Biden Knows Europe, and Europe Knows Biden. That’s Not Enough.
How to start a new—and overdue—chapter of trans-Atlantic relations.
Never let a good crisis go to waste, as the saying goes. President Donald Trump drove U.S. standing with its friends into a ditch, did little to improve things with its adversaries, and may do yet more damage on his way out. But the incoming Biden administration has the opportunity to rebuild better alliances of democracies, starting with Europe, and put them to work on common challenges. The problems—whether global like the pandemic or climate change, or from authoritarian aggressors like Russia or China, or economic and societal inequities at home and abroad—won’t yield easily. Joe Biden’s team, however, can turn the massive relief at Trump’s imminent (if unwilling) departure into political capital to get things done.
The last four years have served as a warning to many Europeans of the risk of U.S. unilateralism and hostility, with much talk of Europe building and asserting its own power on the world stage. Washington’s instinct may be to push back against this or fear decoupling. But it shouldn’t. This newfound European energy should be harnessed by the Biden administration with a positive agenda to shape a forward-looking trans-Atlantic relationship. Early Biden decisions, like rejoining the Paris climate accord or the World Health Organization, will go a long way to reassure Europe that the United States is a responsible partner. But it’s not enough to restore some illusory good old days.
It’s time for a new trans-Atlantic deal—one that requires both America and Europe to do more.
Biden is the most pro-European U.S. president since George H.W. Bush. He came of age during the administration of John F. Kennedy, and one can hear in his language the commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance and its principles—including support for a rules-based international order that favors freedom—that guided American foreign policy through successful post-World War II decades. The Europeans know him. He and his foreign-policy team rightfully seem determined to build on this legacy but to look forward, not back with nostalgia.
Such a new deal could go something like this: The United States would come back to the rules-based system and commit to partnership in leadership with the world’s great democracies, starting with Europe. That means real partnership, not U.S. presumption of European deference but active consultations that form the basis for common decisions. It means unambiguous support for NATO, an embrace of the European Union, but also fixing what’s wrong: adapting the rules-based system to meet current challenges. It also means, in return, a real conversation about Europeans stepping up to the task. Not because they owe something, or because they’re free riders, but because a more ambitious and capable Europe is good for the alliance. As president, Biden needs to make that clear.
Europe can’t just welcome the United States back but needs to build its capacity for action and political willingness to take it, including but not just in its own neighborhood. Europe has been a beneficiary of the U.S.-led international order. Now it needs to be more of a leader and defender of that order, to own it.
Easier said than done, perhaps. American administrations for two generations have been urging Europe to take up more responsibility but at the same time sending mixed signals about even the timid attempts at European defense. But the near-death experience of the Trump administration may convince a lot of Europeans (and Americans) to get things right this time. As president, Biden should convey that message clearly to Europeans. Theological debates over “strategic autonomy” or the “European pillar of NATO” and acrimony over defense spending should be left behind to focus on real operational capabilities and sharing responsibilities. Where should Europeans lead? Should Europeans continue to rely on the United States in their own neighborhood, from Libya to the Western Balkans, or be more engaged? The trans-Atlantic relationship must recognize the reality of gradual U.S. drawdown from certain theaters, or the United States playing a supportive but not lead role in others. But this trend should be coordinated with European allies with a clear expectation of them stepping up. U.S. support for a European lead in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel is a good example of Europeans stepping up to defend their own security, beneficial to the alliance as a whole.
The Biden administration is likely to reinvest in NATO both for reasons of conviction and to show its difference from its predecessor. But it’s time to put behind old debates on the compatibility between NATO and the EU: They are complementary pillars of a rules-based, liberal democratic order in Europe and the core of that order in the world. The Biden administration should embrace and encourage a stronger, more responsible and capable EU. A strong European Union, with its economic and normative power, and its standard-setting abilities, is an asset for the United States, especially in pushing back against authoritarian regimes’ alternative model on emerging technologies. From data privacy to countering disinformation, shaping common trans-Atlantic digital standards be will critical.
A new trans-Atlantic deal will have to contain not just large strategic principles but a plan for common action. As a thought experiment, consider what a declaration coming from a trans-Atlantic summit (the United States and EU, or United States, EU and United Kingdom) in 2021 might include:
Coronavirus solidarity. This would include pledges to pool efforts on vaccines both for themselves and others, and common efforts to coordinate economic recovery efforts. As Adam Tooze argued in Foreign Policy, the liberal global order will be tested by vaccine accessibility.
