Virtual Meeting

Transition 2021 Series: U.S.-Europe Relations and Prospects for Transatlantic Cooperation

Monday & Wednesday, May 17 & June 2 2021
Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Speakers

Executive Director, Future of Diplomacy Project and Executive Director, Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Incoming Director and CEO, German Council on Foreign Relations

Editorial Director and Columnist, Le Monde

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs, National Security Council (2014–2017)

Presider

Member, Editorial Board, New York Times; CFR Member

Transition 2021 Series, U.S. Foreign Policy Program, and Europe Program

Panelists discuss U.S.-Europe relations under the Biden administration, including areas where the United States and Europe can partner to address common interests like climate change, cybersecurity, and trade; what the dynamics of potential leadership changes in European countries like Germany and France could mean for U.S.-Europe cooperation; and how the rise of populism in both the United States and Europe affects the relationship.

The Transition 2021 series examines the major foreign policy issues confronting the Biden administration.

SCHMEMANN: Good afternoon. I hope you all had a great weekend last weekend. My name is Serge Schmemann. I'm with the New York Times editorial board. We have three excellent panelists here to discuss U.S.-European relations: Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, Sylvie Kauffmann, Charles Kupchan. You have their biographies, so I won't introduce them especially as this topic is enormous and we have only one hour at our disposal. So, let's get right into it. President Biden, as you all know, is headed to Europe next week, for meetings. The Group of Seven, the European Union, NATO, and with a very broad agenda: trade, technology, climate, China among other things. And much of the attention, of course, will be on whether we have in fact, turned a new page. I think it's fairly evident that relations have improved, but maybe after the last administration, that was bound to be the easy part. And Biden has been very quick to proclaim that America's back both as a transatlantic ally, and on the multilateral level, but our question is, is there a more ambitious transatlantic agenda in the works? What should we be looking for when Biden and his team sail off across the sea? So, Cathryn, perhaps we can start with this, putting this question to you. What would you be watching for? How much can we realistically expect in the small window we have before midterm elections and elections in France and Germany get us back staring at our own navels again. Please?

 

ASHBROOK: Well, first of all, thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for having me, for having this discussion. I think it's enormously timely as the clock ticks down, as Serge mentioned, on a number of these critical meetings that the President will have in Europe: G7, NATO, EU-U.S. Summit, and then, of course, the most much watched meeting that the President is still planning to have with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. So, I think this is high time. Look, Serge, I think what we're seeing here is that this sort of reset, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, has been very quick and has been in some regards, very realpolitik. You know, the Europeans see very clearly the pressures that this President is under domestically. I think if one thing has come out of the last four years of the Trump administration, is a greater understanding of Europeans for the dynamic and the dynamism of an American society. And the big questions that America is trying to answer for itself right now, I think that is critical to understanding, you know, in part, the somewhat tepid reaction, I think, by European governments, particularly the French and the Germans, who yes, welcomed the election of Joe Biden, very much hoped for it, that was clear in all the public narratives. You know, we're enjoying this honeymoon phase, but I think, as you have alluded to this honeymoon phase is a very different one, emotionally. And also, just in terms of time, it's much shorter than what we saw with President Obama and that is for a reason. You've noted the cascade of international issues that, to borrow from the President's language, you know, the great democracies in the world now have to challenge or have to tackle, you know, in the greater question of systemic rivalry with China. Those issues are concrete. We just saw not two hours ago, the United States take a very interesting diplomatic twist, for instance, on issues of digital taxation, which is to say they are announcing tariffs on key European countries potentially, and immediately suspending them should you know effectively setting themselves a negotiation deadline to find a global solution on digital tax issues. I think it's a very interesting diplomatic approach. But it goes to show that this administration is serious about tackling the gnarly issues on the table and the transatlantic relationship.

 

And I'm headed off to Germany, as many of you know, and of course, Nord Stream 2, there has been, you know, noticeable movement on the diplomatic front angle, and Merkel has just dispatched two of her top aides to Washington in hope and promise to get a compromise on the controversial pipeline project settled in, in the works before the president steps on the plan. I hope he's not actually getting on a boat because that would take too long given the urgency of the issues we have at hand. So, there are concerted efforts to really address the difficult issues that are on the table, which to my mind, is a sign of maturation in this transatlantic relationship. These four hard years of the Trump administration forced both sides to confront some unhappy realities. It forced Europe to be much more concrete about its own priorities and its own interests. That conversation is not yet complete. They're trying to wrestle still with what constitutes European sovereignty. And yet, they're much clearer in terms of what they need from this partnership and vice versa. This administration is willing to pay credence to that, and thank implicitly the Europeans, but they're also ready to roll their sleeves up and get to work. So, in that sense, I'm optimistic. I think the diplomatic tone is right. It's neutral. And it's work-based. And that is exactly what we need to do, given sort of the wider 30,000 foot challenges that we, as a transatlantic Alliance need to confront, not in the years ahead, but really in the eighteen-months ahead.

