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Biden Is Falling Into the Same Trap With Europe as Obama

Washington’s myopic focus on Berlin and Brussels is a grave mistake. The rest of Europe shouldn’t be flyover country.

By , a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, and French President Emmanuel Macron during the G-7 Summit in Cornwall, England, on June 11.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, and French President Emmanuel Macron during the G-7 Summit in Cornwall, England, on June 11. Jonny Weeks - WPA Pool / Getty Images

Does the Biden administration plan to strengthen trans-Atlantic relations apply to all of Europe, or only to Berlin and Brussels? That’s a question the Poles, among others, are asking. Recently, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau gave an interview to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita on the state of U.S.-Polish relations under U.S. President Joe Biden. In short: They’re not good. When asked how he learned about Biden’s decision to forgo sanctions on Nord Stream 2—the Baltic pipeline that Warsaw and Washington have fought for years to stop—Rau replied: “From the media. Our American allies did not find time to consult with the region most exposed to the consequences of that decision.”

Rau’s criticism will come as a revelation to much of the U.S. media and foreign-policy commentariat, for whom it is received wisdom that Biden is overseeing a comprehensive resuscitation of trans-Atlantic relations following four years of supposed neglect by former President Donald Trump.

In reality, U.S. ties with many European allies don’t need resuscitation. In fact, many of these relationships significantly improved under Trump following years of neglect under the Obama administration. Biden now risks repeating his Democratic predecessor’s mistake of conflating Europe with Germany and the European Union leadership in Brussels, while consigning other strategically important European allies to the back of the bus.

Does the Biden administration plan to strengthen trans-Atlantic relations apply to all of Europe, or only to Berlin and Brussels? That’s a question the Poles, among others, are asking. Recently, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau gave an interview to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita on the state of U.S.-Polish relations under U.S. President Joe Biden. In short: They’re not good. When asked how he learned about Biden’s decision to forgo sanctions on Nord Stream 2—the Baltic pipeline that Warsaw and Washington have fought for years to stop—Rau replied: “From the media. Our American allies did not find time to consult with the region most exposed to the consequences of that decision.”

Rau’s criticism will come as a revelation to much of the U.S. media and foreign-policy commentariat, for whom it is received wisdom that Biden is overseeing a comprehensive resuscitation of trans-Atlantic relations following four years of supposed neglect by former President Donald Trump.

In reality, U.S. ties with many European allies don’t need resuscitation. In fact, many of these relationships significantly improved under Trump following years of neglect under the Obama administration. Biden now risks repeating his Democratic predecessor’s mistake of conflating Europe with Germany and the European Union leadership in Brussels, while consigning other strategically important European allies to the back of the bus.

The problem is especially pressing for Poland, because its geography makes it very sensitive to shifts in U.S.-Russian relations. Rau notes in his interview that the decision not to sanction Nord Stream 2, which runs from Russia to Germany, came on the cusp of Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The administration also “block[ed] a NATO-Ukraine summit,” Rau said, presumably to create space for its opening to Russia. He could have added that the U.S. Defense Department’s latest aid package for Ukraine, announced just days before the Biden-Putin meeting, inexplicably omitted Javelin anti-tank missiles—the same weapons the Democrats demanded Trump provide to Ukraine as proof that he was willing to stand up to Putin. Poles might also wonder: Will Biden reverse Trump’s buildup of U.S. troops in Poland as well?

But Poland is not the only country with questions about Biden’s focus in Europe. With the exception of Germany, most of Central Europe was treated as flyover territory during the Obama years and now risks returning to that status. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to France 34 times but made zero trips to Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. In his 11 trips to Vienna, primarily to meet with the Iranians and the Russians, Kerry never found time for a state visit to Austria itself. Compare this to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who devoted considerable attention to Austria and the Visegrad countries—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.  In the case of Slovakia, Pompeo was the first secretary of state to visit in 20 years. During the same period, senior Chinese and Russian officials assiduously cultivated their countries’ influence in these places.

Focusing only on ties with a European core centered on Berlin and Brussels while neglecting the regions that are ground zero in great-power competition is a grave mistake.

The Trump administration didn’t just rectify this imbalance; it brought concrete projects to advance U.S. interests. Its recapitalization of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and support for the Three Seas Initiative created alternatives to Chinese and Russian investment; Pompeo’s Clean Network initiative to counter the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei enlisted all but one of the 27 EU member states; and a deepening of ties with often overlooked partners, such as Austria, helped gain their support for U.S. goals in the Balkans and elsewhere. Will that continue? Will countries like the Czech Republic, whose government took political risks supporting Trump’s push against Huawei, find their relations downgraded under Biden in the same way that Obama downgraded them for their previously close relationship with former President George W. Bush?

The problems with Biden’s approach reach far beyond Central Europe. Consider Greece and Cyprus. Both countries saw U.S. administrations since the mid-1970s shrink from deepening ties for fear of upsetting Turkey. This changed dramatically with Trump’s Eastern Mediterranean strategy, which upgraded U.S. defense ties with Greece and ended the ban on security aid to Cyprus. Or Spain and Portugal, both of which saw intensified U.S. commercial diplomacy that culminated in these two countries rebuffing Chinese plans for 5G wireless network infrastructure and expanding trade with the United States—by around 40 percent in Portugal’s case. Or take strategically important Norway, whose defense ties with the United States expanded significantly as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to staunch Russian and Chinese inroads in the Arctic. Will any of this continue under Biden?

But perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over U.S. relations with Britain. Obama, famously, was no fan of the United Kingdom. He chafed at Britain’s imperial past, lectured the British about Brexit, and placed the U.K. at the back of the line in trade talks when it defied his advice. Trump undid a lot of this damage, launching talks for a bilateral free trade agreement and communicating to Britain and the EU alike that the special relationship would remain a priority regardless of the Brexit negotiations’ outcome.

Is the U.S.-British relationship still a priority? Biden seemed to say as much when he arrived in Britain last week. But his administration’s actions suggest otherwise. Talks on a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement have been shelved. And while the administration says it is neutral on Britain’s dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland, its pressure appears to be directed only at London. The administration recently announced it was preparing retaliatory tariffs against the U.K. (plus Austria, Spain, and Italy) for a new digital tax—the very sort of retaliation that Biden criticized Trump for.

The point in all of this is not that the Trump administration got everything right. Nor is it that Biden shouldn’t invest in strong ties with Germany and the EU. On the contrary, he should. Rather, the point is that Biden’s narrative about Europe doesn’t fit the facts. The United States gained considerable ground in many key bilateral relationships under Trump. Contrary to misconceptions, this was driven not by political affinity with the governments in question—which varied in ideological hue—but by the need to compete for influence in the parts of Europe where China and Russia have made commercial and strategic inroads.

Biden should sustain and build on Trump’s momentum, not reverse it. Focusing only on ties with a European core centered on Berlin and Brussels while neglecting the regions that are ground zero in great-power competition is a grave mistake. It will backfire, with long-term damage to U.S. national interests.

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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