Climate change. The United States would be back into the common effort, rejoining the Paris accord. A trans-Atlantic summit could be a venue to launch its early initiatives, focused on emerging technologies, private sector involvement, and support for renewables.
Dealing with Putin’s Russia. The United States and Europe could lay out a strong common approach including resisting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, stabilizing the relationship, seeking cooperation if possible, and investing in a better future with Russia, including supporting ties with Russian civil society. Blunting Putin’s efforts to use energy as leverage (for example, through the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a major U.S.-German-Polish irritant) ought to be high on the agenda. Killing Nord Steam 2 might be a best-case scenario, but a second best might be action to mitigate its risks, including through increased support for the Central European infrastructure project, the Three Seas Initiative.
Managing the Chinese challenge. The United States and Europe have been on a convergence course on China policy, with the EU dubbing Beijing a “systemic rival” in a 2019 paper. Both recognize that China has been exploiting the international system even as it reverts to authoritarian behavior at home (against the Uighur community, the people of Hong Kong, and its own society generally) and regional aggression (in the South China Sea). That free economic ride needs to end, and China must be pressed to play by common rules. In combination, the United States and EU have significant economic and regulatory weight to make that message count. Rather than fighting the EU on trade, as Trump has done, the Biden administration should enlist the EU to tackle unfair Chinese trade, including diversification of critical supply chains from China, and share best practices and information on investment screening.
Addressing Turkey’s behavior. Ankara’s authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness abroad, including the violation of Greek maritime sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean, was strongly condemned by candidate Biden during the campaign. The new president will find eager partners, especially in Paris and Athens, to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s provocations, seeking to put Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West generally on a more sustainable footing.
Defense. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, was frustrated by European military weakness. With the development of PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation, the EU defense organization) and the European Defence Fund, as well as increasing defense spending in member states, Europeans are finally moving in the right direction. The United States needs to support (and stop fretting about) EU military structures; there is nothing wrong with a capacity for the EU to undertake military operations on its own. And a recent compromise on third-party access to the European Defence Fund should provide an incentive to put aside trans-Atlantic differences about defense theology. At the same time, Europeans and the United States need to invest more in NATO, which is not just a military structure (ever more relevant in Europe’s east) but also a common forum for security and political discussions.
Fighting dark money through transparency. Autocrats, including Putin and his circle, use the international financial system to launder money and buy assets in secret. Biden himself has called for international efforts to combat it. The United States and Europe (plus the U.K. and others) should agree to increase and enforce transparency in financial markets, LLCs, real estate, investments, and more.
Digital regulation. Europeans have been developing in the last years a distinct approach to tackling new technologies, dubbed “digital sovereignty.” This has included digital taxation and antitrust measures by the European Commission that critics claim target major U.S. tech companies. Perhaps so. But such policy differences should not hijack a positive trans-Atlantic dialogue on emerging technologies. The Biden administration could propose setting up a trans-Atlantic digital council, an idea advocated by Atlantic Council experts, to bring together stakeholders, policymakers, and the private sector to shape common standards. Trans-Atlantic differences are a sideshow. As China grows assertive in the technological sphere, with dangerous consequences for security, privacy, and data, Europe and the United States need to combine efforts to set digital rules or have Beijing set the rules for them.
Democratic solidarity. U.S. and European leaders could commit to the above and more, pledging solidarity among themselves and with other leading democracies around the world. That fits with the Biden campaign’s call for an international “democracy summit.” It would also give the U.K. an entry point, as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been calling for building up a “D-10” summit of democracies (including G-7 governments plus South Korea, Australia, and possibly India). Brexit was an awful decision, but, as the Biden administration will understand, errant countries need a path back.
The Trump era has given Europeans and Americans a look at what the world looks like without trans-Atlantic solidarity. It isn’t pretty. Autocrats around the world think that the liberal order is dead and their time has come again. As president, Biden will have enormous political capital in his first year to try to fix that, and it’s clear he means to try. But the United States can’t do it alone. Europe’s stake is enormous, and Europeans have agency. They should use the next two months to shape ideas and present an ambitious, common agenda to the Biden administration. One can hope that the Trump years will be regarded in retrospect as the catalyst for a new trans-Atlantic age.
Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European affairs.