Biden or Trump? What the US election could mean for Europe’s foreign policy

shutterstock_1054603664-1 [Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

This article is part of our special report US Election Special 2020: What to watch and why it matters.

After four years of Donald Trump, the EU’s foreign policy finds itself in choppy waters. Here is an overview of some of the major areas where Trump and Joe Biden have different approaches and how they could affect Europe.

EU’s foreign policymakers have long voiced the desire for more “strategic autonomy”, with more vocal ones arguing that no matter who wins the US presidential race, they will need to realise that Europe is serious about no longer being Washington’s junior partner.

If Trump wins another term in office, there’s little reason to expect a new approach to US foreign policy, analysts say. At the same time, the tone could change with Biden, a convinced transatlanticist who believes the US can only play this role in dialogue with its partners.


Trump’s prioritization of US interests has led to a move away from several international accords, including his decisions to leave the Paris Climate Agreement and withdrawing support from the World Health Organization.

His budget proposals have sought to slash foreign aid and make it more conditional on support for US policies.

Biden, on the other hand, emphasizes that the US cannot deal with the new challenges it faces without close relationships with its allies and the cooperation of international institutions.

For Susi Dennisondirector of the ‘European Power’ programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a Biden victory means a partner for Europe in the White House who wants to reinstate US leadership on the international stage.

But this does not let Europe off the hook. After all, Biden’s first responsibilities will be to the domestic crisis he inherits,” Oertel told EURACTIV.

“A victory for Trump would be the push that Europeans need to stop talking about sovereignty and start building it”, she added.

Nevertheless, EU diplomats will be careful to avoid the mistake of declaring that “Europe First” is the answer to Trump’s “America First”.

Europe’s security

Trump had quickly targeted the military alliance in his 2016 election campaign, demanding that other members boost their defence spending.

In the past year, NATO members have upped their financial output for defence, with ten out of 30 allies now reaching the famous 2% GDP spending goal, mostly the Eastern European, up from only three in 2014, the annual spending report said.

In summer, the spat culminated in withdrawing thousands of US troops out of Germany, a ‘delinquent’ spender, by shifting some of the forces to Italy and Belgium.

A withdrawal from NATO, which Trump once hinted at, has been halted with an emergency brake by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which last December approved by a bipartisan majority a resolution that would require the Senate’s consent to withdraw the US from NATO.

At the same time, Biden called NATO “the single most consequential alliance in the history of the United States,” during a June 2019 debate and warned it “will fall apart” if Trump stays for a second term.

Analysts, however, agree that it will take more than a Biden victory to solve NATO’s strategic malaise, as the calls for more spending are a bipartisan affair.

Trump’s approach to NATO has strained relations with many of its other members, not least with France, and NATO diplomats have floated the idea of a spring meeting as an early chance to repair transatlantic ties after a bruising four years under Trump.

A March summit “would give Biden a platform to bring Europe and North America back together and also give NATO a chance to put the Trump era behind it,” one NATO diplomat said in October.

No matter which delegation arrives in Warsaw and the Baltic states, it will hear warnings that a revanchist Russia necessitates additional NATO (but especially US) military commitments along the Eastern flank.

In Southern Europe, it will learn that the Mediterranean countries represent the “soft underbelly” and France will call for more involvement in counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and North Africa.

Big power competition: China, Russia

“For Europe, the stakes are high – not least in the fight against climate change, where action from China and the US is crucial,” Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told EURACTIV.

“The US election will likely change little about the overall trajectory of US-China relations, which appear set on a partial economic decoupling and greater confrontation,” Oertel said.

However, since Trump launched his first broadsides in a trade war against China in 2018, his policy evolved into an increasingly confrontational relationship, blaming Beijing for the pandemic and making 5G the first stage of a looming US-China tech war.

More recently, EU member states have called for a rethink of EU-China relations as the country takes an increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance. Both Washington and Beijing have sought to involve the EU in their spat.

Biden has framed China’s rise as a serious challenge and advocates taking a harder stand on human rights issues and the situation in Hong Kong while keeping pressure on China for its trade practices.

Biden will seek to distinguish himself from Trump’s, at least public talking points about China, US officials told EURACTIV.

“We’ve been trying to be too friendly and whether this be politically or economically, that the United States needs to grow a little bit more of a spine,” former US ambassador Charles Shapiro told a small group on journalists.

“The Republicans have moved the Democrats to the right on dealing with Beijing,” he added.

On Russia, Trump has cultivated cordial relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and dismissed accusations of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election, pointing to US sanctions on Russia as evidence of his administration’s strength.

Biden, on the other hand, has pledged to confront Putin about Russia’s interference in US elections and other activities.

“I don’t understand why this president is unwilling to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan when he’s engaged in activities that are trying to destabilize all of NATO,” Biden said.

Nuclear non-proliferation

Within the past two years, the Trump administration has adopted an aggressive withdrawal gambit, betting on coercion to get the Russians back to the negotiating table.

With the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and Open Skies Treaty and the looming demise of New START in mind, in Europe, nuclear disarmament and the potential relocation of US nuclear weapons have sparked a lively debate.

Disarmament experts predict that if Trump wins the US Presidential elections in November, we might see more accords dismantled.

Biden has promised to reverse the trend and renew New START and would likely accept Russia’s offer to extend it five years without preconditions.

He also said he would seek to reverse Trump’s exit from the EU-brokered Iran nuclear deal, with Iran returning to compliance.

On North Korea, Trump’s unprecedented direct negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un so far did not yield commitments to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

Biden announced he would utilise the pressure of sanctions to push Kim to negotiate.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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