 

SCHMEMANN: Good. Well, this is for you, Sylvie. To continue from the other side of the Atlantic. As Cathryn has said, Europeans are skeptical about whether America has, in fact, returned back to normal. Whether anything is normal. But could you take that further? Have there been fundamental changes in the transatlantic relationship that, can we ever go back to where we were before? Or has something totally new begun now?

 

KAUFFMANN: Thank you, Serge, that's a very good question. First, good afternoon, and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing this event. It's a pleasure to be with you. You know, it's not only the transatlantic relationship, which is fundamentally changing, it's the world around it. So, you have to take this into account. And I think on both sides of the Atlantic, everybody is very much aware of this. You know, I very much agree with the picture that Cathryn has, has put forward. But I would say there is what we say publicly and the feeling privately. And you can still, I think there's very much, there's a lot of goodwill in Europe, and a political will also to make this relationship work. I mean, everybody's been so traumatized by the four, four past, those four last years. And so, there is a real awareness that this has to work because given the complexity of the world, of the global environment on you know, I won't get into the list, because you know it very well, but this cooperation has to be brought forward, and it has to work. But those four years happened. And also, they didn't come out of the blue. You know, the relationship was already getting complicated before that. And, and also the reasons that brought those four years, as many of them are still here. So, you know, everybody I think is conscious of this. And that explains why you can still feel some guarded realism, I would say, on the European side.

You can still, you know, not only the French, I know, the French are always seen as the most skeptical which is not true on all issues, actually. But we might have a chance to go into detail about this. But I think including, you know, among northern or more central Europeans, you will still have this, this feeling that yes the nice gestures are here, you know, everybody's been quite impressed by how fast the Biden administration has got into this relationship, you know, but at the same time, you can hear that it hasn't, there hasn't been any deep engagement beyond this hour that President Biden's spent online with the European Council leaders, for instance.

 

You know, Tony Blinken came. But you know that there's still this idea that we have to work harder. And there have also, there is also this feeling that the United States is still the United States. And there have been, you know, for most of the talk about cooperation, there have been instances where the Biden administration has acted quite unilaterally, like, for instance, begin to withdrawal from Afghanistan. You know, European allies were barely consulted on this and yet, they are very much concerned. I mean, this is a, we still have about 3,000 German soldiers there. And the consequences of, of this withdrawal, very much, will very much affect Europeans. The same with the announcement of the summit with Vladimir Putin. You know that whether the Europeans were not given any heads up on this yet. With this, I think the Europeans are very much on the front line of the problems with Russia, yellow Russia, Belarus, Ukraine. So that's another instance. And third instance is the vaccine strategy. Also, you know, these, we’ll probably talk about it more in detail later. But that was another instance where the Europeans were taken by surprise, were caught by surprise and, you know, resented it a little bit probably.

 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. Well, that's the view from the, cross the ocean. Charlie, maybe you could bring us back to Washington. President Biden has obviously done a lot of preparatory work. He's assembled a very impressive foreign policy team. They're all very strong Atlanticists. What are their priorities for the various stops of this voyage? What deliverables are the Americans looking for at each stop?

 

KUPCHAN: Well, Serge, I think you're right to say that we have in Joe Biden and the people around him, a group of dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticists. And I think we can expect a good week in the sense that Europeans are delighted that they have someone in the Oval Office with whom they have rapport, with whom they have a certain level of trust. And to some extent, we are going back to the days in which the Atlantic community is reasonably solid and anchored. And I think you can identify a set of conversations that will take place across the various stops at the G7: pandemic; climate change; global minimum tax; and try to create a united front on China particularly when it comes to supply lines and high tech at NATO; a reaffirmation of Article five; and I'm guessing you'll see a conversation about a southern strategy, in part because Europeans are very much concerned about the whole immigration issue and sense an American step back from the Middle East, which I think we can all agree is happening. Biden will be looking for Europeans to pick up more of the slack. I think he would love to see Germany and other NATO members commit to an increase in defense spending, and more rationalization of the money that they do spend. And on the EU-U.S. summit, global trade issues, and as Cathryn said, I think there's going to be a tough conversation about digital issues. Not just the taxation issue, but the digital market access issue that is now working its way through the European system, which many American companies see as bias against the big high-tech companies in the United States. The toughest conversation will be in Geneva, where Putin and Biden are going to sit down mano-a-mano. We can come back to that in a second.

