America’s back, but differences remain
Rising tensions with Russia and China may threaten post-Trump solidarity
Few images captured the rupture in trans-Atlantic relations better than that of President Donald Trump in 2018, arms folded across his chest as he resisted Chancellor Angela Merkel and other frustrated leaders in their doomed effort to salvage their summit meeting in Canada.
When the same leaders reconvene in Cornwall, England, today, President Joe Biden will reverse the body language, replacing impasse with embrace. But beneath the imagery, it is not clear how much more open the United States will be to give-and-take with Europe than it was under Trump.
The trans-Atlantic partnership has always been less reciprocal than its champions like to pretend — a marriage in which one partner, the United States, carried the nuclear umbrella. Now, with China replacing the Soviet Union as America’s archrival, the two sides are less united than they were during the Cold War, a geopolitical shift that lays bare long-standing stresses between them.
So even though Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain reaffirmed their countries’ unity yesterday, a lingering question looms over today’s reunion of the Group of 7 industrialised nations. Will a show of solidarity be more than a diplomatic pantomime — reassuring to Europeans traumatised by Trump’s “America First” policy but bound to disappoint them when they realise that the nation under Biden is still going its own way?
“America’s foreign policy hasn’t fundamentally changed,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament. “It’s more co-operative and inclusive, but substantially it’s the same.”
“Like all leaders,” he added, “Biden is putting his own country first. How he achieves that is what has distracted many.”
Few Europeans question the sincerity of his outreach. More than even his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden is an Atlanticist, with decades of involvement in European concerns from the Balkans to Belfast.
Yesterday, he joined Johnson to unveil a new Atlantic Charter, modelled on the post-World War II blueprint signed by Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
In their first face-to-face meeting, Biden and Johnson projected unity, each pledging that his country would commit hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to the developing world.
“I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or anything else,” Johnson said, after Biden said both he and the newlywed prime minister had “married above our station”.
Yet the president has made a more aggressive approach to China the lodestar of his foreign policy. While US officials are seeking Europe’s support for that effort, analysts said their expectations are limited, given the commercial interests of Germany and other countries and the fact that Merkel and other Europeans have shown no appetite for a new Cold War with Beijing.
The skepticism runs both ways. Many European officials view Biden’s
declaration that “America is back” with a jaundiced eye, however wellintentioned, given the assault on the US Capitol and other threats to American democracy, not to mention Trump’s iron hold over the Republican Party.
“We’re living in an era of diminished trust,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who runs the Munich Security Conference, where Biden has been a regular speaker.
Germans, he said, used to think it did not matter much to the transAtlantic alliance if the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Now,
Ischinger said, “We are, for the first time in 70 years, confronted with a new question: What happens if a resurrected Trump reappears on the stage?”
White House officials have carefully choreographed Biden’s trip to make it a summer festival of alliance repair. But back in Washington, analysts say its personnel moves show a more marginalised role for Europe.
There is a similar sense of limited expectations on both sides about Russia, even with Biden set to meet President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva. Relations soured swiftly in the early months of the administration,
as the United States faced a Russian hacking operation, evidence of continued Russian interference in the 2020 presidential campaign and Putin’s massing of troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia’s arrest of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, three days before Biden’s inauguration, set the tone for the tensions to come.
Far from the “reset button” that Biden announced in 2009 while serving as Obama’s vice president, his meeting with Putin seems designed mostly to keep a lid on tensions with a habitually fractious Russia, so both sides can avoid conflicts that could disrupt Biden’s domestic agenda.
Given what analysts say is Putin’s calculation that Russia benefits by sowing instability, they question how successful Biden will be. Europe’s proximity to Russia — and the reliance of Germany on its natural gas — means that instability would pose a greater threat to Europe than to the United States.
“The problem with China is that it’s not our neighbour, but it’s the US’s neighbour,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “Russia is Europe’s neighbour, and that reality makes it complicated, but only to the extent that the United States wants to dial up the temperature.”
While the trans-Atlantic differences over China are significant, officials on both sides say Europe is moving gradually in Biden’s direction. The European Parliament last month held up ratification of a landmark investment treaty with Beijing. That followed Beijing’s sanctioning of 10 European Union politicians in what the Europeans viewed as an over-the-top response to sanctions it imposed on China for the detention of minority Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Britain has swung into alignment with the United States on China, restricting the access of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, to its 5G network. But analysts caution that the shift is motivated less by a change of heart about Beijing than by a desire, after Brexit, not to be out of step with its most important ally.
Some in Europe argue that Biden’s China policy is not yet fully formed, noting that there was no shortage of diplomatic pantomime in the stormy meeting Blinken held in March with Chinese officials in Alaska.
Europe’s views could also evolve, too, with the departure of Merkel, a firm believer in engagement with China, after 16 years in office, and with President Emmanuel Macron of France facing a difficult election campaign next year.
“The EU’s position on China has hardened as a result of the human rights issues,” said Simon Fraser, a former top civil servant in Britain’s Foreign Office. “I suspect there is a lot of commonality, even as divergent national interests come into play.”
Still, some Europeans have been put off by how Biden has cast the competition with China in starkly ideological terms — as a fateful battle between democracy and autocracy, in which the autocrats could win.
Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration, said Biden’s goal was to head off the creation of a SinoRussian bloc against the West. That will require the help of allies, which is why he predicted Biden would not only listen to, but hear, the Europeans.
“This attempt to find geopolitical dividing lines won’t find a lot of support among American allies,” Kupchan said.
Biden appears sensitive to these concerns. In an opinion column in The Washington Post last week outlining his goals for the trip, he dispensed with combative references to an autocratic China. Instead, he wrote about whether the United States and its allies could meet a rather anodyne challenge: “Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world?”