Transatlantic Relations
Biden Calls Out to Europe

Joe Biden während seiner Rede zur US-Außenpolitik
Joe Biden während seiner Rede zur US-Außenpolitik im amerikanischen Außenministerium © picture alliance / Captital Pictures

Whether it was the policy areas and challenges that the Democrat outlined or the instruments that will carry and spread his diplomacy, the European Union as a whole and its member states individually felt addressed, encouraged and challenged in Biden's speech. "America is back. Diplomacy is back. We can't do it alone. American alliances are our greatest asset," Biden said. For us Europeans, the echo of these welcome messages always resonates with the phrase: "Europe, get your act together." Europe, make sure you know what you want and act on it. Without even uttering this phrase, Biden has nevertheless sent this clear message across the Atlantic.

The Biden Agenda: China, Climate Change, Trade, Security Policy, Pandemic

The Biden Agenda: China, Climate Change, Trade, Security Policy, Pandemic.
In all these fields, Biden wants to work in alliances. As expected, he has taken a stand as a deep-rooted multilateralist. He knows that the USA alone cannot mobilise the necessary resources and unleash the globally required force for change in any of these areas. Moreover, the Biden/Harris team will have to devote a lot of political and material capital to its programme of internal US healing.

Thus, the field is wide open for cooperation in the joint fight against Corona and its health as well as economic policy consequences. Likewise, Biden has announced that US federal policy will return to active climate policy. He led the US back into the Paris Agreement on the first day of his presidency and plans to play a constructive, leading role in the fields of concrete climate policy on investment, rule-making and international cooperation. It is good for the EU to be able to count on a powerful partner here again.

Cautious Hope on Transatlantic Trade

On the subject of trade, Biden's predecessor Donald Trump not only shifted a basic axis of Republican policy with his aggressive tariff policy and the demonstratively celebrated renunciation of free trade, but at the same time also basically politically defined the already traditionally less free-trade-savvy Democrats. Biden will not follow a dull "America First" course, but he also cannot rush to celebrate globalisation and open markets as growth drivers if he does not want to counteract the electoral victories he has just won in the former industrial belt of the USA. Consequently, as one of the first government measures, he has signed an executive order with the telling title "Buy American". However, there is a lot of room in the details to avoid creating real trade restrictions. Biden's inner circle is also saying that there is a willingness to clear the air quickly with the Europeans on many trade issues, so that space and resources can be mobilised for the real problems that need to be tackled together. This applies in particular to security policy and relations with the People's Republic of China.

Burden Sharing Means Sharing the Burden

Biden has announced that his Secretary of State, together with the Secretary of Defence, will draw up an inventory of the global security situation from the perspective of US interests. For the Europeans, this translates sooner rather than later into the call: now it's time to get serious about burden sharing. Biden will expect and demand more money and more responsibility from the Europeans inside and outside NATO for their own security and the security of the world. More friendly than Trump, but more insistent. And the actors in the EU know this. Trump's bulldozing style over the past four years has actually given Europe's policymakers more space to breathe in this discussion. Cutting off a friendly Joe Biden's 2% GDP share of defence spending will no longer be so easy for Europeans to justify.

China, China, China

For Biden, Russia is just a schoolyard bully in the arena of global power constellations. Disruptive and attention grabbing, but controllable. The real strategic challenge for the US is China. Positively formulated, China policy offers the chance of a real transatlantic policy renaissance: Biden will call on the EU to design and implement a smart containment strategy side by side with the US vis-à-vis China. For human rights, market economy, open societies and multilateralism. The US and Europe as the core of an open-accession alliance-building against state capitalism, one-party rule, neo-colonial Africa policy and persecution of minorities. There it would be, the EU as a global actor in the sense of its values. The USA will stick to its strategic focus on China as an adversary, even under Biden. The Europeans may not have to decide which side they will be on in the future. But they will have to find a very clever way to stand credibly in alliance with the USA without cutting off their relations with China. They succeeded once before with the Soviet Union in the 20th century. The Chinese challenge, however, seems incomparably greater. Both for the USA and the EU. It is therefore all the more important that Biden's presidency is now used to formulate, agree on and pursue a common transatlantic China policy.

Domestic Determinants

All predictions and hopes with regard to future transatlantic cooperation are, however, subject to a double domestic political proviso in the USA: What is possible in the legislative and treaty detail work with narrow majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives? And what concessions must Biden make to one, his Democratic Party, whose left wing will demand a price for its share in the victory over Trump, while more centrist and conservative-minded Democrats will propagate a course that should allow it to win back a decisive part of previous Trump voters. In other words, resistance and centrifugal forces in Washington and the rest of the USA will not make life any easier for Biden/Harris in terms of external politics and cooperation with his allies. On the other hand, the following always applies to the USA as a global power: there is no alternative to a strong foreign policy. "Foreign is Domestic". And Biden made it very clear in his keynote speech on foreign policy that he wants to shape his foreign policy in such a way that it always serves the peace, security and prosperity of the USA. He defines a strong foreign policy as being in the "naked self-interest" of the US.

Europe's Chance

And Europe? The EU, too, knows its own centrifugal forces and tests of strength: There is not just one EU interest, there are different national interests of the member states with regard to all the policy fields mentioned. And there are tasks, such as migration policy, that have to be solved by the EU on its doorstep. It should not be forgotten that beyond all congruence of interests, values and alliances, the EU and the USA are also competing rivals. With Biden in the White House, however, it is clear that there is enough room for politics, for the ability and necessity to compromise, for perseverance and cooperation. This is perhaps the message of the Biden victory for the EU: populism is not dead but weakened. The space for politics in the transatlantic relationship and cooperation is back. Let's use it.



Thomas Ilka is the Regional Director of the FNF European Dialogue Programme in Brussels.