestic turmoil, would relegate foreign policy to the second tier. But that wouldn’t be the case if Joe Biden were to prevail.
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The crises of the last year have been humbling for the US and there is broad recognition that it will need allies and partners as never before. Biden would be a foreign-policy president. During the administration of Barack Obama he was a central and active foreign-policy player. His experience as chair of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee was, after all, a major factor in Obama selecting him as running mate. For the last two decades, Biden has been consumed with international relations and his inner circle of trusted advisers are experienced professionals.
A new administration would therefore hit the ground running. The question is: where would they run to?
In the first Obama term, Europe felt neglected. Obama was a ‘Pacific president’ and he pivoted to Asia. That wouldn’t be the case with Biden, who is transatlantic to his core. In January 2009, after Obama’s inauguration, it was Biden, as vice-president, who went to the annual Munich security conference. During the Democratic primary campaign, he emphasised reviving the transatlantic alliance. Yet there is a soft divide among US transatlantic experts over how to revive relations with Europe.
Restoring the status quo
One side would seek to restore relations to the status quo since the end of the cold war—to renew America’s vows with Europe and to operate much in the same way as before Trump. The US would treat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the central forum for transatlantic relations, focus attention on strengthening bilateral ties with European capitals—in particular Berlin, Paris and London—and generally consider the European Union not as an adversary but with mild ambivalence.
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In this view, the EU is about economics and trade and not central to larger strategic concerns. The focus would remain on ‘burden-sharing’, encouraging Europe to spend more on defence and do more to contribute to global stability, all the while building co-operative multilateral relations. The US would work with the EU to forge more economic co-operation, perhaps seeking an agreement on trade to reduce tariffs further, but likely lowering the ambitions outlined in the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) treaty. In international-relations terms, this might be called a more ‘realist’ vision for US-European relations.
The first year of the administration would see a huge outpouring of attention from Washington to reconnect and restore relations. The US would rejoin the Paris climate accords, likely on day one of a Biden presidency. US commitment to article 5 of the NATO treaty, espousing collective defence, would be affirmed—again and again and again. And the administration would end the trade war with the EU immediately upon taking office. But once relations were restored, US attention would soon shift to China and Asia. And despite best efforts to reduce the focus on the middle east the administration’s veteran foreign-policy hands, steeped in the issues of the region, would inevitably find themselves sucked back in.
Over time, Washington would likely treat Europe as it has—not necessarily as Europe hopes it would be treated. The transatlantic alliance would be restored. But it would indeed be back to the post-1989 default—with Europe feeling neglected, chafing that it wasn’t being taken as seriously as it should, and yet with Washington left disappointed that Europe still wasn’t ‘stepping up’.
On the other hand, there is an emerging perspective in Washington which would seek not just to restore relations with Europe but to transform them fundamentally. This approach takes inspiration not from America’s post-cold-war focus on NATO but its emphasis after World War II on fostering European integration. Putting Europe at the centre of US engagement and seeking to build a strategic partnership with the EU is central to this outlook. It views NATO as foundational to the transatlantic alliance but believes the prioritisation of defence has overly militarised the relationship. Addressing issues such as climate, technology and digital regulation, energy, the pandemic, Russia, China and Iran would all require working closely with the EU.
Moreover, Brexit, the rise of right-wing populists and the divisive efforts of Russia and China have served as a wake-up call to the threats the EU faces. Washington would through this lens see strengthening the EU as geopolitically pivotal in its global competition with China. As the two largest markets, the US and the EU could make the world safe for democracy and strengthen economic ties with other democracies, reducing dependence on authoritarian regimes. Washington would also try to use its clout and influence within Europe to push for reform to strengthen Brussels.
This alternative perspective is however less developed and ingrained in Washington. It would have no champions within the national-security bureaucracy and it would find plenty of naysayers, claiming such an approach was unrealistic. One could imagine early debates within the National Security Council where career foreign-service officers at the State Department would argue for a traditional approach and be sceptical of the EU, highlighting policies which have targeted US companies. The Pentagon, meanwhile, would be wary of the EU duplicating NATO.
Therefore, for Washington to push for a transformation of relations it would have to have buy-in and support from incoming senior appointees—many of whom might be focused on China and become quickly exasperated with Brussels’ perplexing bureaucracy. Even if such an approach were to be adopted within the White House, its success would depend on the EU taking tangible early reciprocal steps. Presidential time is a valuable commodity and should the EU dither and fail to provide much in return, the attention of the oval office would quickly turn elsewhere.
There might thus be an opportunity to transform relations after a Democratic victory but such an effort could fall short. Yet, even if that were so, the result will still be quite good—a solid and reaffirmed transatlantic relationship. The demand for action on domestic issues could also organically lead to a considerable deepening of co-operation.
For instance, on climate, illicit finance and financial regulation, Washington might adopt significant legislation. On digital and technology issues, a new administration would drop the traditional US opposition to regulations and might even seek to bolster regulation itself. This could see the US working more and more with Brussels—not due to any larger strategy but by default.
The major test for how a new administration would engage Europe would however ultimately be one for Europe itself. Should the EU make good on the current commission’s aspiration that Europe become a ‘geopolitical’ player which stands up for its interests, Washington would take note and applaud.
This is part of a series on US Election 2020 supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.