The State of Transatlantic Relations, With Sophia Besch

Sophia Besch, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the current state of transatlantic relations and whether Europeans think America is “back,” as President Joe Biden claims.

November 23, 2021 — 36:02 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Sophia Besch

Show Notes

Sophia Besch, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the current state of transatlantic relations and whether Europeans think America is “back,” as President Joe Biden claims.

 

Articles Mentioned in the Podcast:

 

Wolfgang Münchau, Germany's message to Europe,” EuroIntelligence, October 17, 2021

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Hi, podcast listeners. Want to keep up on what's happening at home and abroad? Check out the podcast Axios Today. It's a daily news show covering the biggest stories in why they matter.

Jim Lindsay:

Every morning, host, Niala Boodhoo, talks to Axios journalists around the country and experts around the world to give you what you need to know to start your day. They cover everything from politics to space, to race injustice, all in just 10 minutes. Listen to Axios Today wherever you get your podcasts.

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies, at the Council in Foreign Relations. This week's topic is The State of Transatlantic Relations.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss whether Europe thinks America is back, is Sophia Besch. Sophia is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for European Reform in Berlin, where her research focuses on European defense and defense industrial policy, as well as German defense policy. Before joining the Center for European Reform, she was a Carlo Schmid Fellow at the Policy Planning Unit at NATO headquarters and worked as a researcher for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. She is currently in Washington, DC as a visiting DAAD fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary European Studies researching Transatlantic armament policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Sophia, thank you for speaking with me.

Sophia Besch:

Hi Jim. It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it is a delight to get to talk to you. In the opening I mentioned the phrase "America's back," something President Joe Biden has been fond of telling foreign audiences. I imagine we're going to drill down on some specific issues during the course of our conversation.

Jim Lindsay:

But, for starters, I'd like you to take a whack at that big question. Does Europe think America is really back?

Sophia Besch:

Okay. We're starting with the big questions. I like it. I think that when I arrived here in the early autumn, it seems to me that I arrived at a bit of a juncture for the Transatlantic relationship, not just because of the crises in the summer with Afghanistan and AUKUS, which I'm sure we'll go and talk about in this conversation,

Jim Lindsay:

Bet on it.

Sophia Besch:

...Right? But also because of a sense that after months spent fixing what was broken perhaps during the Trump years and some fairly easy wins in terms of signaling that the US was back from the Biden administration, I think Europeans and Americans have now reached a point where they will need to find a new consensus and forge a new Transatlantic bargain, which is presumably going to be a bit harder.

Sophia Besch:

I mean, in the first few months, the Biden administration did so many things right from a European perspective, really drilling down this message that America was back, invigorating the relationship, be that resolving the trade disputes over steel and aluminum or between Airbus and Boeing or stopping the sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, reversing the decision to reduce troops deployed in Germany. And then, of course, this real embrace of multilateralism at the G7 Summit, the NATO summit, the EU-US summit. So that was, I think, a strong and clear message that the US was back.

Sophia Besch:

At the same time, I think Europeans are also picking up on the quite narrow domestic corridor that President Biden is operating in and the pressures that he is facing at home. And they pick up on the sense that this administration is worried perhaps about return of the policies that we've seen under President Trump.

Sophia Besch:

And so I think there is some hedging happening right now in Europe in terms of how much we can really relax and trust the fact that the US is back. Back to where? Might be the question to ask.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, before we get to the "where" part of it, let's establish the baseline or the context. Remind us, why was it that Europe didn't like President Trump's policies? And if I could put a little coda on that, can we really talk about a consensus European view of the Trump administration?

Sophia Besch:

Yeah, that's a good question. I think the main issue that a lot of Europeans, and not all Europeans, but the Western Europeans, I would say, had with President Trump's policies was the quite transactional approach to the Transatlantic relationship, which undermined the sense of that this alliance was special and that we were bound together by a shared belief and values in the West, if you will. President Trump approached that with a much more transactional mindset talking about the financial input that Europeans would need to make to get the US security protection. And then also the trading disputes and trading conflicts brought that into a quite conflictional space, as well.