 

You know, I think the biggest challenge in some ways for Biden is not the atmospherics, it's not getting to yes on some of these issues with European allies. It's connecting the discourse in Europe, to what he calls a foreign policy for the middle class, driving home to Americans that what he's doing in Europe is good for them. Because in some ways, I think Biden is learning lessons from the Trump era. And in some ways, you know, America-first was a response to a primal scream in the American electorate. That said, too much world, not enough America. And Biden's foreign policy for the middle class is in some ways in an effort to speak to that problem. And so, I think he's going to be looking for ways whether it's on taxation issues, pandemic, climate change, Europe doing more, to say to Americans, this is why our engagement in Europe matters. This is how our engagement with Europe is going to improve the lives of the middle-class here in the United States. But he can only go so far, in part because so much of this story is about the domestic agenda. And coming back to a point that Sophie made about, you know, there's no going back. I'm sorry, Sylvie, made about no going back to the old days. You know, if Sylvie or Cathryn said what's the one most important issue, I would say Europeans should keep an eye on? It's not NATO, t's not U.S.-EU trade relations. It's domestic politics. It's the big $6 million question as to whether Biden is a temporary detour from the populism and Trump 2.0, or a new normal. And a lot of that is going to depend on things like the filibuster, and whether Biden is able to get through Congress the big investments in the domestic economy that can help repair America's political center. If that doesn't happen, we could well see the Republicans take the house next year. And that's going to leave Europeans very worried about how durable this, shall we say re-equilibrium, in the American political scene is?

 

SCHMEMANN: I'm sure you're absolutely right. It will be watching, and we will be watching all this carefully. The huge question mark hangs over us. But to go back abroad in one of the areas you mentioned as being critical for this relationship going forward, is China. And Cathryn, maybe I could ask you. Secretary of State Blinken has reassured the Europeans that Washington isn't pushing them towards an us or them kind of choice. Do you think the views can be aligned? Are they aligning? Or are we headed for a major and permanent irritant in shaping relations with China?

 

ASHBROOK: Well, the erudite scholarly answer to your smart question, Serge, is it depends. And the answer is it depends because as all on this call know, Germany's heading toward a major election. I would say one of its most historic elections in contemporary times where we will, or potentially, see at least a foreign policy shift of grave importance. You know, whether or not the Green Party, quote unquote, takes on the chancellery in post-September or the foreign ministry. This is a party that has formulated, I think, probably the most stringent line on China. And actually, that follows, interestingly enough, a line that was put out by the captains of German industry in 2019. Because the first people that voiced concern on China's overreach in a lot of different aspects, we can talk about the details in the Q&A, that, you know, bring Americans and Europeans, but particularly Germans, closer on these issues. And what don't seem to be such a wedge issue, are the concerns of German business. And, you know, concerns of key industries that have now insulated German, the German economy from the shocks of the COVID-19 crisis, is because China came roaring back. So, there are some not totally for the German economy, certainly, because it's, you know, China remains the third export market after European markets. It's not the number one, it's certainly not, you know, the number one when it comes to, you know comparisons with the United States or anything like that. And yet key sectors of the German economy now are, have dependencies on Chinese economic investment, and on Chinese export markets and on Chinese trade. So, the automobile industry, machine building, those are the key industries for the German economy.

 

And then we've seen in Angela Merkel, a politician who has, you know, to cast a somewhat blind eye to a number of the human rights issues that are now huge on the Biden agenda and in pursuit of, of those kinds of economic ties. But now we're seeing, you know, major captains of industry warning of those intertwining effects and the Green Party and some others in the political debate as we head towards September have picked this up. So, it's certainly a very interesting dynamic within Germany. It's an extremely interesting dynamic, with very, very detailed sort of nuances and facets within the European discussion. As we saw over these last couple of weeks, with the targeting of specific intellectuals, parliamentarians, think tankers, on the European spectrum, which you know, saw Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, come out with a very strong statement, is absolutely unclear I think at this moment, or clear as mud, whether or not this Chinese investment agreement will actually go through as sort of, you know, as agreed. So, it could be a wedge issue, depending on who assumes the, you know, ruling party status in a German coalition government in September, or we could see something that sees a nuanced sort of diplomatic negotiation with United States on what the joint and coordinated response will be.

 

I'll say one more thing. The Europeans share, and particularly the Germans I think, share with the Biden administration, this idea that and this gets to Charlie's point, that the strongest most integrated proof of concept of democracy, and the functionality of liberal capitalism, starts at home. So that's the idea of reinvesting in the innovation capacity and the research and development capacities of our joint markets. Making the case to our people, and doing that, but you know, hand in glove because that creates a much stronger proof positive. So, I do think that there are key alignment areas in which we can see good progress. But certainly, depending on nuance, depending on governments, you know, things will clearly arise as they already have in these last couple of months and weeks.

 

SCHMEMANN: Well Sylvie, you've heard more and more question marks rise over the future over where America is headed, where Germany is headed, where Europe's headed, where China's headed, relations. What’s your sense? I mean, there is a huge question mark over all of Europe, right? We don't know. Europe seems divided, for example, on how to treat Belarus, or how to treat Putin. How to deal with these things. You think sort of restoring a friendly relationship with Washington might help sort of coalesce European views as well on how to deal with the East, how to deal with the illiberal regimes?

