Which European Partners for Biden in Reinvigorating the Transatlantic Alliance?
President Joe Biden has vowed to put working with allies at the center of U.S. efforts to tackle global challenges. European leaders are in turn cautiously optimistic about the prospects for what might be the most transatlantic president in decades—and they have even prepared a list of proposals where the United States and the European Union could strike a “new transatlantic agenda.”
Yet on the strategic challenges facing the transatlantic alliance—Russia’s revanchism, China’s global rise, instability in the Middle East—it is not clear that Biden will have a natural go-to partner that can authoritatively speak for Europe, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger’s decades-old query regarding who answers the phone for Europe.
On foreign policy, Europe remains divided, with disagreements about strategic priorities. Key capitals are also watching the post-election chaos in the United States with nervousness. There are growing concerns that the country is unlikely to be the reliable ally that Europeans want and need.
This calculation appears to have at least in part contributed to the push led by Chancellor Angela Merkel in the waning days of Germany’s residency of the Council of the EU last year to conclude an investment agreement with China, ignoring overtures from the incoming Biden team to wait for consultations on a transatlantic approach towards Beijing. It is also apparent in the continued push by France’s President Emmanuel Macron for greater European strategic autonomy.
These are early signs that support for a “middle path” in dealing with the looming authoritarian challenges is growing in key European capitals. In her recent address before the Davos World Economic Forum, Merkel seemed to reject the notion that Europe would side with the United States against China. The Biden team, in contrast, talks of convening coalitions of democracies to discuss a joint “free world” approach to authoritarians’ efforts to undermine democracy.
Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or London?
So, who will the Biden administration be able to turn to in Europe to ensure that the transatlantic relationship is capable of tackling the major strategic challenges of our time?
The natural contender for many Biden officials will be Germany. Lionized among liberal elite opinion makers in the United States, Merkel has managed crises with a “calm, confident demeanor.” Of all the European leaders, she was the most consistent target of Trump’s ire, and even booed by Trump supporters at rallies. Still firmly rooted in transatlanticism, Germany could play a key role in strengthening the alliance’s deterrent message to Russia and ensuring that it is more difficult for China and Russia to drive wedges between Europe’s periphery and its core.
Yet, Germany is entering a year of political transition as Merkel ends her tenure and parliamentary elections are held in the fall, with coalition maneuvering to follow. Given her quiet insistence on bucking bipartisan concerns from Washington about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany’s lackluster record on defense (despite laudable efforts by Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer), and her tendency to cater to German business interests on China, Merkel’s final act is likely to be an unambitious and unappealing one from Washington’s perspective. The newly elected chairman of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, appears cut from similar cloth and unlikely to radically change German policy on defense, Russia, or China if he becomes chancellor.
This leaves Germany an unlikely partner of first resort for trying to build global coalitions to push back against authoritarianism. The Biden administration should by all means engage Berlin and encourage greater German foreign policy ambition, but it must keep its expectations in check.
France is usually the key EU alternative for the United States—one that the Obama administration turned to often, if reluctantly, as it tried to extricate the United States from the Middle East. During the Obama and Trump administrations, the two countries cooperated closely on security issues in Middle East and Africa.
Yet Macron faces challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic at home and the fact that his activist foreign policy has produced few results, and it is not clear that France will be any more useful than Germany to the Biden administration. By pursuing unilateral initiatives on Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, and Libya, Macron has burned bridges with many European capitals and is viewed with skepticism in Central and Eastern Europe. His repeated attempts to seek a rapprochement with Moscow will go over poorly with a Democratic party intent on tackling Russian aggression. Macron can be a very useful partner for Biden on security issues, especially in the Middle East and Africa, but the key for Washington will be to try to channel his ambitions and unilateral instincts into more cooperative joint actions.
The European Union wants to be a key player and interlocutor for the Biden administration. The European Commission’s recently published New EU-US Agenda for Global Change outlines areas where the EU is keen to increase cooperation. But, despite its ambitions, Brussels remains mostly a foreign policy forum limited to the lowest common denominator and often riven by disagreements tying extraneous demands by individual member state to foreign policy.