Sophia Besch:

But you are right that there isn't necessarily a united European front on this. There are some European states, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, that fared better with this transactional approach because they rely so clearly on the US security umbrella. They knew what to do to keep the US involved and interested in Europe under this approach.

Sophia Besch:

And now we are seeing a bit of a more split Europe in terms of how to deal with an America that might be back to multilateralism and back to embracing Europe rhetorically, but that is still and increasingly distracted from Europe and looking more and more towards Asia. And we do see that we have some Europeans that believe that our reaction to that should be to become more independent, to become a more mature actor and, in that way, become more relevant to the United States. And then some Europeans that believe that by doing that, by becoming more independent, we might alienate the Americans further and that, in order to keep them interested, we might need to remain dependent.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's put a pin in those observations, Sophia, because I want to come back to them. But before we get there, I'd like to have you tease out a bit more about European views of the United States. You hinted at really two concerns that Europeans might have: One, is specifically about the Biden administration's policies and how fast the Biden administration is moving to breathe life into its words and turn them into deeds.

Jim Lindsay:

But there's also clearly concerns across Europe in varying degrees in different countries about the United States itself. And I've certainly heard and read a lot of commentary from people in Europe wondering about whether the United States is still the country that they remember. They point to the January 6th insurrection. They talk about President Trump's continued domination of the Republican Party, the refusal of so many Americans either to wear masks or get vaccinated.

Jim Lindsay:

I saw a statistic recently that the United States is somewhere around 56th in the world in getting its population vaccinated, even though the United States has led the way in having the most effective vaccines.

Jim Lindsay:

So could you walk us through how those two different threads or themes interact? What are Europeans most concerned about?

Sophia Besch:

Yeah, I think you paint a really complex picture and that is how I would describe European attitudes vis-a-vis the United States, as well. I think there's still a sense, particularly among European political elites, that the United States is an important strategic ally and partner, or most important strategic ally and partner. Among European populations there is, I think, an observation of exactly the trends that you describe and a bit more of a reluctance to embrace the US in the way that we did embrace the US before.

Sophia Besch:

There is still, if you look at surveys, the sense of the United States as a necessary partner, but perhaps not one that is particularly popular. But, at the same time, we also have to see that there are progressives in Europe that look to progressives in the United States and feel very inspired by them, feel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

Sophia Besch:

So there is also this United States that I think really resonates with many Europeans. It is a divided country. That is what I see when I'm here and that is also what Europeans see when they look to the US.

Jim Lindsay:

You're very observant. I will say that, Sophia.

Sophia Besch:

Thank you. There is, I think, a fear though that what we were hoping that President Trump was an aberration might not come true and that President Biden, this administration, might turn out to be the aberration from a European point of view. We're watching the United States very closely because we have to watch the United States domestic politics very closely and there's certainly a fear that the US is changing.

Jim Lindsay:

And if the US is changing, why would that trouble many European countries?

Sophia Besch:

I think that the US-European alliance is what holds up, to a large extent, the multilateral world order, the rules based world order and now flowing in all the big guns that Europeans rely on, that the European Union relies on, for our survival really. We believe and fully rely on this system of interdependence and diplomatic relations and multilateralism and we need the US support to uphold the system.

Sophia Besch:

If the US strays away from that path and embraces a world order that relies more on big power competition and less on multilateralism, then Europeans stand pretty alone. And those are not our strengths. Our strengths are not to survive in a world that looks like that.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, let's talk a bit about the Biden administration's actual policy choices. And I'd like to get your sense of how well the Biden administration has operated. And I should note that when Joe Biden was inaugurated there was a lot of happy talk about how his administration was going to, in essence, turn the page in the Transatlantic relationship and great things would happen across the Atlantic.

Jim Lindsay:

To some extent that happy talk was just that, happy talk. There have always been tensions in the Transatlantic relationship as you know well. The question was, what kind of tensions did you have? And I do think that the Trump presidency raised questions, not about specific policy issues as much as it raised questions about what was the future of the Transatlantic relationship? Was it special or meaningful in a way?