 

KAUFFMANN: You know, I don't think Europe is as divided as it used to be on these issues because they are getting so serious, and so damaging, and the Russian, Kremlin's policies becoming so aggressive, that even Viktor Orban, the troublemaker, had made absolutely no problem at the last European Council last week when it came to sanction Belarus. And, you know, there was very much Russia in the background. Everybody was aware of this. And you know, there was really no discussion on unanimity on this issue. So as I said earlier, the gravity, the seriousness of the situation, is making people more united on some issues and obviously, including on China. There is the sense that, you know, we're stronger together, as the slogan says, but it is true, I mean, there is this community of values. Of course, there will be differences on the policy towards China, and maybe also, in some ways about Russia. Less so I think on Russia. What the Europeans want is to be included in the conversation. You know, I think this is the, the era when the Soviet Union and the United States were making treaties over the head of the Europeans. I think this is, this is not going to be acceptable anymore. And I think now Europe feels more, more united is a difficult thing to say, but at least more relevant, if you want as a body. The European Union, you know, claims to be now your political actor, it is not, of course, in reality, but that's what it's aiming at. And so, I think, if this conversation between Russia and the United States continues, the Europeans will make the case that they want to be part of it. On China, there will be differences, of course, and it is true that the Europeans made this point that they don't want to be dragged into a confrontation between the two blocks, but they also make the point that there is no equidistance and that they belong to this community of values with the United States.

 

You know what happened, Cathryn mentioned, the Agreement on Investment with, China Agreement on Investment, which, you know, started as, kind of as an exercise in European sovereignty, if you want. You remember that Jake Sullivan had made the point on Twitter that it would be better for the Europeans to wait for this administration to be in office and the Europeans didn't wait on Angela Merkel's pressure because she wanted to have this deal done before December, 31st. And yet, what happened late afterwards was a good lesson, I think, for the Europeans that, you know, there were these sanctions from Beijing towards, you know, striking, targeting European Parliament, members of the European Parliament and so on. And so, this agreement now, you know, there are a few people who really believe that it will be brought to, to life. So, I think that was also, you know, an exercise and for the Europeans it was a lesson, I think that they will probably remember, yeah.

 

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. Charlie, I'd like to ask you maybe to follow up on this notion of, of a community of values and where it's headed. There is a lot of talk about the threat about the erosion of democracy throughout the Western world about the rise of liberal governments and whatnot. Do you do you think that this is a serious threat, and that the new transatlantic kind of harmony that's taking shape can counter act it? What are the fronts on which this threat to democracy and threat to this community of values? What are the battles that need to be fought?

 

KUPCHAN: I do think, Serge, that the issue you raise is, in some ways, issue number one. And this may be the first moment since World War II, in which an American president goes to Europe to talk about the relationship and our collective security and collective well-being in which the key threat is inside. It's us. Right? If you were to say, what do I most worry about over the next few years? It's not Russia, it's not China. It's not extremism. It's not Afghanistan. It's us. It is the prospect that our liberal democratic societies won't recover their forward momentum and recover a sense of trust in our democratic institutions. Yes, we are seeing the pendulum swing back in the right direction. The political center in Europe has strengthened during the pandemic. Joe Biden won the election. But none of us can take any complacency in these trends, as I said, who knows who's gonna win the house next, in the next midterm election? Who knows who the next President of France will be? It's possible it could be, Marine Le Pen, the next prime minister of Italy could be Mr. Salvini, right, who runs on a platform of cleansing Italy's cities from immigrants. So, we are not out of the woods here. And that's why this conversation that Biden has, has to be very much about us, not just about them.

 

One other quick comment. It's particularly tricky, because I think Biden's inclination is to help revive democracy by saying, this is a battle between democracy and autocracy. This is a moment in which we need to double down and stand up against autocracies, particularly Russia and China. But as both Sylvie and Cathryn were saying, that's not necessarily going to play well, in Europe. Germany's largest trading partner is China. South Korea, Japan, their largest trading partners, are China. Are they looking for a bust up, a new ideological dividing line? I don't think so.

 

And then there's the interesting question of Russia, which is obviously on the other side of this and, and maybe I'll just throw out a speculation as to why this conversation is going to take place in Geneva. I think in some ways, there's a mirror image between Biden and Putin here. I think Biden wants to try to improve the relationship with Russia precisely so that he can focus on the domestic agenda. This issue of rebuilding democracy from the inside out, that would be very hard to do if Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, as many of us feared that they would do. And I think also China comes into this, does Biden want to try to woo, to some extent Russia away from China to make it easier to him and China and deal with the rise of that country? And on the Russian side, I think you're seeing something similar. Maybe Putin has decided that the clock is running out on using Syria, Ukraine, Libya, foreign policy as his only tool of legitimacy. Maybe he wants to try to repair relations with the West and start investing at home. And second, and here, this is really speculation, I would think that he's starting to get uncomfortable with China. Right? Russia has an economy that is smaller than Italy's. China is about to have the world's largest economy. If I were Vladimir Putin, I would be much more concerned about what's happening on my eastern flank than my western flank. That could be one reason that he wants to sit down with Biden. It's going to be a tough conversation. We'll see if anything comes out of it.

