Shadow Government

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For the West, There Is No Road Back to a Time Before Trump

Europeans are relieved by Biden’s victory but will be very disappointed if they don’t heed the lessons of the past four years.

U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 1, 2013.
U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 1, 2013. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

We can all breathe a massive sigh of relief. The nightmare of the Trump era is coming to an end. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is a person of uncommon decency, integrity, and good judgment. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, will close the door on the misogyny and racism emanating from the White House these past four years. Come Jan. 20, the United States will be back as an anchor of liberal and pluralist values, democratic institutions, and international teamwork.

Europeans are particularly relieved by Biden’s victory; they will again have loyal and reliable friends in the White House. Nonetheless, Europe should not expect a return to the status quo of the era before U.S. President Donald Trump. Biden will have no choice but to focus on the homefront as he tries to govern a divided and wounded country, tame the pandemic, and bring the economy back to life. The trans-Atlantic community is headed for better days, but much hard work lies ahead, and expectations should be set accordingly.

One of the most important impacts of Biden’s victory is symbolic—in the world’s leading democracy, centrism and moderation have prevailed over the populist extremes. It was indeed a close call, but the pendulum has swung back to the political center. This result is a shot in the arm for political centrism across the Atlantic community and beyond. Populist nationalism has by no means been defeated, but the tide has turned. The West is making a comeback as the reasoned discourse and liberal values that are its oxygen demonstrate their staying power.
Biden’s victory is a shot in the arm for political centrism across the Atlantic community and beyond.

The spirit of the West and its institutions are poised to rebound. Biden is an ardent Atlanticist. Whereas Trump repeatedly questioned the value of NATO, Biden will reaffirm the sanctity of collective defense and invest in the alliance. Whereas Trump treated the European Union as a competitor, Biden will view Europe as a true partner. Whereas Trump exploited Ukraine for personal political gain, Biden will seek to restore its sovereignty and advance its democratic fortunes.

Biden’s preference for international teamwork will extend well beyond the Atlantic community. Fighting climate change, promoting global health, advancing cybersecurity, combating violent extremism, checking nuclear proliferation—Biden fully appreciates that these and most other challenges can be effectively addressed only through multilateral cooperation. Washington will again build coalitions, not pull them apart.

This is all good news; America, Europe, and the rest of the world will be better off. But we are hardly out of the woods. The U.S. election was a close call. Despite Trump’s autocratic incompetence, some 73 million Americans wanted him to have four more years. In similar fashion, the political center has held in much of Europe—but remains dangerously vulnerable.

The task ahead therefore entails learning lessons from the Trump era, not turning our backs on it. Otherwise, Biden will prove to be only a temporary reprieve from the false allure of illiberalism and autocracy. Trump’s true colors were on full display for the past four years, but he nonetheless garnered roughly 10 million more votes than he did in 2016—hardly a resounding defeat of his brand of politics.

Europeans and Americans should thus work together to address the underlying sources of the continuing appeal of the populist extremes. A top priority is reducing economic uncertainty by taming the pandemic and mapping out the future of work in the digital era. Another priority is coming up with immigration policies that meet the United States’ and Europe’s moral obligations and economic needs but also secure their borders. Otherwise, nativist appeals will continue to gain traction. Conditions are not identical in the United States and Europe, but a trans-Atlantic conversation about beating COVID-19, creating jobs, and managing migration is a must.
The more capable and active Europe becomes, the better a partner it is, and the easier it will be for Biden to beat back the Republicans’ stubborn unilateralism.

Europeans should also prepare to shoulder more defense burdens and assume more responsibility for their own neighborhood. Biden will continue the strategic pullback that Trump began; Democrats and Republicans agree that it is past time to end the so-called forever wars in the Middle East. Biden will also want to demonstrate to the electorate that allies are prepared to do more not when they are insulted and lectured to but when they are respected and listened to.

Countries lagging behind on defense spending—such as Italy and Germany—should pledge to increase their military budgets. The EU should step forward with concrete initiatives to advance stability in trouble spots—including Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The more capable and active Europe becomes, the better a partner it is for the United States, and the easier it will be for Biden to beat back the stubborn unilateralism that has taken hold among Republicans.

Finally, as soon as Biden takes office, the United States and Europe should launch a sustained dialogue on forging a common approach to Russia and China. Maintaining a trans-Atlantic consensus on dealing with Moscow and Beijing is an urgent priority but will not be easy. Pressure is already mounting in Europe to scale back sanctions against Russia. Especially if tensions between the United States and China continue to mount, Europe may well be tempted to chart its own course­­—if only to preserve strong economic ties to China.

Both Moscow and Beijing will be seeking to deepen the trans-Atlantic rift that opened up during the Trump era. Washington and its European partners should prepare to stand shoulder to shoulder and rebuff those efforts.

Biden’s presidency provides an opportunity not just to build back the liberal order that Americans and Europeans erected together after World War II but, as Biden likes to say, to “build back better.”

A version of this article appeared in La Repubblica.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.