Jim Lindsay:

Were now almost 10 months into the Biden presidency. He's made some choices, some of which have resonated in Europe, others that haven't. So how disappointed are you, I guess I would say, in the Biden administration? Has it turned out the way you thought it was? Or at the predictable level of complaining across the Atlantic? Or do you think the Biden administration in some areas has made some significant mistakes or disappointed Europe in a way that Europe wasn't expecting?

Sophia Besch:

I don't think "disappointed" is the right term. I do think that it's a bit early to tell. I know this sounds like a cop out. That's not where I'm trying to go here…

Jim Lindsay:

You're allowed a cop out. It's a perfectly reasonable strategy to pursue.

Sophia Besch:

I am a think tanker after all. No, but I do think that we are, as I said in the beginning, we are now at a point where we're going to have to get a bit more concrete and we are starting to see some more concrete initiatives and the establishment of some structures and formats of engagement that I think are quite promising. I think for example, the Trade and Technology Council was a very promising development because it gave some momentum to a more united US-European front on China.

Jim Lindsay:

Could you give me a little background about what the Trade and Technology Council is.

Sophia Besch:

Yeah. So in the Trade and Technology Council, the United States and the EU met and they talked about the need to close gaps in the semiconductor supply chain, for example. The need to fight China's unfair trade practices, so the use of industrial subsidies and the theft of intellectual property. They talked about the need to align export controls and investment screening practices and to establish standards for artificial intelligence. And I think what that was really was Europe's position on China hardening and recognition by the United States of the geo-economic power of the EU and the power of the EU as a standard setter and the necessity perhaps of working with the European Union in those fields. So I think that's a good sign.

Sophia Besch:

Obviously there's some more inconsistencies on the security and defense front and how the United States looks to Europe as a security actor. We saw that over AUKUS. I think really a lot of this is framed necessarily through the lens of the approach to China because that is the way that the US looks at most foreign policy issues right now. And we see that Europe has different strengths from the US perspective when it comes to dealing with China.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you on that specific question about China. Do you see the potential through the United States and the European Union to close ranks and develop a more or less common policy in dealing with China? Or do you look at it and say going forward at an essence, Europe just doesn't see China in the same way? Doesn't see it as a strategic threat? Certainly not as a military threat and maybe divided over whether or not it really presents an economic threat?

Sophia Besch:

Yeah. So I think, on China, the Transatlantic relationship started off a bit luke warm perhaps at first. I think we had very strong messaging from President Biden on China if you think back to the Munich Security Conference at the beginning of the year. And then Europeans responded with worries about economic decoupling, hopes to hold off confrontation between China and the US, a focus on this idea of European autonomy and European course on China that was distinct from the US course on China. And I think there may have been a little bit of frustration perhaps in Washington at Europeans not picking up on the American urgency vis-a-vis China.

Sophia Besch:

But I do think that positions in Europe are hardening, not least because China played its cards very badly in Europe over the pandemic and in parallel. And I don't know if you would agree with me, but I think that, at least, the rhetoric of the Biden administration is softening a little bit vis-a-vis China. Not the actions, but they seem to want to assuage fears of a cold war in Europe to try and maybe bring European allies along.

Sophia Besch:

And then we have a new German government coming into power that might be more keen to come to a joint European approach on China. So I am quite hopeful there. But, of course, necessarily the European and the American approach vis-a-vis China will be different because our presence in the Pacific and our interest in the Pacific are quite different.

Jim Lindsay:

In terms of the Biden administration's tone in dealing with China, I do think we saw, in the recent virtual meeting between President Biden and President Xi, that President Biden clearly is trying to put what he would call guardrails on the competition with China. And, again, the Biden administration, like the Trump administration, has talked about US policy towards China as being a competition.

Jim Lindsay:

I do think part of the rationale for that is also to reassure American allies. I mean, as you know, Sophia, presidents act and realize they have audiences of people who are listening very carefully to what they say.

Jim Lindsay:

I want to come to Germany, but before we do that, I want to just ask you a question about whether you've been surprised, as many Europeans have been surprised, certainly many European commentators, that while the Biden administration has a different tone than the Trump administration, President Trump didn't talk about multilateralism, didn't much like allies in many instances, whereas Joe Biden is very comfortable with the M word talks about the importance of allies. Yet the Biden administration has been fairly unilateral on a number of issues.