 

SCHMEMANN: It'll be a very interesting one indeed. Well, we've opened a lot of fronts, and I think we've established that to a degree. We have met the enemy, and he is us, as somebody once said. And perhaps we should find out what all these folks who've been listening to us so far, would like to know more about. I see that there are 150 participants out there. So, I don't know how many questions we'll have time for but Kayla, why don't you let the first question come.

 

STAFF: We'll take the first question from Avis Bohlen.

 

Q: Thank you very much for a really fascinating discussion. And Serge, I'm so glad you quoted, I think the enemy, we've seen the enemy and he has assets from Pogo, if I remember. A very opposite reference. Um, I think it's interesting that nobody has mentioned Brexit or the British so far. And my question is, I think a couple of years ago, Europe seemed to be in great disarray. Everybody was predicting its demise. I mean, Europe as quality the EU. The Brits were leaving, the Poles, and the Hungarians were turning against democracy, etc. But it seems to me that in the past year, I wonder if they haven't seemed to have turned a corner. I think the recovery fund if that's the right, the right name for it, the German-French agreement is just, is surely huge. And, and in response to Trump and many other things, they do seem to be acting much more as a unit. And I wonder how you would assess the health of the EU? Thank you.

 

SCHMEMANN: Sylvie, would you like to?

 

KAUFFMANN: Thank you very much. For this question, well, assessing the health of the EU, when we are hoping that we may be coming out of this pandemic is an interesting question because it has actually, this pandemic has had a huge effect on the health of the EU in a way and I mean, on the political health also. You know, you mentioned European disarray after Brexit. And you could also say that, six months ago, Europe was in disarray about the vaccination strategy. You know, it was chaos, there were those shortages and so on and, and yet, we are now I think most of us in the European Union, coming out of lockdowns and you know, Paris is open now. People are enjoying terraces and after six months of, of restaurants and coffees and museums closed and so on, and the vaccination most importantly is really going not only according to plan but now faster than it was when it was planned, at least in Europe, but, in most countries, European countries. So, has it turned the corner? I don't know. But it is true that, as you mentioned, this recovery plan has, you know, is, is felt like a historic achievement, because it gives way to this borrowing, you know common debt scheme, which is first in the European, in the history of the European Union. So, yes, there is this feeling that we are after so much, you know, so many problems and, you know, such depth of complexity and problems and, and, and sorrow also, that we finally managed to do something together, which is important, and which strengthen, really the union. Now, there's no feeling of triumph or victory, either. Oh, it's because everybody's aware that there's a lot, there are some, a lot of problems ahead. And as Charlie said, also, domestic problems. And Cathryn mentioned, you all mentioned our electoral perspectives, you know, the election next year in France and those coalitions everywhere, which are quite often very fragile. And so, it is, I very much agree with Charles, that this is something which is not only in the background, but we are all aware that on both sides of the Atlantic we're facing this huge challenge of the future of democracy.

 

SCHMEMANN: Well, maybe, can I just ask you, Cathryn, to follow up? Also, this question: do you think it's a good sign that we never mentioned Brexit?

 

ASHBROOK: Well, I'll make it brief because I think I agree with Sylvie in the sense that, the challenges of the surround, created a containing environment in which the European Union did produce some of, I think its most original work, you know, which European, I'm sorry, on the German side necessitated, you know, effectively a mild expansion and amendment to the Constitution, particularly when it comes to, you know, figuring out how the European Union is going to make it through this crisis, economically functional. But I do fear that there's a moment of great precarity just around the corner. It is symbolized in these two elections, in part because I don't know, I can't remember who mentioned it, but what is the European default in major election years is to focus very much domestically, and the domestic doesn't always even find an extension to the European. So, there are two moments I think of, you know. In the German case, it's more that the Germans will be sort of a way from shaping the European agenda writ-large, and the last government took until mid-January to form itself, which I think is a dangerous moment for Europe, because of all the large looming issues. Russia, China, I mean, we're, you know, you know, the European Union, per se, has now others, Britain, and Britain is lobbying, you know, a hard line against Europe, which Europe is sort of shrugging off as largely unimpressed. So, you know, that's been, there's been very much a change in the dynamic there. But then, you know, that it could be that we don't have a German government until early in January, when then France will focus almost entirely on the months ahead until the end of April for the parliamentary and presidential elections, and to have sort of the motors, and they still remain the motors of the European Union, somewhat absent, you know, from the stage.

