Analysis

Will the United States and Europe Break Up Over China?

Biden and Merkel will make all the right noises at their meeting this week. But deep transatlantic tensions persist.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Biden and Merkel speak to the media.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak to the media prior to talks at the German Chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 1, 2013. Christian Marquardt-Pool/Getty Images

The 75-year-old relationship between the United States and post-war Europe is a bit like a traditional arranged marriage between two great families: It is ever fraught with tension, threats of estrangement, occasional outside dalliances (with China and Russia) and, once in a while, spousal abuse (former U.S. President Donald Trump). But surprises are few and divorce unthinkable.

Yet when two stalwarts of this geopolitical union, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden, meet at the White House on Thursday, there will be something new and unsettling in the air: a sense the relationship is changing, perhaps permanently. Americans are increasingly frustrated at European reluctance to get on board with Washington’s strategic shift away from Moscow and toward confronting Beijing. Europeans remain skeptical about the United States’ durability as a democracy and partner, a concern Biden has only partially assuaged.

The 75-year-old relationship between the United States and post-war Europe is a bit like a traditional arranged marriage between two great families: It is ever fraught with tension, threats of estrangement, occasional outside dalliances (with China and Russia) and, once in a while, spousal abuse (former U.S. President Donald Trump). But surprises are few and divorce unthinkable.

Yet when two stalwarts of this geopolitical union, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden, meet at the White House on Thursday, there will be something new and unsettling in the air: a sense the relationship is changing, perhaps permanently. Americans are increasingly frustrated at European reluctance to get on board with Washington’s strategic shift away from Moscow and toward confronting Beijing. Europeans remain skeptical about the United States’ durability as a democracy and partner, a concern Biden has only partially assuaged.

True, Biden has worked hard to heal the transatlantic wounds inflicted during the Trump presidency, saying and doing almost all the right things during last month’s trip—his first overseas—at the G-7 and NATO summits. In a stern rebuke to Trump, who questioned NATO’s utility, Biden described the alliance as a “sacred commitment,” and he resolved the long-nagging Airbus-Boeing dispute. But the Germans and other Europeans are more than a little irritated at Biden’s impatience to push them toward a new consensus, especially against China. And they know why he’s in such a hurry: The specter of Trump and Trumpism still looms across the Atlantic Ocean. 

Indeed, some experts say Trump-traumatized Europeans are probably paying more attention to internal U.S. problems like voting reform, the fate of the Senate filibuster, and the 2022 midterm elections than they are to traditional transatlantic issues like NATO and defense spending.

“If there is a dominant issue, it’s how long is this new friendliness going to last: What and who comes after Biden?” said Charles Kupchan, a specialist in transatlantic relations at Georgetown University. “The German political center is holding, so the bigger question than what the post-Merkel era will look like is what American politics in the post-Merkel era will look like.” After 16 years as chancellor, Merkel leaves office this fall and is expected to be replaced by another member of her conservative-centrist bloc.

Another expert on Europe, Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, recalled a recent conversation with a senior German official. “He said, ‘we see Biden moving back to new normalcy in transatlantic relations, and we like it, but will the 74 million people who voted for Trump agree with that?’” Trump remains the dominant force in the Republican Party and, according to a new book by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig titled I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J .Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, Trump was considering withdrawing from NATO had he won a second term. 

It’s also hard for Europeans to ignore the fact that Biden’s hostility toward China is more a continuation than a break with Trump. Nor has Biden lifted his predecessor’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Apart from French President Emmanuel Macron, no leader has embodied this European skepticism more than Merkel. Not only did she have a toxic relationship with Trump, but she has assiduously cultivated better relations with Beijing. Even before Biden took office, she was pushing other European Union member states to approve a major investment agreement with China, which has become the number one trading partner for both Germany and the EU as a whole. 

“Merkel comes to Washington with two messages,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “One, we don’t want a new Cold War. And two, we don’t want decoupling. If the Americans want to put us on a hostile path toward China, we are not on board.”

China has been Germany’s largest trading partner in volume of goods for the last five years, and German companies are actually stepping up their investments in electric vehicle ventures, plastics, chemicals, and other sectors there. 

“Germany does not want to get caught in the middle of a broader geopolitical power struggle between the United States and China. It never has and never will,” said Rachel Rizzo of the Center for a New American Security. “The U.S., I think, is finally coming to terms with that reality, and the Biden administration has made it clear that they aren’t asking Germany (or Europe, for that matter) to choose sides,” she wrote in an email. 

A Biden administration official who is focused on the U.S.-EU relationship acknowledged “there is still more work to do,” but he contended that there is “increasing convergence on China.” He pointed to the newly formed transatlantic Trade and Technology Council as well as references condemning forced labor in the recent G-7 and NATO communiques. Even so, Germany and other major EU states may not be willing to actually criminalize doing certain kinds of business with China, as Washington appeared to this week with a new advisory that suggests businesses could be subject to prosecution if their supply chains are linked to Xinjiang, where the administration accuses Beijing of genocide against the Uyghurs. 

And although the Germans praised Biden’s outreach to Russia at his Geneva summit in June, they are also hedging their bets by dealing commercially with Moscow, most notably with the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Washington opposes. The Biden official said he expected no immediate resolution of that dispute. In May, Biden waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2’s German builder while discussions continue. 

On a deeper level, the Europeans also know that, for Americans, the relationship that has been at the center of U.S. geopolitics for three-quarters of a century is no longer as important. As the Biden team puts Indo-Pacific issues at the top of its agenda, a rival alliance has emerged in the form of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. “The Germans say we understand that we’re going to be in a situation where there will be less focus on us, but that’s going to take some time to get used to,” Pifer said.

It may also push the Germans further toward the concept of strategic autonomy championed by Macron, although that too may take a long time. Europe has bristled at U.S. financial dominance but hasn’t found a way to escape the tyranny of the dollar. And while Macron and other Europeans want to bolster Europe’s own defense capacity, the biggest country in Europe is still wary in the extreme. Though the last survivors of World War II are dying out—and the horrors of the Holocaust are passing from living memory into history—younger Germans remain haunted by their nation’s past. “Germany is still running away from the idea of building up a hard defense,” Pifer said.

One thing is clear: Biden and Merkel will reaffirm that the transatlantic marriage, for all its problems, endures. The one common theme they can agree on, officials said, is the U.S.-EU relationship remains a bulwark of common values when it comes to democracy and human rights. For Washington, Kupchan said, “Europe looms even larger than it used to in some respects because Biden and the people around him realize that liberal democracy has just passed through a near-death moment.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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