“We must hang together or surely we will hang separately” — Ben Franklin
President Biden is an Atlanticist. He believes in trans-Atlantic relations as foundational to U.S. foreign policy. NATO is, in his words, “sacred.” The contrast with his predecessor in the Oval Office is stark. Donald Trump, from the outset, treated America’s European allies with contempt bordering on hostility. At the same time, he was positively reverential when it came to Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. But that is past, and U.S. foreign policy now accords rebuilding trans-Atlantic ties very high priority. One other issue of competing importance is China. As it happens, Europe and China are inextricably tied together because an effective American response to Beijing will require — absolutely require — close partnership with Europe.
European leaders have made no secret of their delight at seeing Trump go and Biden arrive. Nevertheless, rebuilding trans-Atlantic ties will not be easy. There are a number of complications and obstacles in the way.
First, no one should underestimate the damage over the last four years. Recent public opinion polls reveal that 60 percent of Europeans see the U.S. political system as broken and believe America “can no longer be trusted.” Second, both the United States and Europe are preoccupied with domestic concerns dominated by the intertwined health and economic crises associated with the pandemic. In the next few months, Germany will see its long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, step down. That will create a leadership void, not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. Also, European political stability is threatened — as is America’s — by the rise of ultranationalist/populist movements fueled by paranoia and conspiratorial fantasies.
Third, French President Macron argues that Europe has been too dependent on the United States for security and should gain “strategic autonomy.” That view is not shared in Berlin, but Macron will seek to become Europe’s leading voice on security matters with Merkel (and Britain) off the European stage.
Fourth, there are real trans-Atlantic disagreements on big issues including how to govern the giant social media companies (Facebook, Google, etc.) and whether a pair of pipelines under construction that will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany should come on line. The pipelines are 90 percent complete, but the Biden administration has declared its opposition to the project. All these issues are made more difficult and complicated by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Still, there is a real sense of shared destiny across the Atlantic. It is expressed in frequent references to a “community of democracies” — the urgent need for democratic countries to work together in the face of a rising tide of autocracy in China, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. There is also a growing shared understanding that global warming is an existential threat to everyone. The solution will have to come in the form of technological and policy innovations/transformations that will be developed and implemented largely (though not exclusively) in Europe and America. In this sense the current pandemic can be seen as a template for the climate crisis. The ultimate solution to COVID has always depended on vaccines. Those vaccines are now in existence and the most effective have been developed in the United States and Europe.
Beyond climate and the pandemic, the other great issue facing Europe and America is China. Not long ago, there were many influential voices on both sides of the Atlantic portraying the rise of China as benign and fully compatible with the existing international order. No longer.
That said, U.S. and European perceptions of China are not fully aligned. For Europeans, China is still largely an economic phenomenon — both a threat (as Chinese state companies buy up European assets) and an opportunity (as Chinese money flows into Europe). In the last few weeks, the European Union signed a major investment treaty with China over the muted objections of the Biden administration. For America, China is seen increasingly as a security threat. Unlike Europe, which is separated from China by a continent and dozens of other countries, the United States, in effect, shares a border with China — the Pacific Ocean. After World War II, the United States acquired Pacific island territories as well defense allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand) in Asia. The United States also became the de facto protector of Taiwan — claimed by China as an integral part of “the motherland.” For 70 years, the U.S. Navy has maintained a continuous presence in maritime East Asia. China, determined to be Asia’s dominant great power, wants U.S. forces gone from the region.
Europe does not want to be drawn into an American military confrontation with China. But Europeans share U.S. concerns regarding China’s digital piracy, its theft of intellectual property, and its brutal suppression of basic human rights in Hong Kong and with the Uighur population in Sinkiang. Growing Chinese power and ambition are moving the needle of European opinion.
The bottom line is that the trans-Atlantic alliance is vital to confronting a host of immense, even unprecedented, challenges. Europe and America must work closely together; there is no other choice.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.