America Is Back. Europe, Are You There?
Europeans say they want cooperation with Washington. Their latest actions speak a different language.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
For four long years, I received countless emails and text messages from European diplomat friends distressed by the Trump administration’s reckless, ham-handed foreign policy. Last month, gratefully, those messages turned into expressions of relief and hope for the Biden administration. After having suffered a president who treated America’s oldest allies with contempt while embracing autocrats and adversaries, Europeans are looking forward to a more cooperative Washington under a Biden administration.
Now it’s time for the United States to send a message to its friends in Europe: The window of opportunity for reinvesting in the trans-Atlantic relationship is not indefinite. It is time, dear allies, to get your act together.
At the beginning of December, the European Union published an agenda for cooperation with the United States. It was a remarkably thoughtful and wide-ranging document, clearly not something that had been thrown together as these papers sometimes are, but rather the product of forward-looking policy-makers thinking about opportunities that a new U.S. administration might bring for joint action from climate change to technology policy to relations with China.
Then, just a few weeks later, news came out that the EU—led by Germany—was rushing to complete an investment agreement with China before U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The news precipitated an unusual tweet from incoming U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the subtext of which was: “Could you please wait so that we can discuss a joint approach in just a few weeks?” Europe—oblivious or on purpose—pressed forward anyway.
That wasn’t the only recent action that seemed to signal European disinterest in renewing a cooperative trans-Atlantic approach to shared challenges. Just last week, the EU’s top diplomat, Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, traveled to Moscow for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—a worrying indication that the EU was pursuing business as usual, despite thousands of arrests amidst the ongoing protests against the Putin regime’s decision to turn anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny from an assassination target to a political prisoner. During the visit, Borrell fell victim to Lavrov’s well-known tricks: Lavrov dominated the microphone at their joint press conference and dismissed the EU as an unreliable partner. After Borrell took the bait from a Russian propaganda outlet and detoured into a critique of U.S. policy on Cuba, Lavrov gleefully piled on, joining Borrell in criticizing Washington.
The Russians further humiliated Borrell by using the occasion of his visit to expel three European diplomats for having observed the ongoing protests against Navalny’s imprisonment. (Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan both quickly condemned the expulsion of the European diplomats; this week, the governments of Germany, Poland, and Sweden responded in kind.) As Borrell himself acknowledged in a candid, lengthy blog post: “I returned to Brussels with deep concerns over the perspectives of development of Russian society and Russia’s geostrategic choices. My meeting with Minister Lavrov and the messages sent by Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart.” If Borrell’s statement was intended as damage control, it also confirmed that Borrell needed to go to Moscow to learn what many of his fellow Europeans could have told him before he left.
Meanwhile, in recent days work has restarted on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a project the United States and some European governments have long opposed for fear that it would undermine energy security in Europe and give Russian President Vladimir Putin new opportunities to use gas as a tool of political coercion.
It’s of course not too late to start a new chapter of trans-Atlantic cooperation, but the last eight weeks have not exactly been great. It feels a bit like the Europeans, reassured that sanity is returning, are trying to take advantage of the moment to sneak a few more cookies out of the cookie jar as Mom and Dad pull into the driveway. In short: It feels childish.
To be clear: The reason Europeans need to get their act together is not because Americans say so. Given the antics the United States put European and other allies through in recent years, Washington is not well placed to be making demands at the moment anyway. But rather, it is in the interest of Europeans that they act strategically to advance their own security and prosperity—and the trans-Atlantic relationship remains essential to that strategic picture. Right now, European leaders appear to be confusing the buzzword du jour of “strategic autonomy” with a kind of short-sighted, non-strategic unilateralism—a sin that, just months ago, many around the world pinned on the United States for its transactional so-called America first policy. The rejuvenation of the trans-Atlantic relationship will not be founded on some sense of obligation or entitlement, but rather from a recognition that the strategic interests of the world’s advanced democracies are deeply intertwined—and that the interests of all are more likely to be met through coordination.
With respect to Russia and, more recently, China, some Europeans have complained about feeling caught in the middle. This view is, again, self-infantilizing, recalling the child of divorced parents, and often drifts into outrageous moral equivalence. Russia and China are authoritarian regimes—one declining, one strengthening—neither of which has a recognized strategic interest in Europe’s success. The United States is a fellow democracy—flawed, yes, but remarkably durable—that has recognized Europe’s strength as its own strategic interest for a century and has demonstrated that commitment with blood and treasure. There is no equivalence between the United States and China, or between the United States and Russia. Europeans who indulge in such talk give comfort to a regime in Beijing that is holding more than a million people in concentration camps and to an autocrat in Moscow who murders political opponents and steals untold billions from his own people. If some needed a reminder of how Putin’s regime views Europe, Borrell’s trip should have helpfully provided one.
For European leaders, immediately ramping up engagement with the Biden administration—including on a response to Putin’s nefarious behavior and China’s human-rights violations and unfair trade practices—should be a priority. Europeans have long said they want Washington to pursue a cooperative rather than a unilateral approach. Biden has promised to pursue cooperation, but will need Europeans to be similarly invested if he wants to show his audience at home that cooperation is more effective than unilateralism or isolationism.
In Washington, the Biden administration has already named a number of experienced trans-Atlantic hands to the National Security Council and State Department—including Blinken and Biden’s nominee as undersecretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, who last served as assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs during the Obama administration. Biden’s White House should continue to ramp up its impressive early staffing, and, notwithstanding the demands of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, the Senate should move expeditiously to confirm the nominations. And in the meanwhile, the administration should continue to engage with the EU—and with Germany, France, Britain, and other European allies—to decide on a shared response to Putin and Lavrov’s actions in recent weeks.
No one said that trans-Atlantic cooperation was going to be easy. But that’s okay! Witness the news that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might use his country’s G-7 chairmanship to plow forward on carbon border taxes—an incredibly difficult but potentially transformative keystone to climate action. This will be a thorny issue for Biden’s team, involving tough domestic politics. Nonetheless, it is a welcome development because it is a bold, ambitious, difficult piece of work—the kind of work that strong partnerships are based on.
The time to reset the trans-Atlantic relationship for the coming decade is now. In an era of renewed geopolitics, in which authoritarians seek to undermine democratic governance and roll back international progress, the revitalization of rich, deep, and complicated cooperation between the democracies in North America and Europe—along with democratic allies in Asia—is not merely nice to have. It is a strategic imperative for all sides.