Biden breathes new life into US-Europe alliance



The geopolitical spotlight is shining brightly on Europe this week, with not just an EU-US summit featuring President Joe Biden, but also the first visit to the region by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The talk of the town in EU capitals is an anticipated recasting of Trump-era policy, but this does not mean US and European interests are now identical. On some issues, including the vexed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, there will continue to be a bilateral gulf that will flare up from time to time.
Blinken’s trip in the first half of this week will be one of the key topics of conversation at the summit of the 27 EU presidents and prime ministers on Thursday and Friday, which Biden will join. The new US president will focus on his desire to revitalize US-EU relations, work together to combat the pandemic and address climate change, deepen the world’s largest trade and investment relationship, and the challenges posed by China and Russia.
The “direction of travel” for Biden’s remarks were previewed by Blinken when he began, at the NATO summit of foreign ministers, a reset of US policy toward Europe. The secretary of state pledged to “revitalize” the military alliance in the face of a resurgent Moscow and Beijing.
Blinken’s emphasis on rebuilding partnerships stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who declared during his presidency that “I think the EU is a foe, what they do to us (the US) in trade.” The contrast between Trump, with his calls for more “Brexits” within Europe, and US policy at the start of the EU integration process could not be starker. This was embodied by John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “Atlantic partnership” speech. The core US view for decades was that a united Europe would make future wars on the continent less likely, create a stronger partner for the US in meeting the challenges posed by the Soviet Union, and offer a more vibrant market for building transatlantic prosperity. This was, by and large, the tone of postwar US administrations until the turn of the millennium. And its direction chimes much more with Biden’s approach than Trump’s.
But this does not mean that the new US team has no disagreements with Europe. Indeed, on Tuesday, Blinken raised concerns with his foreign ministerial counterparts, including Germany’s Heiko Maas, over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Germany and some allies are pushing for the pipeline’s speedy completion, despite sustained US opposition.
Biden fears Moscow could use the 1,230-km Nord Stream 2, which will double the capacity of the existing undersea route from Russian gas fields to Europe, as leverage to weaken EU states by increasing dependency on the Kremlin. The pipeline is already about 95 percent complete and is likely to be a festering sore in transatlantic ties, partly because US law requires Washington to impose sanctions on companies participating in the project.
Biden’s push back on Nord Stream 2 underlines how US attitudes have, in some areas at least, gradually become more ambivalent as European integration deepened, particularly in recent Republican administrations. In the economic arena, for instance, the drive toward the European Single Market led to US concerns about whether this would evolve into a “fortress Europe.”
Similarly, the creation of the European Monetary Union prompted worries about the dilution of US primacy in the financial sector and macroeconomic policy. Moreover, in competition policy, the increasing assertiveness of the European Commission has periodically raised US concerns about EU over-reach. Nord Stream aside, the Biden team is generally far more aligned with Merkel than Trump.
Prior to Trump, the George W. Bush administration came closest to questioning the value of European integration. For instance, the controversy over the Iraq conflict saw Washington querying the benefits of EU collaboration in the security and defense arena.
On the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even drew a distinction between “old” and “new” Europe, with the latter (mainly Eastern Europe) perceived as more favorable to US interests. This was a theme that became salient during the Trump era too. Trump’s strong relationship with controversial Polish President Andrzej Duda exemplified the way that America’s Europe policy was at the time recalibrating toward stronger ties with states with pro-Trump leaders, along with weaker relationships with some traditional allies, especially Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Nord Stream aside, the Biden team is generally far more aligned with Merkel than Trump. Moreover, issues which promoted affinity between Trump and Duda, such as the Polish president’s opposition to immigration, support for the coal industry, weakening of the rule of law, and skepticism of multilateral institutions, are not ones that Biden will bond with him on. –AN