Jim Lindsay:

I mean, we have the United States announcing its support for waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines without consulting any of its close allies. Withdrawing from Afghanistan without consulting with anyone in Europe, essentially, notifying European capitals. You mentioned the Australian-United Kingdom-US security arrangement, which certainly in one European capital, namely Paris, came as a bombshell.

Jim Lindsay:

Are you surprised that the Biden administration hasn't necessarily always walked the talk when it comes to multilateralism?

Sophia Besch:

So I work on European defense. And so maybe my view is a little bit warped. When you work on European defense that's not Europe's strongest point. And so it makes sense to me that on AUKUS, on Afghanistan, the United States does not look to Europe first when it makes these decisions. I was surprised as many others were over AUKUS, particularly by the diplomatic faux pas perhaps of not notifying Paris before the press conference, of not handling this a bit smoother, but I do think that the administration has since invested quite a bit of political capital to smooth over the conflict in this relationship and I think many in Paris would agree with that.

Jim Lindsay:

There's a little bit of clean up on aisle 9 going on right now on this issue, I think.

Sophia Besch:

That's right. That's right. And France leveraged this well, certainly in the US-France relationship. Less well perhaps in the relationship with its European allies that mostly left Paris to hang out to dry over the AUKUS issue, which just shows you the divisions in Europe.

Sophia Besch:

So I think to answer your actual questions, I think many will have been surprised in Europe. And I think me arriving here having already a pretty, I think, realistic view of where the Transatlantic relationship was heading, I was still surprised by just how much the focus has shifted away from Europe and what that means for Europeans and how we need to present ourselves in Washington to get a hearing and to get engagement with the issues that we care about, I think, isn't really understood very widely yet in Europe.

Jim Lindsay:

One last question about the American side of the Transatlantic relationship, Sophia, and that is the reaction in Europe to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and particularly the way Kabul fell. The commentary coming out of Europe was quite cutting. You have Tony Blair, known as being a friend of the United States, calling the pullout "Imbecilic." You have the leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany saying it was, "The biggest debacle that NATO had suffered since its founding." You have Joseph Barrell, the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief, saying, "This is a catastrophe."

Jim Lindsay:

Now, those are all statements issued in the heat of the moment. A few months have passed. Has Afghanistan been a game changer in how Europeans think about the Transatlantic relationship or the United States?

Sophia Besch:

That's a great question and I ask myself that question too, because in the heat of the moment, as you say, I would've predicted that, yes, this would be a game changer. It would be a game changer for how Europeans look to Washington as an ally because of what many said, and I obviously wasn't in the rooms, but what we heard was a lack of consultation and feeling of abandonment of the European allies and how the withdrawal was handled from the United States.

Sophia Besch:

I would've thought that that would've changed the approach to the Transatlantic relationship. I also would've thought that this would reinvigorate European defense efforts. And we have seen some of that but, remarkably quickly, we've stopped talking about Afghanistan, I think, both here in Washington and in Europe.

Jim Lindsay:

It's definitely in the rear view mirror here though events on the ground could change that. But I think it has receded, certainly.

Sophia Besch:

Exactly. And I think it's similar in Europe, and maybe that's because it hadn't for a long time been an issue that European public, certainly the German public, which I know best, cared much about ever since we were less involved in fighting actors in Afghanistan. I think it had become less important to the European public. And while we were shocked by the images that came out of that and shocked, I think, by the sense of inability to control the situation and European inability to act, I think that we forgot about this pretty quickly. And we're going to have to see.

Sophia Besch:

I mean, right now we have this, what European think tankers talk about very excitedly as a window of opportunity for European defense. We'll have to see if some of those strategic documents that we're about to release, if we see a reflected a new sense of urgency that has come out of Afghanistan. But certainly in the domestic debate, I'm not sure we see it that much.

Sophia Besch:

That being said, though, I do think that it has brought home a point about the need for a more independent or for a stronger European defense that is a bit more autonomous from the United States to more European allies than just France. France was the first to recognize this and talk about this. Now, when you talk to, for example, the Swedes or the Dutch, some Germans, there's more of a realization of that fact, as well. So maybe we have turned a page.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. I promised that we would talk about the European side of the Transatlantic relationship so that's a great segue into that conversation. Let's begin with the country that matters the most in Europe and that's Germany. And since you're based in Berlin and you know what is happening in German politics, maybe my first question would be when are we going to have a German coalition government and who's going to be in it?

