Shadow Government

Biden Team’s Embrace of Europe Falls Short on Content

Outcomes, not optics, should be the measure of U.S. policy in Europe.

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.

Blinken at NATO headquarters in Brussels
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to the press after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 24. OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s inaugural trip to Europe last week is being hailed as a soothing restoration of the trans-Atlantic alliance. As conventional wisdom has it, after four years of abuse and neglect under President Donald Trump, the new administration must make resuming warm relations with allies its highest aim in Europe.

And therein lies the problem. Strengthening alliances with Europe is necessary and right—indeed, given the scale of the challenge posed by China, a deepening of U.S.-European ties is urgently needed. But the Biden administration risks mistaking the optics of improved relations for strategic success. In fact, what the United States needs in Europe is not good vibes but specific outcomes in allies’ policies in order to strengthen the strategic position of the West as a whole for the unfolding era of intensified competition with China. Acting as if trans-Atlantic bonhomie were the goal rather than concrete results could jeopardize progress on that larger aim for three reasons.

First, President Joe Biden’s approach posits U.S. behavior as the problem to be solved, making Washington the penitent who needs to make amends. Most of its stated aims in Europe revolve around the United States remedying some perceived fault caused by… itself. In practice, this has translated into a series of opening concessions: rejoining the Paris climate agreement, offering to return to the Iran nuclear deal, dropping U.S. resistance to the digital tax, removing tariffs on European goods, and so on. Even if the administration intended to take these steps anyhow, they represent a squandering of leverage accumulated under Trump that could have been used conditionally to secure European concessions on trade, energy policies, or defense spending.

Second, Biden’s approach seems to be based on the assumption that U.S. reengagement will, all by itself, prompt favorable policy changes from the Europeans. This is a logical corollary of the idea that Trump’s behavior was the chief obstacle to a trans-Atlantic convergence—remove the Trump factor and add charm, and the allies will come along. What this overlooks is that U.S. bilateral relations with a number of European allies (including the United Kingdom, Poland, and Greece) significantly improved under Trump. When Europeans didn’t go along with Trump, it was for the same reason that they didn’t go along with his predecessor, Barack Obama: because they didn’t see it as being in their interest to do so. In fact, the case could be made that in certain instances such as defense spending, the Trump approach got better results. The new administration may be surprised to find that, after its opening charm offensive has ended, Europe is little, if any, closer to supporting U.S. goals than before.

The danger is that, in its quest to “undo Trump,” the Biden administration will settle for mainly optical wins.

Third, Biden’s approach could prove counterproductive if it translates into less U.S. pressure on allies to make needed policy changes. Both of Washington’s highest strategic objects in Europe—making allies less susceptible to pressure from Russia and China and bringing them into league with the United States and friendly Asian states to counterbalance Chinese power—ultimately require Europeans to do things that, in many instances, they do not want to do. The danger is that, in its quest to “undo Trump,” the Biden administration will settle for mainly optical wins—a few meetings of an inchoate community of democracies, some U.S.-European Union summits, and restored climate and Iran accords—that spare it from playing the role of bad cop but amount to little in the way of tangible outcomes.

None of this is to say that the administration shouldn’t seek convergence with allies; of course it should. But it should aim that convergence at concrete, strategic results. What should its metrics be? For starters:

A Europe that is materially closer to the United States than China. While Blinken stated in Brussels that this is not an “us-or-them choice,” in reality it is. NATO’s European members are, after all, allies of the United States, not China. By 2024, the administration should have the aim of countering China firmly ensconced in NATO strategies and platforms and have a comprehensive U.S.-EU strategic agenda in place encompassing harmonization of digital regulations, tighter restrictions on Chinese technology and infrastructure acquisition, and agreed principles for reforming the World Trade Organization. 

A Europe that can better defend itself. While Biden did not mention burden-sharing in his Munich Security Conference speech in February, the United States urgently needs Europe to accept greater responsibility for handling Russia so that America can focus more military attention on the Western Pacific. By 2024, the administration should have charmed or cajoled the largest remaining defense laggards—Italy, the Netherlands, and above all Germany—into full compliance with their pledges at the 2014 Wales summit, including spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. The administration should also have an updated NATO strategic concept in place that matches the new geopolitical realities.

A Europe that levels the economic playing field with the United States. While the new administration dropped most Trump tariffs against European companies, the original issues that piqued U.S. ire, such as the EU’s higher regulatory and nontariff barriers, remain. By 2024, the administration should have succeeded in convincing the EU to no longer maintain agricultural tariffs that are substantially higher than those of the United States, and to no longer be singling out U.S. technology companies for discriminatory treatment while giving Chinese and Russian monopolistic activities a free pass.

A Southern and Central Europe that are less in the orbit of rival powers. While the new administration has made promoting democracy a key plank of its foreign policy, there are a number of strategically critical but politically vulnerable states where U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic engagement is needed to prevent the spread of Russian and Chinese influence. By 2024, the administration should have dissuaded Turkey from ordering Russian S-400 missile systems, have China’s Huawei and Russia’s International Investment Bank out of Hungary, have Italy out of the Belt and Road Initiative, and have all European countries as members in good standing in the Clean Network program.

The point is not to set an impossibly high bar—nor to suggest that the new administration’s approach is bound to fail. Every administration deserves the benefit of the doubt and time to find its legs. Nor is the point to deny that the Trump administration deserves criticism for an approach to allies that was sometimes counterproductive or even self-defeating.

Rather, the point is that comity with allies is valuable insofar as it yields measurable, strategically important outcomes. Even the staunchest Atlanticists must always keep in mind that all alliances, including those they justifiably treasure most, are not ends in themselves but means for advancing the national interest. These alliances, and U.S. policies toward them, must be assessed by results, rather than atmospherics and good intentions.

A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.

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