Biden should reverse Trump’s harmful policy of treating the EU as a competitor and invest in making the relationship more strategic—for instance, by utilizing new formats such as the EU-U.S. Strategic Dialogue on China and the proposed EU-US Technology and Trade Council to discuss digital issues. But Washington should also recognize the limitations of working directly with Brussels on most foreign policy issues where the EU remains divided. Even so, the administration should actively try to bring EU capitals closer together on key issues.
The United Kingdom is an underappreciated potential partner for the Biden administration. Whereas the president and some of his advisors will be tempted to downgrade relations with London as a result of Brexit and the Trump-Johnson bromance, the country could turn out to be a surprise partner.
In the past year, the United Kingdom has advanced its Global Britain vision in support of the rules-based international order. It has also started to confront China, banning Huawei and supporting freedom fighters in Hong Kong. Its latest defense budget hike will position the country once again as Europe’s leading military power with reach in Europe, the Arabian Gulf, and the Indo-Pacific. The U.K. government could be a strong partner on climate, the coronavirus response, and global anti-corruption efforts, including given that it will host the G7 summit and UN climate conference this year. Yet, as it departs the EU and struggles with its post-Brexit identity, the United Kingdom will have limited influence in Europe.
Build Around the E3
The Biden administration is thus left without an ideal go-to European partner for its transatlantic renewal and democratic efforts to counter the authoritarian resurgence. It will need therefore to cobble together coalitions, and to do so in a less divisive way than the Trump administration’s clumsy efforts, which often ended up exacerbating European divisions. Yet, such an ad hoc approach has its limits, just as the Obama administration found out with its unsatisfactory couplings with European partners to respond to crises in Libya and Syria.
If the transatlantic relationship is to avoid irrelevance, let alone be refitted for evolving challenges, new groupings of partners are needed.
In several arms control and multilateral settings, the United States has often relied on a quad format with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to quietly coordinate policy and approaches. This group was central to the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran. The Biden administration should center its engagement with Europe around this E3 group, which has the added benefit of including the United Kingdom, while seeking to elevate and expand this group to include additional actors where it makes sense to do so.
Including another EU member state that can speak with authority to the perspectives of Central and Eastern European countries is a must on issues related to Russia. Poland is the most likely candidate. It already participates in dialogues with France and Germany through the Weimar Triangle, which could be leveraged for this new transatlantic forum. Poland also partners with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia in the Visegrád Group.
On issues such as Russia and China, Poland’s instincts will likely provide a perfect balance to the more accommodationist instincts of France and Germany. The biggest challenge to such an approach is the country’s trajectory under the Law and Justice Party. Yet bringing up this issue early in the Biden administration could send a strong signal to Poland that there will be benefits for the relationship if its future lies with voices other than Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
The EU institutions could be represented at the table by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to ensure wider European legitimacy and coordinated positions, and to broaden the group’s relevance in areas like trade and digital policy where the EU has core competency. And other countries could also be brought in depending on the issues at hand. For example, on Libya and other Mediterranean issues, having Italy (which already sometimes participates as part of a quint format) and Spain at the table makes sense. Both have a strong transatlantic commitment and could serve as a useful counterbalance to the Franco-German duo. On Belarus, Sweden or Lithuania could be invited. And so on.
The members of this group could also serve as core participants for concentric circles of like-minded democratic partners from Asia and other regions of the world to discuss technology and other issues central to democracies’ struggles against rising authoritarianism.
Biden should launch this potential informal grouping early during his tenure, having Secretary of State Tony Blinken engage first at the ministerial level with the goal of eventually holding a leaders’ meeting during an early trip to Europe, even as the administration engages in broader NATO and EU-U.S. summits. The group could have designated leads and working groups within each government who can coordinate between meetings and keep the agenda moving.
New challenges require new constellations of power in the transatlantic relationship. By concentrating U.S. engagement with Europe around the E3 on a sustained but flexible basis and overlapping constellations of other key EU member states and the EU high representative, the Biden administration will have a greater likelihood of steering the direction of transatlantic policy debates in an age in which still no one alone can answer the phone for Europe.
Erik Brattberg is Director of the Europe Program and a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.