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No More Trans-Atlantic Love Fest as Biden Heads to Europe

Europe and the United States were never going to be the reunited couple in a geopolitical rom-com.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Geneva prior to a U.S.-Russian summit on June 15.
U.S. President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Geneva prior to a U.S.-Russian summit on June 15. Martial Trezzini/Pool/Keystone via Getty Images

To many watchers of trans-Atlantic politics, U.S. President Joe Biden’s successful European grand tour in June was a scene out of a geopolitical rom-com. Estranged for four years under the Trump administration, the two sides were like a reunited couple. Back together at last, they laid out a robust and forward-looking agenda for the U.S.-European Union partnership. Biden reassured jilted NATO allies that the United States was committed to the alliance’s next chapter. Together with other G-7 partners, Biden and European leaders charted a common approach for addressing COVID-19’s public health and economic consequences. And at every stop, U.S. partners underscored the importance of democratic governance and expressed concern for the behavior of authoritarian states, such as Russia and China.

The trans-Atlantic bonhomie was punctuated by Biden’s repeated statement that “America is back.” It was a quintessentially U.S. pronouncement: totally earnest and sincere—he really means it, by golly!—yet the kind of gushing declamation that makes many Europeans squirm with embarrassment.

Biden heads back on his second trip to Europe this week. He will meet with the pope and fellow G-20 leaders in Rome, where he’ll push for a global minimum tax, before attending the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The two summits will be heavily populated with European leaders, many of whom will likely meet with Biden individually as well. Biden has already said he plans to meet with Macron, and Turkish state TV reported Biden is expected to sit down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There will be other such talks as Biden and his team take advantage of proximity to do business with Europe.

To many watchers of trans-Atlantic politics, U.S. President Joe Biden’s successful European grand tour in June was a scene out of a geopolitical rom-com. Estranged for four years under the Trump administration, the two sides were like a reunited couple. Back together at last, they laid out a robust and forward-looking agenda for the U.S.-European Union partnership. Biden reassured jilted NATO allies that the United States was committed to the alliance’s next chapter. Together with other G-7 partners, Biden and European leaders charted a common approach for addressing COVID-19’s public health and economic consequences. And at every stop, U.S. partners underscored the importance of democratic governance and expressed concern for the behavior of authoritarian states, such as Russia and China.

The trans-Atlantic bonhomie was punctuated by Biden’s repeated statement that “America is back.” It was a quintessentially U.S. pronouncement: totally earnest and sincere—he really means it, by golly!—yet the kind of gushing declamation that makes many Europeans squirm with embarrassment.

Biden heads back on his second trip to Europe this week. He will meet with the pope and fellow G-20 leaders in Rome, where he’ll push for a global minimum tax, before attending the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The two summits will be heavily populated with European leaders, many of whom will likely meet with Biden individually as well. Biden has already said he plans to meet with Macron, and Turkish state TV reported Biden is expected to sit down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There will be other such talks as Biden and his team take advantage of proximity to do business with Europe.

But in contrast to the U.S.-European love fest in June, Biden’s trip this week is unlikely to produce easy wins and cheerful headlines. Some European allies are still grumbling about how Biden handled the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while the French are stewing over Australia’s cancellation of a major submarine contract in favor of U.S. and British nuclear submarine technology.

But if the pundits take this contrast to conclude the trans-Atlantic honeymoon is over (or some other easy cliché), they’d be wrong. The likely lack of headline-grabbing breakthroughs during this trip obscures the fact that the Biden administration has already done real work with Europe—with more underway. And given the geopolitical moment the world is living in, “honeymoons” are irrelevant: Neither the United States nor its European allies have an alternative to the trans-Atlantic relationship—indeed, both depend on it. Biden’s first trip may have felt like a happy reunion between estranged partners. If his second trip trades diplomatic pomp for a more workmanlike atmosphere, that’s just as it should be.

The summits and photo ops that made up Biden’s first trip last summer were symbolically important, but the follow-up work is harder.

In fact, the trans-Atlantic partners have been busier than they look. Biden halted the precipitous removal of more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers from Germany that former U.S. President Donald Trump ordered in an apparent fit of anger after Merkel rejected his invitation to Camp David for an in-person G-7 meeting in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, an agreement was reached to suspend the 17-year-long Boeing-Airbus dispute that had metastasized into a vicious trade conflict and led to new tariffs during the Trump administration. To better align U.S. and European security strategy, NATO launched the process of developing a new strategic framework to modernize the alliance’s approach to 21st century threats, including those from outside the trans-Atlantic area. At the United Nations General Assembly, the United States and European Union announced new COVID-19 vaccine donations to poorer countries on top of the commitments already made through the U.N.-led COVAX facility, with a goal of reaching 70 percent global vaccination by next September.

