No European Honeymoon in Biden’s First Overseas Trip

The United States wants to mend fences with NATO—and revamp the defense alliance to face new threats like China.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Munich.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, on Feb. 7, 2015. Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden’s first international trip as U.S. president includes a summit with leaders from 29 fellow NATO allies who are cautiously welcoming a new era of U.S. leadership—but still recovering from the political battles of former U.S. President Donald Trump and wary of the United States’ long-term trajectory.

Biden’s trip, which includes meetings with G-7 leaders and NATO leaders before a highly anticipated sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is aimed at reassuring allies and urging support for democracy worldwide to compete against rising authoritarianism and major rivals Russia and China.

The main focus of the NATO summit, according to European officials and experts, is signaling transatlantic solidarity in the post-Trump era and kick-starting high-level conversations about how the alliance should adapt to new strategic challenges, such as China, cyberthreats, and climate change.

“This trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed ahead of the trip.

But it’s unclear whether he can pull off the grand display of political unity both U.S. and European officials have been craving for the past four years. Even just six months into office, there are significant points of tension between the Biden administration and Europe: trade disagreements; how to address the China challenge; simmering resentments over how Biden handled the announcement to withdraw from Afghanistan, which caught some allies off guard; unresolved questions over burden-sharing and the bulk of allies not yet meeting NATO’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense; Biden’s decision to meet face to face with Putin, which rankled some Eastern European allies; and a controversial Russian gas pipeline project to Germany.

Biden opposes the Nord Stream 2 gas project, which would undercut Ukraine’s position as a key energy transit route into Europe, but hasn’t brought down the full weight of U.S. sanctions on the companies and entities involved in the project. That action would anger allies in Europe, Congress, and leaders in Ukraine. “How many Ukrainian lives does the relationship between the United States and Germany cost?” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said when asked about Nord Stream 2 in a recent interview with Axios. (The pipeline is on track to be fully completed in about two months.)

Then there’s the long shadow Trumpism still casts over the transatlantic relationship.

European officials say they trust Biden’s instincts on transatlantic relations for the most part—and are privately expressing relief they no longer have to brace for cringey photo-op snafus or heated spats between the U.S. president and allied leaders that came to define Trump’s approach to NATO. However, the former president still looms in the background of U.S.-European relations, and even if allies trust Biden, they’re less sure of the country he represents than they were five years ago.

“After [John] McCain, Biden is perhaps the last true old-guard transatlanticist in Washington,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to the late Arizona senator who was a vocal advocate for NATO. “But what comes after him? Is it back to ‘America First’?”

“There wasn’t much of a honeymoon period after Biden was elected,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on transatlantic relations at the Truman National Security Project. “Europeans are still really nervous about a resurgence of Trumpism in 2024.”

Other European countries, particularly France, are eager for Europe to focus on its own strategic autonomy independent of the United States and may not have an appetite for the United States to try and slip back into its pre-Trump era role as the clear-cut head of the alliance.

“Whether that’s in economics or trade or foreign policy or defense, there is a sense that, ‘well, you’ve been gone for a while, so you can’t just come back and assume your seat at the head of the table. Things have moved on, and we have to create space for European leadership,’” said Rachel Ellehuus, a former U.S. Defense Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “And I think this could play out even in a NATO context.”

Even amid uncertainty with U.S. leadership after a Biden presidency, the NATO alliance is using the upcoming summit to shift its focus toward future threats as it coordinates the military withdrawal from Afghanistan to end its nearly two decadelong mission.

“While there are lingering doubts among Europeans for the potential for ‘America First’ policies to return in a few years, I think everyone’s trying to seize the opportunity to reaffirm NATO’s importance but also define the forward agenda for NATO,” said Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary-general of NATO.

Among the top priorities for the upcoming NATO summit: starting the process of drafting a new “strategic concept” to guide the alliance’s political and security priorities for the coming decade, boosting NATO’s practice of formal consultations among allies and partners to flex the alliance’s political muscles, and continuing conversations on what the alliance should do about China’s rise to global superpower status.

NATO is also expected to double down on its deterrence and collective defense measures to deter Russia on the alliance’s eastern flank, including military exercises and rotating forces throughout the region—particularly after the massive buildup of Russian military forces on Ukraine’s border earlier this year.

“For us, what we expect is alliance unity, a strong message that yes, the United States is back in the game,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we are really focusing on the content itself: deterrence, collective defense, and a strong message to Russia. We don’t have time to do a lot of ‘kumbaya’ messages. We really have to focus on bolstering defense.”

There are also expected to be discussions on bolstering NATO’s “resiliency”—a big buzzword making its way around transatlantic defense circles these days that wraps in how NATO countries can adapt to irregular threats like cyberattacks, incursions by Russia and other rivals that fall below the threshold of a full-fledged attack, threats to critical infrastructure and telecommunications networks, and even threats from climate change.

Ahead of the summit, NATO foreign ministers met in early June and floated the idea of creating a “defense innovation accelerator” to help all allies catch up on “emerging disruptive technologies.” Two current and former Western officials likened the idea to a “DARPA for NATO”—referring to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that studies and develops cutting-edge technologies—but the plan is still in its early infancy, and it’s unclear how this initiative would be set up or funded.

Current and former U.S. officials said Biden is expected to continue Trump’s push for NATO to address China’s growing global influence. This could be another difficult conversation for Biden, European officials and former U.S. officials conceded. Not all allies are on board with the United States’ confrontational approach to China—some are reluctant to undermine their business interests with Beijing while others, particularly members in Eastern Europe, don’t want it to overshadow the threat from Russia. Still others are simply reluctant to be dragged into the middle of a global superpower competition between Washington and Beijing.

“Many allies are not quite prepared to say China is an adversary in quite the same way that a revisionist Russia is clearly an adversary these days,” Vershbow said.

Still, some experts argue NATO can’t step around China’s growing global power. “NATO having a China strategy isn’t about pushing NATO into the Indo-Pacific region,” Rizzo said. “It’s the fact that China’s foreign policy and security policy has now reached Europe.” She cited China’s foreign direct investment in Europe and efforts from state-backed companies to acquire or build up Europe’s critical infrastructure—from its 5G networks to buying up some of Europe’s most crucial ports.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has sought to strike a balance between the opposing viewpoints within the alliance on China in his public speeches. “NATO does not see China as an adversary,” he said in a speech on Monday. “But we must be clear-eyed about the challenges China poses.”

“It already has the second largest defense budget and the biggest navy. And it is seeking to control critical infrastructure in our countries and around the world,” he added. “But Beijing does not share our values.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer