The Washington Post
Concerns about U.S. commitment to liberal values underlie Biden’s trip to Europe
President Biden has lofty ambitions for his trip to Europe. He headed off Wednesday for a week-long tour that includes meetings with Queen Elizabeth II, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and most of Europe’s democratically elected leaders. At summits of the Group of Seven nations and NATO, Biden intends to rally traditional American allies who were perturbed by the political volatility of his predecessor. Biden has cast the coming decade as a global clash between liberal democracies and autocratic powers like China, and sees the proceedings this week as the opening chapter of a new era of competition.
“In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “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.”
His European interlocutors are enthusiastic. “America is back,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters on Monday, echoing Biden’s own slogan after a half-decade in which President Donald Trump had chipped away at some of the pillars of the transatlantic alliance. “It means that we have again a very strong partner to promote the multilateral approach . . . a big difference with the Trump administration.”
Trump’s “America First” doctrine provoked anxiety among the policymaking elite of Washington and Brussels, who started to question the deeper ideological bonds uniting their countries. “In his indifference to liberty and contempt for selfgovernment, at home and abroad, Donald Trump is the first nonWestern president of the United States,” wrote Michael Kimmage, author of “The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy.”
In 2020, the organizers of the annual Munich Security Conference floated the concept of “Westlessness” — a recognition of the perceived “decay of the Western project.” The next year, the conference’s theme was more optimistically dubbed “Beyond Westlessness,” and its briefing paper suggested the new president had “a chance to reinvigorate the West.” Biden addressed the gathering virtually, declaring that, yes, “America is back.”
Of course, the idea of the “West” is itself rather fuzzy. It’s not a meaningful geographic term, because invocations of the West rarely encompass the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, and usually do include Australia and New Zealand.
Journalists, including Today’s Worldview, deploy the “West” as shorthand for sometimes contradictory concepts: It can define a cultural identity, anchored in centuries of both Judeo- Christian and GrecoRoman tradition. It can represent a political brand, built on a bedrock of liberal democratic values. It can comprise a legacy of imperial abuse, linked to a still unreconciled history of colonialism and racism. It can be a vestige of the Cold War, seen most tangibly in NATO, the world’s preeminent military alliance.
For Biden, the “West” that arguably matters combines the hard power of NATO with the more universal ideals of liberal democratic states. He seeks to convene a “summit of democracies” this year or next but will get the ball rolling at the G-7 summit in Britain, whose host, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has also extended invitations to Australia, South Korea and India amid discussions of a new “D-10” alliance of democracies.
But for some of Biden’s adversaries at home, the “West” represents something more narrow and tribal. Trump had brought to the White House a starker vision of “Western civilization,” steeped in bloodand-soil nationalism. Trump, Kimmage observed, “abandoned the Jeffersonian West of liberty, multilateralism and [the rule of ] law, in favor of an ethnoreligious-nationalist West.” The Republican Party and right-wing pundits remain in thrall to Trump and increasingly animated by nativist rage. The European far right had embraced that “ethnoreligious-nationalist West” well before their American counterparts.
The battle between what I’m roughly bracketing as Trump’s and Biden’s dueling visions of the West seems as urgent as the growing competition with China. And it will loom over Biden’s European sojourn as he and his colleagues weigh global efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, address climate change and counter economic inequity.
“Will the West remain an inclusive, universalist project — ‘open to any person or any nation that honors and upholds these values’ as the late U.S. senator John Mccain put it — or will it define itself more in exclusionary, civilization terms?” asked the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe. “Will the Western alliance outlast Western pre-eminence, or turn out to be a short-lived historical anomaly? How resilient is Western self-confidence and cohesion?”
According to a new poll of European attitudes by the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are reasons to question that resilience. Majorities in a number of sizable European nations believe the European project is “broken.” Majorities in many European countries also viewed the United States’ political system as either “completely broken” or “somewhat broken” four months into Biden’s presidency. “There is still a widespread lack of confidence in the United States’ ability to come back as the
‘ leader’ of the West,” the council noted.
The political paralysis and polarization that Biden leaves behind in Washington is not the ideal platform upon which to don the mantle of global leadership. “The world’s liberal democracies have lost their monopoly to define what democracy is, not simply because the new authoritarians claim democratic credentials (they have won free if not always fair elections),” wrote the Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev last month, “but also because . . . a vast majority [in their own societies] . . . are deeply disappointed with their own political system. Some are unconvinced they even still live in a democracy.”
All the more reason, argue some European analysts, for Biden to pursue more modest goals. “Washington’s underlying objective should be to foster among Europeans a sense of ownership of their security challenges,” wrote Pierre Morcos and Olivier Rémy-bel in the National Interest. “This would be the key to ensure the sustainability of European efforts, ensuring that the United States finds across the Atlantic stronger and more resilient partners, able to shoulder a greater share of the burden and join forces on common issues.”