Sophia Besch:

Yeah. Great question. So we are recording this the week before we are likely to see the coalition agreement, and it will probably be a government between the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Economic Liberals.

Jim Lindsay:

This is the so-called traffic light coalition.

Sophia Besch:

The traffic light coalition. Yes, exactly. These three parties are almost certainly going to form the next government. They are the clear winners of this election and they have been ... This is what I should really say as a caveat, they have been remarkably disciplined in their negotiations over the last few weeks. There have been almost zero leaks in terms of the subject matter that is going to be in the coalition treaty in terms of the minister polls and the personalities that will be in this next government. So I should say that first. But we will see a center left coalition government in Germany, beginning of December, probably.

Jim Lindsay:

So then I have to ask the question, would you expect this center left coalition to make any significant changes in Germany's approach to defense and foreign policy? And I asked that against the backdrop of a column that the German columnist, Wolfgang Munchau, recently wrote in which he argued, and let me quote him here, "What I do not expect to change is Germany's over-reliance on widget exports for its economic growth which informs all other stuff that's wrong with German politics in Europe right now." And he, basically, goes on to argue that the German-Chinese relationship is probably the most strategic geopolitical relationship in the world right now.

Jim Lindsay:

And I think that the inference there is that Germany is going to pay lip service to American requests, maybe European concerns but, at the end of the day, Germany's going to want to do business with China because it's so important economically.

Sophia Besch:

I agree with some, but not all of that.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay.

Sophia Besch:

I think that there is a very strong foreign insecurity policy consensus in Germany. Chancellor Merkel was a part of that consensus and the next chancellor is a part of that consensus, as well as are the coalition parties. There are some degrees of differences there and some of them are going to become really in interesting, I think, in the Transatlantic relationship and in the Germany-China relationship.

Sophia Besch:

At a conceptual level, if the US is looking for allies in the confrontation between authoritarian regimes and democracies, the Greens and, to an extent, the Economic Liberals, who are now part of this government, fully subscribe to that narrative, much more so than the CDU, which had this traditional Merkelian course of keeping a door open for dialogue with Russia and China.

Sophia Besch:

I also think that it should be seen as really good news from Washington that this coalition wants a more European foreign policy because the European consensus on Russia and China tends to be a bit more hawkish than where Berlin has been in recent years. And Germany is a stronger ally when it works within a strong Europe.

Sophia Besch:

On the other hand, of course, this government will also operate within the realities of Germany economic interests and, what is more, will be quite restrained when it comes to things like long term defense spending plans, the value of the military as a foreign policy instrument, the future of nuclear sharing.

Sophia Besch:

There are, within the governing parties, left wing factions that will make decisions on that quite difficult. And, traditionally, those are the issues that Germany's allies care about. So we can expect less good news on that front.

Jim Lindsay:

So we shouldn't anticipate Germany hitting the pledge made at the 2014 Wales NATO Summit to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defense policy? Correct, Sophia?

Sophia Besch:

Okay. I win 50 euros because I make a bet with myself that in every podcast we're going to talk about the 2% eventually.

Sophia Besch:

So I think beyond the questions of will they or won't they reach the golden 2% target? Which, yes, most likely they won't because there aren't really any supporters of that in Germany. Even the CDU, which nominally supports this target, has been in power for 16 years in Germany, didn't get there, right?

Jim Lindsay:

But they made the pledge.

Sophia Besch:

They made the pledge. More important is that, in spite of the current budget increases, and we have seen big budget increases in the defense budget, Germany's financial plans indicates that after this initial hike, the money available for defense is going to decrease slightly in the years to come when more money is going to be needed for future procurement programs for improvements in readiness for the Bundeswehr because German military really struggles with equipment, armament, infrastructure deployability, and that risks affecting NATO too. And for that you need the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry in the next government to work together and to prioritize defense spending. And the Finance Ministry is likely going to be in the hand of the quite austere economic liberals, the FDP, and the other two parties are more likely to prioritize spending exceptions for their main issues, which are the green transformation and digitalization.

