For the Biden Administration, It’s All about Alliances…and China
It was clear before President Joe Biden took the office that China would be an important issue for transatlantic relations. That said, two months into his administration, it looks as though China—its ideology and its power—is not only on top of the agenda, but the pivotal issue on which Americans and Europeans are trying to get on the same page. After finishing an Asian charm offensive through Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the Quad (the grouping of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Japan and South Korea, this week was all about Europe for the new U.S. administration.
In his first visit to Europe, Blinken joined the NATO ministerial, met European Union leadership, and held bilateral meetings with foreign ministers from across the continent. The message was clear: The United States is back, and Europe is a key ally for it in the historical competition between democracies and autocracies. Speaking at the alliance headquarters, Blinken reaffirmed U.S. commitment to NATO in the traditional language: “You have our unshakable vow: America is fully committed to NATO, including Article 5.” His statement was met with relief in European capitals, after four years of President Donald Trump and what many observers described as NATO’s near-death experience, and France’s president going as far as to declare NATO “brain dead.”
In a public conversation with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Blinken acknowledged that there is a “democratic recession” within the alliance. He also said that the United States will urge its allies to address these internal problems. But the real success of his first trip will be in whether or not it marks the beginning of building a transatlantic consensus on China.
The NATO ministerial served as a preparation for the alliance’s first summit for the Biden administration, which is scheduled to take place in June. It aimed to reconfirm unity and the goal of adaptation along the lines of the NATO 2030 process initiated by Stoltenberg, including the task of updating NATO’s Strategic Concept.
Blinken also reassured the other NATO members that the United States is going to consult with them closely during the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The May 1 deadline for this will not be met, given that the conditions on the ground are insufficient, but it is also clear that the administration is eager to finish the “forever wars,” though in close consultations with its European allies that also have their troops there.
The language of “burden sharing” was toned down—no more of Trump’s “Pay up or we won’t protect you” rhetoric. The issue of defense spending by European countries (especially Germany) is certainly not gone, though. The NATO ministers’ statement emphasized that allies “are making good progress on fairer transatlantic burden sharing […] We must and will do more.” However, it was certainly not the centerpiece message of the meeting.
The NATO ministerial was not meant to deliver any momentous decisions, which was the case, but it was meant to send a clear message that the United States will remain a European power—and that it needs European allies in the competition between democracies and autocracies. On Thursday, Biden joined the virtual meeting of the European Council with the same message: The United States and Europe need to stand together in the face of rising autocracies—most of all China, but also Russia.
The strategy of the Biden administration has been in full view over the last three weeks. The centerpiece is the competition between democracies and autocracies over who will lead the future and deliver for their citizens. This is happening at what Biden called a “historical inflection point.” Autocracies are inspired, if not led, by the example of China as well as Russia. The Biden administration aims to rebuild its alliances with democracies in Asia through formats like Quad and in Europe through NATO. It does not see purely a power struggle with China, but also quasi-ideological struggle between the systems of democratic government and autocratic rule.
As part of this strategy Biden and Blinken reached out this week to the United States’ European allies to join this contest. But many European governments still hope that Europe will not have to choose between the two powers. They looked at the spat between U.S. and Chinese officials at their recent meeting in Anchorage, Alaska with a deep worry. But things might change as Beijing is making the case for China hawks in Europe these days, most recently by sanctioning European parliamentarians and researchers this week.
The broader case for building what amounts to an alliance of democracies still needs to be made, though—in Asia and certainly in Europe. Whether European governments and the Biden administration will be able to build a common strategy vis-à-vis autocracies will be the true test for the transatlantic alliance. In the end, it is all about China—not exclusively its military and economic power, but also the authoritarianism that it represents. It will not be simple, but Europe and the United States should be able to agree what kind of world system and what kind of future they want to build together.