 

And then, you know, I think there's a more precarious moment that Charles and Sylvie have already alluded to, in a possible election of Marine Le Pen at the heart of one of Europe's greatest democracies. What would that do to the integrity and functionality of European projects? Because if you remember in the last election campaign, her big point was Frexit, which, you know, in many functional ways, wouldn't work. But I do fear that when it comes to the integrity and functionality of the eurozone, the true long-term implementation of the recovery fund and the extension of that we already have the murmurings inside Germany that we should actually get back as quickly as we can, to, you know, the brake on debt making, you know, are the Maastricht or I'm sorry, are the, are the, you know, 2% criteria in terms of government debt. Are they now forever out of the window? That would necessitate a lot of internal churn and change to, you know, functionalities of the eurozone, per se? Is the eurozone safe? Hard to say at this point, you know, but there are a few Europeans lawmakers who are even willing to entertain that question, which is to say, I do think that there is a precipice of, of precarity here, where, you know, I think European leaders have to advance very carefully. But that things are further, you know, complicated by the fact that we have these large elections. So, which is just to say, the containing environment of conflict has left the European Union surge with a certain respect, but I'm not sure that on the other side of the conflict, that unity and that functionality can be preserved at length.

 

SCHMEMANN: Okay, well, Kayla, can you give us the next question, please?

 

STAFF: We'll take the next question from William Drozdiak.

 

Q: There's been a lot of talk out of the Biden administration about a new division of labor. That Europe would take more responsibility for its own backyard, while the United States concentrates on a more robust Indo-Pacific strategy. So, I'd like to ask Charlie and Sylvie to comment from their perspectives as to whether you think this is a smart and rational way to revitalize the alliance? Or could it lead perhaps to a long-term split, in that the strategic interests of Europe and the United States would become farther and farther apart?

 

SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Bill. Charlie?

 

KUPCHAN: Hi Bill, you know, I, I think that the part of the world that is going to most feel the shift to the Indo-Pacific and retrenchment in general, is the Mediterranean and the broader Middle East. We've already seen Biden announced the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the end of combat missions in Iraq. I think the general, the general direction of policy in that region will be less America, a smaller military footprint, maybe lean in diplomatically. But I think the forever wars are being closed out. I don't expect to see a downsizing of the U.S. commitment to Europe. Biden has already announced that he's giving a new look at Trump's announcement of a downsizing of American troops in Germany. Depending on how things go with Russia, I don't really think we're going to see any kind of smaller presence of the United States in Europe. If anything, I would, I would expect to see an increase, a modest increase over time. Again, depending on how things go with Russia. This issue does raise the whole question of what's called strategic autonomy, a push by Emmanuel Macron, the French president to create a more self-sufficient Europe. That is to say, one that has more geopolitical heft, as Sylvie was talking about earlier. The Germans and others are saying, hey, we don't want independence, we want to remain tethered to our American partner. And in some ways, I think, Europe doesn't need to have this debate. Europe needs more capability, it needs to be able to pick up some of the slack that the U.S. is leaving behind in the Mediterranean, preferably to use it in partnership with the United States. But if necessary, to use it alone, either because the U.S. doesn't show up or because we get Trump 2.0. And then Bill, yes, we do see a retreat of American forces from Europe. But right now, I don't think Europe has to make a choice. Invest in military, invest in more capability, we'll figure out how to make good use of it.

 

SCHMEMANN: Sylvie, do you have something?

 

KAUFFMANN: Hello, Bill. Quickly, yes. But I think it's going to be an important subject to next week, not next week, when President Biden is in Europe. You know, during the transition, I think all of you probably took part in some of those transatlantic conversations we had on Zoom. And I heard a lot from the American side. And including people who are now in the administration, you know. Europe, you want strategic autonomy, why don't you, you know, you want to do more? Why don't you do it because we Americans are going to be very busy, and we won't have time to deal with your neighborhood, so why don't you take over? And I think, I wouldn't say that the Europeans are ready to take over, but there's more will to do it definitely. So, you know, I think it's now for the Americans also to decide whether they want, not only to do burden sharing, but also decision sharing. And if we don't do that, and you can see that a lot of Europeans are, for instance, also active in the Indo-Pacific, you know, those freedom of navigation operations and so on. And there's a strategy also to work with the Americans in the Indo-Pacific. But I think in the Mediterranean neighborhood, as Charlie said, it is really up to the Europeans to do the job. But they need to have the means to do it. Otherwise, we will end up with what we are having now in Libya, which is, you know, the new prime minister of Libya just came to Paris after Rome. But before going to Rome and Paris, he went to Ankara, and to Moscow, and the Turks and the Russians are the ones who are making the rules of the game at the moment in Libya. So, I think, you know, these are hard lessons that we have to remember, and which show that it's, it's very important that we work more, with more rationality in the European neighborhood.

 

SCHMEMANN: Well, thanks Sylvie and thanks, Bill. And, Kayla, we'll take the next one.

 

STAFF: We'll take the next question from, Michael Hirsh.

 

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. So, the G7 finance ministers this Friday are expected to endorse a version of Biden's global corporate minimum tax. But beyond that, it looks like there's also enormous progress in finally resolving this dispute between the U.S. and the EU over digital taxation, by basically signing on to a plan that the Biden administration put forward to essentially focus on the 100 or 200 largest companies in the world, making them subject to taxation. From what I've heard, there's going to be a big compromise deal in June or July over this that the G20 might endorse as well. So, my question is, if all of these positive noises continue, and there is this agreement between the U.S. and the Europeans, do you think that could lead to other things, for example, resolving a lot of the trade disputes, transatlantic trade disputes we're hearing about?