Sophia Besch:

So I don't expect them to prioritize defense spending. No. That's the long answer to your question.

Jim Lindsay:

Fair enough. Now, my sense is that, in Berlin, there's been much greater happiness with the Biden administration on the whole with its foreign policy, perhaps in part because the Biden administration decided not to continue pressing opposition in Nord Stream 2, which I think was very well received by Chancellor Merkel.

Jim Lindsay:

If we go a bit to the west and we go to Paris, obviously the sensation is quite different. AUKUS has been a big blow to France. President Macron has been quite vocal about it. I assume that some of that complaining is sincere. I imagine some of it also is strategic. It's strategic, both because he is likely to face significant challenges when he runs for re-election next year, but also because France has had, as you mentioned, this longstanding desire to push strategic autonomy across Europe, and this is an opportunity to make the case. And you mentioned it's got some traction.

Jim Lindsay:

How much more traction do you think that idea might get?

Sophia Besch:

I think we are at a critical time also for a new Transatlantic defense bargain. I think we do see in this US administration, the administration of President Biden, an openness to supporting a more independent European defense if that leads to more capabilities for the Transatlantic Alliance and the willingness to engage with the EU as a defense actor. So we've seen Barrell getting a meeting in the Pentagon, which is big. And we've seen support for a EU-US defense and security dialogue, right?

Jim Lindsay:

And just for context, the United States is generally not one to talk to the EU preferring to privilege NATO and worry that if it speaks to the EU, it's undercutting NATO because the memberships don't overlap.

Sophia Besch:

Absolutely. I do think some of those concerns are still there, but even the two big crises: Afghanistan and AUKUS this summer could be read as opportunities, right? Afghanistan has an opportunity to drive home the point of Europeans that we need a new footing for the relationship, a stronger European posture. AUKUS has an opportunity to refocus at China's focused administration's attention on Europe and to support a more independent European defense and convince the remaining Europeans who worry about supporting that and alienating the US with that.

Sophia Besch:

But, of course, Europeans are divided over this idea of a more independent European defense, as we've said. And the AUKUS context pitched strategic autonomy as antagonistic to the US did not help make that case in Europe. AUKUS itself, of course, I think showed off the inconsistencies in the US approach to Europe in the Indo-Pacific region, on the one hand, encouraging a coordinated European presence, but also dividing the Europeans at the same time, picking and choosing the UK over France.

Sophia Besch:

And now I think we've got stuck on technical issues really, over European access to the US market and the US participation and EU funded capability projects. And still a US fear of losing influence in Europe by encouraging the EU to become a stronger defense actor because, in NATO, it clearly has more influence, and in the EU, it has now also lost the UK, which has been its traditional conveyor of interest in the bridge between the US and Europe.

Sophia Besch:

So I think, as I mentioned earlier, with this window of opportunity now coming up, which is really, the German government coming into power a few months before the French President is fully going to enter into election mode, the publication of the EU strategic compass and NATO strategic concept, which are two strategy documents that are going to outline a European fed perception and what to do about it, I think it would be great if we got to a point where American support, signaling of support, for a stronger European defense through the UN and NATO might help to assuage European fears of alienating the US further.

Sophia Besch:

And if we get to a point where we no longer just talk about de-conflicting defense between the EU and NATO and avoiding duplication and redundancies and actually start talking about what we can do together with these two organizations, I think we would make a huge step forward.

Jim Lindsay:

One country we haven't mentioned at all in this conversation, Sophia, is Russia. And as we're sitting down having this conversation there are great concerns in Washington DC, about Russian troops massing near the Ukrainian border. I think US officials have suggested, or tried to urge NATO, that it needs to make this a priority, an attempt to deter any Russian increased pressure on Ukraine. Russians argue that they're not doing anything out of the ordinary. But obviously Russia has the ability to divide Europe because not all European countries view Russia and Russian policy in the same way. Decidedly different view if you are in Estonia versus if you are in Spain.

Jim Lindsay:

Can you give us a sense of how NATO is likely to handle this challenge, both immediately, but over the longer term?

