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Transatlantic Take

How Berlin Can Help Biden—and Itself

November 19, 2020
6 min read
Photo Credit: M Ainuha Zainur R / Shutterstock

The debate in Germany following the U.S. presidential election circles around two themes: “Joe Biden is not Donald Trump” and “the future is not the past.” That, of course, bears explaining.

An oft repeated phrase in Berlin is that there will be no return to a transatlantic status quo ante, even under a traditionalist President Biden. This is certainly true: even if Biden wanted to return to some golden age of liberal hegemony, chances are he could not do it. Donald Trump’s abdication of leadership and the United States’ consequent loss of power and influence are real. Both cannot just be undone. The sense of overreach is real in the United States in 2020 just as it was in 2016, and Biden will need to adapt to this reality. Therefore, the future is not the past.

Consequently, analysts in Berlin expect Biden to borrow from Barack Obama’s playbook and lead from behind. He is expected to concentrate on China, the core strategic question. He will plan for “less Europe”—not in a disruptive fashion, not erratically, not by happenstance, and not by fiat, but rather by design and by consensus.

Some observers conclude that Biden and Trump only differ in style and tone. They both agree that Germany should spend more on defense, should say goodbye to Nord Stream 2, and should follow the United States’ lead on China policy. But this is a misreading. While it is true that Trump and Biden are reacting to the end of Pax Americana and that they both criticize Germany, their motivations and their goals could hardly be more different. Trump wants to destroy the liberal world order; Biden wants to reform and renew it while reducing the United States’ footprint. For Trump, allies are parasites; for Biden they amplify U.S. power. In other words: Joe Biden is not Donald Trump.

With Biden in the White House, German transatlanticists will face a like-minded person. And, while the strategic center of the world is shifting to Asia, he will be the most pro-Europe president since George H.W. Bush.

The Biden presidency presents an opening for Germany and, by extension, for Europe. But windows of opportunity close at some point. Biden will in all likelihood be a one-term president. It is conceivable that he will be succeeded by a Republican. Therefore, joint projects need to be planned with a bipartisan consensus in mind. Only then can Germany hope to repair its relationship with the United States and put it on a new, long-term footing.

A simple “kiss and make up” will hardly suffice. The United States has to bring something to the table as well. Trump deeply alienated many Germans. His policy vis-à-vis Germany consisted largely of demands, threats, insults, tariffs, sanctions, and troop withdrawals. There was a sense that he singled out the country. While 23 NATO members do not meet the 2 percent spending goal yet, all the dismissive talk from the Trump administration has been about Germany.

The United States’ Germany policy has changed several times since the Second World War. It went from “keeping the West Germans under control” in the late 1940s and 1950s to “integrating and empowering the West Germans” from the 1960 to the 1980s, to “trusting the Germans” post-1989, and then to “blaming and punishing the Germans” since 2016. In Germany, this latest phase has eroded trust in the United States, as polls show unmistakably.

Biden faces the unenviable task of being the fixer on the U.S. side. He will need to be ready to take some symbolic actions to mend fences with Germany and also convince Americans that Germany is not just the taker and the United States the giver in this relationship. Many Americans seem to need reminding why this relationship is in their own best interest.

The goal of a reset should be nothing less than a new transatlantic bargain for the 21st century. This cannot be achieved by Germany and the United States alone. It must be a European-U.S. agreement in NATO. However, this will be impossible without Germany’s active input. A new Atlantic initiative must contain three core elements: trade, China and NATO.

First, Germany and the United States should propose for NATO to revise its strategic concept. As a consequence, Washington would renew its commitment to the alliance but also reduce its role in Europe. The asymmetry within NATO would slowly end and Europe should gain more military weight. To achieve this, Germany would have to present an ambitious spending plan, which it has avoided to date.

Second, China policy should be coordinated. If Biden abandons Trump’s radical policy of economic uncoupling in favor of a more realistic strategy, it will be easier for Germany to take U.S. security concerns into account. In future, China policy will be successful only if Western democracies work together. A commission headed by the U.S. vice president and a vice president of the European Commission should define the common goals.

Third, the World Trade Organization should be revived. European countries largely share the U.S. critique of the organization, but not Trump’s tactic of paralyzing its dispute-settlement mechanism. If Biden reverses Trump’s policy of sabotage, European countries can support the United States’ ideas for reform. A reformed dispute-settlement mechanism will make it possible to jointly pressure China to give up its unfair trade practices.

This is an ambitious plan. A single U.S. presidential term may not suffice for its implementation. At the same time, Biden needs quick successes to show his voters that cooperation beats confrontation. Germany should help him by joining some of the projects that are at the top of his list. This should be easy because many of these could just as well have been designed in Berlin: re-entering the Paris Climate Accord, launching an arms-control initiative, reviving the negotiations with Iran, and putting democracy back at the center of foreign policy.

Immediately after Biden takes office, the German government should start a G-7 initiative to herald the end of coronavirus isolationism and to focus on joint crisis management. The goal would be to remove all trade barriers and duties on medical equipment, ensure global distribution of vaccines, and establish a global early-warning system for pandemics. The collateral upsides would be to allow the United States to lead an internationalist project right away, to reintroduce the idea of the provision of global public goods, and to end the Trump-induced hibernation of the elite club of Western democracies.

The greatest danger to the transatlantic relationship today is passivity and lack of ambition. Business as usual will not cut it.

This article is translated, adapted, and expanded from an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on November 9, 2020.

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.