 

SCHMEMANN: Cathryn, is something you'd like to take?

 

ASHBROOK: Happily. Thank you, Michael, for that question. I think as a signaling device, this is incredibly important, right? If you think about how to deal on a digital tax issue, the OECD negotiations collapse you know, that's over 140 parties. You know, I think the minute the Trump administration sort of ripped the rug out of those negotiations and the multi-level negotiations, they effectively collapse. What that proves first and foremost, is that yes, this is absolutely in the American wheelhouse to put this on the table. Be, as I mentioned, this news that we got today, that I just find this, frankly, just a very interesting negotiation strategy that the United States has effectively put pressure on its own self and put pressure on the Europeans by announcing these tariffs, then suspending. You know, it's just, it's such an interesting play, which signals on the one hand, that they're very serious, to your point about getting this done in a very quick delay so that these tariffs don't come into fruition. But they're also how, you know, they're also willing to play hardball, which is a signaling device, I think, again, you know, or at least, you know, take the concerns of the American companies very seriously. So, you know, we at the Kennedy School teach negotiation. I think it's a very smart way to package this. That being said, I'm not entirely sure these things necessarily need to move in sequence. I think there are very clear issues, you know, that are lower range or lower hanging fruit than, you know, beginning to, and this is not what you were saying, so let me not necessarily put words in your mouth, to, you know, assemble another big sort of T-TIP type mega agreement on economic issues. I think we could move relatively quickly on a number of industrial tariffs that are sort of weighing down the Transatlantic Trade infrastructure. There are numerous things on you know, the intellectual property fronts on, you know, those kind of things that we could tackle that can make the seamless integration of an R&D framework between the Europeans and the Americans much more functional and can enhance the capacities of both of our economies, I think rather quickly. I mean, we very much need a firmer decision on the Boeing Airbus piece. But these things are already on the priority list on the docket, we see critical components of this Biden administration committed to making this work. So, I'm hopeful, I just don't think that they're necessarily sequentially unlocking in the way that you sort of were indicating. But generally, I do think that this is, you know, we can do things quickly, because I do believe that both sort of societies writ-large are committed to this, because again, the bigger backstory on that end of it is, is Charlie's very good point about, you know, making that the narrative of the foreign policy components for the middle-class function both for the U.S. narrative, which is to say not to undercut the strength of the U.S. economy. But the Europeans have to do the same, some variant of it at home too, for the system's architecture narrative to hold. So, I think we're gonna see a lot of progress. Is it going to be at the level of, you know, a new T-Tip, some enormous new trade package that, then they try to sell off again as the new NATO? That I don't think is going to happen.

 

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Kayla, I gather, we have another question waiting.

 

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Katherine Hagen.

 

Q: Thank you so much. This has been a very stimulating dialogue to hear, and somewhat encouraging about the prospects for collaboration, in spite of the focus on the domestic issues. One of the domestic issues that I've been very interested in, and the way in which it can be translated into the international arena, is the issue of vaccine equity. And you've touched on it to some extent with regard to the intellectual property issue, and the way in which the dynamics are evolving now, between the United States and the European Union, with regard to collaboration on a global approach to vaccine availability. If you would, please comment on the prospects for that and in particular, the way in which it could move to a more multilateral approach to vaccine equity rather than simply bilateral diplomatic arrangements. Thanks very much.

 

SCHMEMANN: Charlie, would you comment on this? I mean, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts in general on whether we, the industrialized wealthy world, has dropped the ball on vaccination, on global vaccination.

 

KUPCHAN: You know, I think that the G7 meeting comes at a pretty good time on this front, in as much as the United States seems to be turning the corner on vaccinating its own population. There are more doses out there than there are arms to be jabbed. You know, Europe is behind the U.S., but is heading in it in a positive trajectory. And so, I do think that especially because Boris Johnson has invited other countries to come to the G7. It's not just the club of the wealthy democracies. India will be there. India is suffering a lot. I think South Africa is represented. I am expecting a significant announcement on getting vaccines into lower and middle-income countries. And I think it would be a real win for the for the G7, if that is one of the top lines that comes out of the meeting. Let me just add one quick point on Mike's question. I agree with Cathryn, that I would separate the tax issues from the trade issues in the sense that I think that one of the big issues that may be discussed beneath the surface is the future of work. Because building, rebuilding our middle-classes is at the top of the mind of Boris Johnson, of Joe Biden, of others in Europe. And I think that free trade is not going to be something that anybody is looking for in this country, in the near term. So yeah, I think we'll see a tough conversation about digital taxation, digital market access. I would not hold my breath about any major trade deals anytime soon.

