President Biden’s maiden foreign tour signals his will to restore transatlantic relations. Europe will rejoice, but may not – and indeed, should not – put all its eggs in the US basket, write Óscar Fernández and Ángel Saz-Carranza.
Óscar Fernández is Senior Researcher at the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Ángel Saz-Carranza is Director of the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics..
A G7 meeting in the UK. A NATO summit in Brussels, followed by an EU-US summit. And a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Those will be the highlights of US President Joe Biden’s first overseas tour, whose intended message is crystal clear: America is back, Western alliances are alive and well, and revisionist powers will be stood up to.
What remains to be seen is whether Europe is entirely persuaded, and how it will react to Biden’s symbolic overtures.
US presidential trips have always been ripe with symbolism. Before the 20th century, these trips were actually conspicuous by their absence, in line with the isolationist stance favoured by the US at the time. President Theodore Roosevelt’s state visit to Panama broke the taboo in 1906, and all of his successors (with the sole exception of Herbert Hoover) emulated him.
Most US presidents took their maiden international voyage to Canada or Mexico, and a few to Europe and Latin America. Only one chose an altogether different destination: Donald Trump, who visited Saudi Arabia.
Biden’s more traditional choice fits seamlessly within his strategy of depicting the previous administration as an outlier in US history. By dressing the upcoming tour in multilateral garments, the new US administration also seeks to distance itself from Trump’s bilateral and transactional approach to diplomacy and start over with a clean slate.
Some Europeans are indeed eager to hit the reset button. As the argument goes, America represents not just a key strategic partner but an irreplaceable security provider. Now that Trump’s overt disdain towards the EU and NATO is out of the picture, there is no excuse not to place all bets on transatlantic relations. Let bygones be bygones.
But just as it would have been unwise to overreact to Trump, it would be unwise to interpret Biden’s victory as a cure-all. Partisanship has been on the rise for decades in the US, and even foreign policy is not as consensus-driven as it used to be. To be sure, Biden’s bold economic agenda and laser-focus on “extreme competition” with China may succeed in bringing American society closer together. However, the record number of executive actions issued by Biden in his first weeks in office did nothing to allay congressional gridlock.
An obvious drawback of executive actions is that they can easily be undone by a successor – as Biden himself has proved. And there is little doubt that the Republican Party, which remains faithfully wedded to Trump, will regain the presidency sooner or later. The bottom line is that there is no telling who will go down as a better emblem of 21st century America: Biden, or Trump.
Moreover, while the US political pendulum has swung back, Biden cannot be expected to turn the clock back. After all, Americans are expressing a clear preference for a more restrained, domestic-oriented foreign policy. Or, as the Biden administration likes to put it, “a foreign policy for the middle class.”
In keeping with this motto, many of Trump’s protectionist policies – including tariffs targeting European steel and aluminium – have stayed in place. Although Biden disagrees with his predecessor’s hard-nosed tactics and favours a rapprochement with Europe (which he wants to lean on in his trade and tech contest with China), he is not willing to squander all of the US’s leverage at the stroke of a pen. Another case in point: Biden is yet to lift Trump’s secondary sanctions barring European companies from conducting business with Iran.
All in all, EU policymakers face three challenges in reviving transatlantic ties. First, for all the blessings of Biden’s election, the US is still very much divided and its foreign policy remains prone to sudden shifts. Second, the little consensus that is left in US politics is not always aligned with the EU’s interests – which was already the case in the pre-Trump era, but perhaps more so nowadays. And third, although the US retains many geopolitical assets and talk of its relative decline may be overblown, it is no longer the dominant force in the world it once was.
When faced with profound uncertainties, hedging one’s bets is usually the best course. And the massive economic distortions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have underlined the need to build safeguards and redundancies. These are two lessons for the EU to keep in mind when engaging with the new US administration – or with any other country, for that matter.
In practical terms, this means that the EU should advocate a diversification of supply chains – rather than a decoupling – and avoid being dragged too deeply into the US-China rivalry. On security and defence, NATO will preserve its prominent role, but European countries can carry a heavier load by boosting their joint capabilities. A more resourceful and “strategically autonomous” Europe, not just in the military domain but in other key areas such as technology and public health, is not a pipe dream. In many ways, it is also in the long-term interest of the US.
To be clear: Biden’s upcoming inaugural tour is a reflection of his pro-European and pro-multilateral mindset, and the EU would do well to welcome this disposition with open arms. Nurturing transatlantic relations is critical to promote economic prosperity, safeguard democracy and human rights, pursue the much-needed reform of the WTO and other international organizations, and tackle global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, pandemics and climate change.
However, the world of the future cannot be built with blueprints and tools from an idealised past. Like it or not, the US is undergoing substantive changes and multipolarity is the new normal. Europe should abandon wishful thinking and wise up to the constraints and opportunities of this reality.