More is on the way: Biden and his EU counterparts agreed earlier this year to launch a U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. It’s a new mechanism that reflects both sides’ recognition that the digital economy and emerging technologies increasingly define the trans-Atlantic economic relationship, affect an ever-broader set of issues (including security), and require special effort from policymakers because the issues involved are often technical and complex, which means policies can lag far behind the pace of innovation. The council kicked off with a high-level meeting in Pittsburgh last month, includes working groups staffed by technical experts, and has adopted an agenda that includes coordinated efforts on investment screening and export controls, artificial intelligence, semiconductors, trade barriers, and workers’ rights.

The summits, photo ops, and joint statements that made up Biden’s first trip last summer were symbolically important: They set the tone and strategic orientation. But the follow-up work is harder. The policy issues the United States and Europe need to work on together—within NATO, at European Union-level, in bilateral partnerships—are complex, technical, and time-consuming. The fact that it takes time to produce high-profile outcomes is less a sign of a troubled relationship than a reflection of a robust agenda.

Although Biden places high value on developing and nurturing personal relationships, relationships do not make a strategy; ideally, they reflect it. Biden’s task is not to woo the Europeans as if the latter were jilted damsels. This is not a time to be guided by feelings; it’s a time to build a shared analysis of the current economic, technological, and geopolitical moment and draw a coordinated set of conclusions. Both sides must reckon with the strategic reality that the United States’ relative power is declining. Democracies will have to get smarter about cooperating to exert their influence in global politics to confront existential challenges. These include climate change, nuclear proliferation, and corrupt authoritarian regimes making the world less safe for democratic societies and the institutions they depend on.

Yes, the United States can do better at avoiding unnecessary friction. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly acknowledged that the new Australian-British-U.S. security and defense framework’s rollout—known as AUKUS—was less attentive to French concerns than it might have been. But European policymakers also need to come to terms with the fact that relative U.S. decline doesn’t just open up space for a larger and more robust European role in the world; it makes that role a necessity. Europeans absolutely should be debating and defining their pursuit of “strategic autonomy” (or whatever they want to call it)—not as a way to punish the United States but as a strategic shift to adjust to a new geopolitical context. Europe needs to have the capacity and political will to assert itself in the world—not because Europe should prefer to act alone but because there are likely to be fewer situations when the United States will intervene.

Europeans shouldn’t want to develop more robust ties with the United States because Biden is being nice to them but because they recognize that both sides urgently need to work together. And instead of waiting for Americans to make this case, Europeans need to work on persuading one another that Europe’s future depends on a strong partnership with the United States.

Almost to a fault, Biden is incapable of artifice about his political vision. He sees the urgency of the moment—an “inflection point,” as he calls it—in terms of keeping the world safe for democracy and restoring Americans and others’ faith in the advantages of democratic governance. He doesn’t need the Europeans to respond to his folksiness or forgive the occasional misstep; he needs Europe to step up as a strategic partner at a difficult time. A geopolitical reordering is underway, authoritarian powers are ascendant and assertive, and many democratic societies are in some form of domestic political crisis. The world faces real governance challenges around digital technologies and corporate business models that have reshaped the context for workers’ rights and economic equality. If they work at cross purposes, neither the United States nor Europe can protect their own residents from the effects of the Chinese government’s increasing assertiveness, the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, future pandemics, or the existential threat of climate change.

Biden’s team hoped the climate summit in Glasgow would be an opportunity to showcase renewed U.S. global leadership. But Biden will likely have less up his sleeve than he hoped when he arrives in Scotland next week. With the U.S. Congress battling over his Build Back Better legislative agenda, key climate-related components now look unlikely to pass. This is disappointing, to be sure, but handwringing over the U.S. failing to meet Europeans’ expectations on climate policy will help no one. Instead, Biden’s counterparts should see the six U.S. cabinet secretaries and several other high-ranking officials in Biden’s tow as a sign of real commitment and work with Washington to come up with creative ways to make progress despite domestic constraints. Meanwhile, Europe has climate policy troubles of its own. It is in the throes of its worst energy crisis since the 1970s, demand for coal and gas is unremitting, and emissions are rising again. Yes, there will be flashy new targets. But here, too, the hard work only starts once “America is back.”

When the Trump presidency came to an end, trans-Atlanticists on both sides of the ocean were understandably eager to flip the script. After four years of cinematic incompetence and pettiness, they hoped for a new era of comfortable mutual embrace. These hopes were always unrealistic; the United States and Europe were never going to be the reunited couple in a geopolitical rom-com. Biden understands this isn’t a rom-com at all; it’s a political thriller with powerful forces and antagonists lurking in the wings. And he knows that whether the movie has a happy ending or a sad one, that ending will be the same for both the United States and Europe. But before you flip any scripts, you need to get everyone on the same page.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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