 

 

 

ASHBROOK: Serge, can I just add a two finger on the vaccine piece because I think Katherine Hagen notes an interesting point where I think the Europeans are going to push things at the G7 table, as Charlie has pointed out. Because Angela Merkel was less than lukewarm when the President announced the opening of the patent sharing because she said look, that is not what we need. It's not about the patents, we need a whole new system on vaccine production. And we need, you know, to rethink. And that's obviously what ailed the Europeans, in terms of, or partially what ailed them, in their own distribution. And so, she says, look, you know, at best, you know, President Biden, with all due respect, you're doing some window dressing here. Which I think is an interesting piece, because then I do think I have, I have great credence to what Charlie has said, which is to say that the Europeans, in fact, will likely nudge the Americans in a way that the Americans will understand they need to do more than send, quote unquote, and I'm exaggerating here, you know, unwanted AstraZeneca to India and, quote unquote, just unlock the key to the patent system. Clearly, there needs to be, you know, again, if they're supposed to be credence in what the western industrial countries can do on the vaccine front and healing this pandemic, they're gonna have to do a little more systemic work. And I think the Europeans are willing and able to commit to that as long as the Americans play ball.

 

SCHMEMANN: Well listen, we have two minutes left, and maybe the three of you have some final comment. Maybe some final advice to Biden or to the Europeans. Sylvie, what would you?

 

KAUFFMANN: I wouldn't give any advice to President Biden, but I think he knows he's going to be welcomed in Europe, and I think he should pay attention when the Europeans say that they want a more balanced relationship with the United States. This is something they've been really thinking about. It's not just something instinctive, or you know. I think this is deep thought and that he should pay attention to this.

 

SCHMEMANN: Okay, Charlie.

 

KUPCHAN: I mean, I'll end with three points. One would simply be to reinforce what Sylvie just said, in that we're not going back to the old model of Europe as America's junior partner, in part because Europeans justifiably have questions about our long-term future, right? We've gone from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, to Trump, to Biden. Who knows what comes next? And they are justifiably interested in being somewhat more capable and having more say in the relationship. And I think it would be wise for Biden to understand that, and I think he does. Secondly, I would keep an eye on this whole question of relating foreign policy to domestic policy. I think it's a theme that will run throughout the Biden presidency, when Biden said, as a candidate, this is an election for the soul of America, I think he meant it. And I think everything he does is going to be about trying to rebuild bipartisanship and get America's middle-class and in particular, its white-working-class without a college education that still represents 42% of the American electorate, back on its feet. And then the third, the third thing I would keep an eye on is, is Russia. Something's going on, right? The U.S. decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream, the conversation between Blinken and Lavrov, between Sullivan and his counterpart, the calls from Biden to Putin. Something is afoot. I don't know what it is. I think you can smell it in the air. But I think it'll be very interesting to see what comes out of the conversation in Geneva.

 

SCHMEMANN: That sounds like an introduction to our next session. I'd certainly love to have one. Cathryn, your turn.

 

ASHBROOK: I'll make it exceedingly brief and just do the European flip to Charlie's points one and two, which is to say, wonderful if the Europeans are serious about no longer being the junior partner, then they've got to continue to put their house in order. This semantic debate on European sovereignty, that looks good in the opinion section of European newspapers is one thing, but we really need to see some concrete action here. The Europeans need to put something on the table. Whether it is you know, on how at the NATO Summit they're going to pretend to deal with their own neighborhood, or you know what capacity building actually means. The European, you know, the American president has gone and put some very concrete things on the table that Europeans need to measure up at this summit. I'm not sure they're quite ready to do that yet. I would wish that as a European passport holder, but maybe we're not quite there yet. And then I think, they are paying, they paid close attention particularly in these two domestic election campaigns that we'll see in Europe to this piece about there is no more division dividing line between national and international. I've been speaking this to some of the candidates for the German Chancellery and they're paying attention to that narrative on the American side. And I think we're gonna see a lot of that show up in European election campaigns. I think those are the battles we all have to fight internal to our democracy. So in that sense, it's never, well, I wouldn't say maybe never been a more interesting time to be a trans-atlanticist. But it is, again, an interesting time to be a trans-atlanticist because there is a lot of churn here. There's a lot of work to be done. But there are a lot of commonalities, I think that bind us. That bind us in crisis, but that also bind us in opportunity.

 

SCHMEMANN: Well, thank you, Cathryn, Sylvie, Charlie. And I think we'll be watching this visit now with a lot more interest and far better prepared. And thank you to all of you who joined us for this discussion and thank you to the Council. It was, I thought, very interesting.

 

STAFF: For more event audio subscribe on iTunes or visit [email protected]

Top Stories on CFR

European Union

With Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after sixteen years in office, the leadership of Germany, and the EU, is wide open. What is Merkel’s legacy, and what comes next?

United Nations General Assembly

U.S. President Joe Biden made his first address before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, September 21, 2021. His message, both to his domestic and foreign audiences, was clear: The United States is back and at the ready. 

Somalia

Reflections on the shortcoming of U.S. policy in Afghanistan have brought lessons that can be used to rethink American policy toward Somalia.