Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden Is Everything Europe Asked For

On his first trip abroad, the new U.S. president is renewing old friendships—and bringing a winning post-pandemic agenda for the West.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with European Union President Donald Tusk on February 6, 2015 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels.
Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with European Union President Donald Tusk on February 6, 2015 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this week I was talking to a senior French official about U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Europe for meetings of the G-7, NATO, and the European Union. It’s true, he said, that Biden had created a very favorable atmosphere by virtue of his progressive agenda, his COVID-19 recovery plan, America’s high vaccination rate, and especially the recent agreement to establish a global corporate minimum tax, which the French have long advocated. Nevertheless, he said, there remain “things he hasn’t done or hasn’t undone.”

“Like what?” I asked.

Like former President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs, he said. Several minutes later, the official got a text from a colleague, whom he had queried, reminding him that the Biden administration had, in fact, agreed to suspend the tariff. Not even that! By that time, in any case, my interlocutor had reached the point he really wanted to make: Europe can’t blow this opportunity.

Earlier this week I was talking to a senior French official about U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Europe for meetings of the G-7, NATO, and the European Union. It’s true, he said, that Biden had created a very favorable atmosphere by virtue of his progressive agenda, his COVID-19 recovery plan, America’s high vaccination rate, and especially the recent agreement to establish a global corporate minimum tax, which the French have long advocated. Nevertheless, he said, there remain “things he hasn’t done or hasn’t undone.”

“Like what?” I asked.

Like former President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs, he said. Several minutes later, the official got a text from a colleague, whom he had queried, reminding him that the Biden administration had, in fact, agreed to suspend the tariff. Not even that! By that time, in any case, my interlocutor had reached the point he really wanted to make: Europe can’t blow this opportunity.

As Biden plows through his sessions in rural England and Brussels this coming week, we will be hearing a great deal about European fears that the United States could snap back to isolationism in a few years, that Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” shares some unnerving attributes with Trump’s “America first,” perhaps even that Biden’s proposed “democracy summit” will divide the world into two hostile camps. I’ve heard all those concerns in conversations in recent months with officials in European capitals. But that, as news people say, is burying the lead. And the lead is that Joe Biden represents a fulfillment of Europe’s fondest hopes.

Like a long line of postwar U.S. senators—Hubert Humphrey, William Fulbright, Richard Lugar, John Kerry—Biden has spent years making America’s case in Europe and, at times, making Europe’s case in America. But none of those other senators became president. Biden is the first Atlanticist to occupy the White House since George H.W. Bush. And he may very well be the last. The United States will almost certainly never again have a president deeply shaped by the Cold War, as Biden is, and by a default faith in the West as the great repository of liberal values. Former President Barack Obama did not have that history or those instincts.

Biden is also, of course, the beneficiary of the greatest contrast gain in the history of the presidency. Trump regarded “ally” as a euphemism for “freeloader” and Europe as a den of left-wing moralists who got on his case every time he sucked up to autocrats. Anyone would look good by comparison, and Biden has won points for reversing policies like the steel tariff that U.S. presidents had avoided for decades. The relief in Europe is even greater than it was when Obama replaced the bellicose and very un-genteel George W. Bush. Biden will be welcomed like the benevolent father coming home after the evil stepmother’s reign of terror.

But Biden’s reception will be shaped less by who he is than by what he has done in his first months in office. The United States has responded to the pandemic with a dynamism that Europe can only envy. The $1.9 trillion recovery package that the Democrats muscled through Congress dwarfs the EU’s $900 billion Next Generation fund—itself a staggering figure by EU standards. Both the recovery package and the infrastructure bills that Biden is now hoping to push through Congress—in some form—also represent a pledge of faith in European-style social democracy and in a European-style role for the state in fueling economic development.

At times the United States has seemed to be not so much converging with Europe as crossing over to the other side. The U.S. defense of patent and intellectual property rights has been a sore point in trade talks with allies, but today it is the Biden administration that has called on pharmaceutical firms to waive their property rights in vaccine technology to speed up production in the developing world—and Europeans who have defended those firms’ right to profit.

Indeed, the United States now seems to be winning the COVID-19 soft-power sweepstakes. Not long ago, the pandemic looked like a stress test that the Chinese model was passing and the liberal democratic one was not. Having swiftly tamed the spread of the coronavirus, China had begun to distribute first protective equipment and then vaccines to desperate countries all over the world. But the United States has caught up, and then some. Biden has announced that the United States will send 80 million doses abroad by the end of June—and will distribute three-quarters of them through the international consortium known as COVAX, a welcome commitment to multilateralism. Though that figure covers only a minute fraction of the global need, the administration is said to have reached an agreement with Pfizer to purchase and distribute another 500 million doses over the ensuing year.

The United States now has a good story to tell on economic recovery, on COVID-19 response, and, more tentatively, on climate change, where success will depend largely on legislation that Republicans will do whatever they can to block. These will be the headline issues in Europe. I have also been struck, in my conversations with European officials, by growing convergence on China, even if the Biden administration uses a more confrontational rhetoric than do most of its partners. “Biden will find more receptive states than even a few years ago,” an official in Madrid told me. Early this year, EU diplomats initialed a trade deal with China that irked incoming Biden officials. But when Brussels joined with Washington in imposing sanctions on China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beijing responded by slapping sanctions on a group that included European parliamentarians. That not only stopped the trade deal dead in its tracks but also gave Europe a bitter taste of China’s new “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Europeans will be wary of joining an ideological crusade against China—or, for that matter, against the world’s autocracies—if they feel that Biden is bidding them do so. They will want to know that Biden is listening to them, rather than briefing them, on his planned meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They will be wary of the usual American high-handedness and sanctimony. That comes with the territory. Yet the United States has restored its position of global leadership with blinding speed—so rapidly, in fact, that the reflexes born of the previous four years have barely had time to subside. That’s what my French interlocutor worried about—too much skepticism at a moment of supreme opportunity.

In a Washington Post essay, Biden wrote that the great question that he and his fellow heads of state must answer is: “Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries?” I doubt that France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Angela Merkel or Canada’s Justin Trudeau would put the question any differently. History has, improbably, placed Joe Biden in the White House at a moment when the West is challenged in a way that it never has been before. Biden and his colleagues now begin forging a collective answer to that great question.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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