Sophia Besch:

Yeah. That's a really good question. I mean, it does look very serious. Russia had amassed troops at the Ukrainian border before, of course, in March, but this time it seems it's different. The exercise was not scheduled. There are different capabilities in play. Russia has been talking a lot about the historical unity between Ukraine and Russia recently. And, yes, we've seen the Biden administration, I think, calling it, "A possible invasion." The UK government saying that the SAS was on alert and ready to go.

Sophia Besch:

In 2014, we had this big debate. So after the annexation of Crimea, we had this big debate in Europe on whether to give Ukraine weapons. In the coming weeks I think we might now see more countries supporting the Ukraine in that way. It's really interesting in this context also to look at the Nord Stream 2 regulator decision that was just made in Germany because Putin, of course, wants to ensure that Germany approves gas pumps use of the just finished Nord Stream 2 pipeline quickly, which would allow Russia, if it wishes, to turn off the gas supply to Ukraine. But Germany's energy regulator has just said that it had temporarily suspended certification of the pipeline. And, as a result, that's been delayed by four months. So that's one lever of influence that Europeans have.

Sophia Besch:

But, yes, Putin's actions right now, whether that be supporting Lukashenko's efforts to create a refugee crisis at the border, the military buildup, Nord Stream 2, that's all Russia testing European cohesion and determination, I think, in light of the shifting US focus with the goal to increase Russia's sphere of influence further. And the question is if they can step up to the task through NATO, we've already heard Stoltenberg reaffirm that Ukraine was not a member.

Jim Lindsay:

Stoltenberg being Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO?

Sophia Besch:

Jens Stoltenberg. Absolutely. Yes. And there are questions, I think, over what the response would be if we did see an invasion and occupation, whether we would see a united response or a more unilateral action. And also to the consequences of that, a political crisis turning into a military crisis, turning into, potentially, a migration crisis with refugees coming from the Ukraine, that would pose a huge challenge to European cohesion. And, as you say, I'm not sure we can fully rely on allies building a united front on this.

Sophia Besch:

It'll be interesting because it will pull the US back into a region that I think this administration would have liked to stay quiet while we all focus in the Indo-Pacific.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I think that is certainly the case because the Biden administration made it clear that China was job one, but the reality is there are lots of other foreign policy jobs out there that tug at your attention.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm just curious on this score, Sophia, just looking at it. You mentioned Nord Stream 2. One of the things that many people looking at the current crisis, if I can call it that, in Ukraine is the fact that natural gas supplies are very low across Europe. We're about to head into winter and Europe gets, I think, it's 41% of its natural gas supplies from Russia, which presumably gives the Russians some leverage over Europe on these things. In your sense, as you think about it, just how vulnerable is Europe?

Sophia Besch:

So I think that Putin wants certainly Europe to believe that the problems that Europe is currently facing result from giving the market a bigger role in determining gas prices. He wants a reversal of reforms that have forced gas problems to offer most of its gas at market prices. There were a bunch of economic and environmental factors that played into the gas crisis that Europe is currently witnessing. It's not just the dependence on Russia. It's reopening after COVID restrictions, hot summer, cold winter.

Sophia Besch:

And Russia has its own problems as we've seen with the fire at a processing plant and the need to prioritize meeting domestic demand. But, yes, Russia still has ... I think, the Energy Agency has said, "The possibility to boost gas exports to Europe by about 15%." And there is a degree of dependence, there is a degree of influence that Russia can exert.

Sophia Besch:

But I do think, as I said, in this context, it is interesting that all eyes on Germany over Nord Stream, it is interesting that Germany has delayed the certification of Nord Stream to another four months and is not, at this moment, giving into Russian pressure. But we're also are going to have to see how the next German government deals with this. They have been more hawkish on Russia rhetorically, but actions speak louder than words and we have a long winter ahead.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I will close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Sophia Besch, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for European Reform.

Jim Lindsay:

Sophia, it's always a delight to chat with you.

Sophia Besch:

This was fun. Thank you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen, and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show.

Jim Lindsay:

The articles and speeches mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for the President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always opinions expressed on The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with Senior Producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you as always, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance.

Jim Lindsay:

This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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