- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Relations between Europe and the United States are poised for a dramatic rebound now that Joe Biden has taken office. Goodbye Donald Trump’s America First and the damage it has done to the nation’s interests and international standing. Welcome back a brand of US statecraft based on respect for and teamwork with democratic allies. Biden’s electoral victory and the course correction he has already begun are poised to repair America’s reputation abroad and reinstate transatlantic solidarity.
Nonetheless, neither side of the Atlantic can afford to be complacent about the challenges that lie ahead. Yes, we should all savour the moment; it is of profound historical consequence that the Oval Office is again occupied by an individual of decency and integrity who will abide by the norms of liberal democracy. But it will take time, as well as evidence of the US having come back to its senses, for Europeans to recoup trust in their US ally. A recent survey revealed that over 50 per cent of Europeans believe that Biden will be unable to repair America’s political divisions and act as a reliable partner.
Against this backdrop, the United States and its European allies should advance the healing of their relationship by diving right in to a sustained dialogue on four critical issues. First, Americans and Europeans should together address how best to advance political and economic renewal at home. Despite Biden’s defeat of Trump, populism, nativism, and illiberalism remain alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic. The sacking of the US Congress on January 6 made that amply clear. Europe faces its own warning signs, including Brexit, Italy’s ongoing political instability, and the strength of illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland. That Angela Merkel will soon step down adds to the uncertainty.
Accordingly, domestic imperatives should and will take precedence over the international agenda. If Biden’s presidency is to be more than a respite from Trump’s angry politics of grievance, he needs to address the challenges facing many working Americans – economic insecurity chief among them. Doing so will require ambitious and expensive domestic initiatives aimed at taming the pandemic, creating jobs, and raising living standards.
Europeans should be ready for an America that is inwardly focused. But that’s precisely as it should be if Biden is to get America’s own house in order and moderate the nation's bitter political divides. In the meantime, Europe should be doing the same – getting its own house in order.
That common agenda provides a foundation for a transatlantic conversation on the tasks ahead. Tackling the pandemic, mapping out the future of work in the digital age, investing in green technology and infrastructure, fighting inequality and racial injustice, addressing the potential regulation of global tech and internet companies – these issues should be at the top of the agenda. Advancing the imperatives of domestic renewal can and should be a joint endeavour of the Atlantic democracies.
Second, the Biden administration and its Europeans partners should immediately launch an effort to forge a united front on China. Dealing with China has the potential to be the single most divisive issue facing the transatlantic community.
To be sure, China’s autocratic ways and its coercive diplomacy provide good reason for the world’s democracies to band together against it. Yet its growing geopolitical and economic heft also tempt many countries, democracies included, to tilt toward Beijing, especially when it comes to trade and investment – as the EU’s recent investment treaty with China demonstrated.
A transatlantic dialogue should start by addressing the geopolitical implications of China’s rise. Washington will alienate its European allies if it seems to be hankering for a new Cold War. Instead, approaching Beijing as a determined competitor, but not an existential foe, is more likely to serve as the basis for a transatlantic consensus. The United States and Europe should also agree that pulling back from China in areas of sensitive technology, such as artificial intelligence and 5G networks, would be prudent, but that global interdependence means that full-scale economic decoupling is neither desirable nor feasible. So too should the Atlantic democracies agree to speak with a common voice when it comes to standing up for the political and human rights of China’s citizens.
Third, Washington and its European allies should consult on how best to approach global governance and maintain a rules-based international system. The Biden administration seems inclined to focus on advancing cooperation primarily among democracies, planning a Summit for Democracy that aims to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.”
While solidarity among liberal democracies unquestionably needs a boost, it would be a mistake to presume that the world’s democracies alone have the collective wherewithal to anchor the international system. Today’s top international priorities include managing a globalised economy, arresting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, countering nuclear proliferation, promoting cybersecurity, and advancing public health. As the deadly consequences of Covid-19 have demonstrated, addressing global challenges will require that liberal democracies work constructively with their illiberal counterparts.
Accordingly, the Atlantic partners should look to new and more flexible diplomatic vehicles, such as steering groups that include democracies and non-democracies alike, to flesh out new rules of the road, update norms and practices, and adapt existing institutions to global realities.
Finally, the United States and Europe should undertake a rebalancing of their partnership; Europeans need to make good on their pledge to take on more geopolitical responsibility. Biden is an ardent supporter of Nato and US troops will stay put in Europe for the foreseeable future. But like Trump and Obama before him, Biden will look to Europe to shoulder more burdens, especially in light of the economic resources and political effort that he will be expending on the home front.
Europeans should cease their unproductive arguments about to whether to seek “strategic autonomy” from the United States and instead get on with the hard work of acquiring more military capability and forging a more collective security strategy. For sure, Europe should be prepared to act on its own if necessary, but transatlantic teamwork should be the option of first resort. And the stronger Europe becomes geopolitically, the better partner it will be for the United States. More Europe will fortify, not weaken, the transatlantic bond.
As of noon on January 20, the transatlantic community began a new era of repair and renewal. That’s excellent news. But there is much hard work ahead.