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A Transatlantic Rating of Biden’s First Year in Office

January 18, 2022
2021 opened with great promise for transatlantic relations.

The new US President Joe Biden asserted he was committed to rebuilding America’s alliances after years of neglect and disdain. Europeans, frustrated by former President Donald Trump’s treatment of them, were anxious for a new beginning. Throughout the year, significant breakthroughs were made resolving bilateral trade disputes, launching technological cooperation, and coordinating relations with China.

But 2021 was also a year marked by Washington’s failure to consult Europeans before the mishandled pullout from Afghanistan, growing US preoccupation with China, and European worries about the uncertain reliability of American democracy.

As 2022 dawns, transatlantic relations have clearly entered a new era. There is a deepening appreciation that Europe and the United States face shared challenges best addressed together. The Russian troops massed on the Ukraine border as the new year begins are only one immediate example. At the same time, there is a realization that the United States may be a less reliable partner in the future and that Europe must finally take on more responsibilities on its side of the Atlantic and around the world.

This appraisal of transatlantic relations in 2021 grew out of the German Marshall Fund-Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt Stiftung 2020 Task Force report on transatlantic relations. This current assessment is based on over 50 interviews that Bruce, who is lead author, conducted with US and European foreign policy, security, and economics experts. The interviewees gave their time freely and their input is much appreciated. To ensure candor, all conversations were on a not-for-attribution basis. Nonetheless, the judgement of developments in transatlantic relations in 2021 is the sole responsibility of the authors.

Significant Achievements

“This first year of the Biden administration went about as positively as I hoped it would on the day of his inauguration,” said a former German ambassador to the United States. “When Biden said in February ‘we are back,’ there was some doubt that he could do that, but generally there is an appreciation that the United States is still a European power.”

“There were lofty expectations, especially among [American] Europhiles, that Europe would be more of a priority in overall Biden foreign policy,” concluded a foreign policy analyst at a Washington think tank. “There was this sense we would see a new day in the partnership and that the United States and Europe would start writing the rules of the road.”

Europeans are broadly delighted to see Biden as president," observed a former adviser on Europe in the Obama administration. "The glass is three-quarters or four-fifths full.

The 2021 transatlantic accomplishments were, indeed, significant. The longstanding Airbus-Boeing dispute over government aircraft subsidies was shelved. US tariffs on European steel and aluminum were lowered, averting a trade war. Europe and the United States spearheaded an international accord committing nations to a minimum global corporate tax rate. Some progress was made in addressing climate change. Brussels and Washington created a Trade and Technology Council to coordinate supply chains and technology policy. And a shared perception of China as a “strategic competitor” drove transatlantic convergence on dealing with Beijing.

Europeans are broadly delighted to see Biden as president,” observed a former adviser on Europe in the Obama administration. “The glass is three-quarters or four-fifths full.”

Jarring Discontinuities

But transatlantic relations have also been battered by jarring discontinuities and troubling uncertainties that cast a cloud over 2022.

The US pullout from Afghanistan in August followed by the September announcement of the sale of US nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of a trilateral security pact (dubbed AUKUS because it also involved the United Kingdom), which supplanted an existing deal Paris had with Canberra, further undermined European trust in the United States.

“We were not surprised by the [Afghanistan] decision,” said a French security expert. “The departure was foreseeable.” But Europeans who had readily joined the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as a gesture of allied solidarity, felt they had simply been informed by Washington, not consulted, about the withdrawal.

“You have to know that you have no other friends than Europe,” warned a Polish foreign policy expert. “If you screw up talking with us, that undermines the US system of alliances and that is not useful for the United States.”

And, added the head of a Brussels-based think tank, “AUKUS confirmed France’s longstanding fears of the United States. A lot of trust was lost and that is a very difficult thing to pull back.” Moreover, to many in Paris, the involvement of the United Kingdom only added insult to injury.

Compounding these two high-profile episodes was the European realization that China, not Europe, now preoccupies White House officials. “Anxiety, skepticism, and bad juju around the pivot to Asia is prevalent everywhere in Europe,” said a Berlin-based analyst. “The fear is that it will lead to transatlantic decoupling.”

But Europeans also acknowledge they share responsibility for lingering transatlantic discord. “I would have expected that Biden’s invitation to move beyond the Trump interlude and to team up would have been met by the European side with more enthusiasm,” observed a disappointed Green Party member of the European Parliament.

The Challenges that Lie Ahead

“America still acts as if it is the leader,” observed a disdainful Social Democrat member of the European Parliament. “But the preconditions for transatlantic leadership have changed fundamentally. America is not as sovereign as it used to be. America needs its allies as much as the allies need the United States.”

One of those allies is the new German government. American administrations have long relied on London to protect US interests on the continent. But, since Brexit, Washington has had to rely ever more on Berlin. In 2021, that meant a lame-duck Merkel government that was not enthusiastic about a tougher stance on China and did not want a new Cold War with Russia. “Most of the concessions that the Biden people have made—on tariffs, on minimum global tax rate, on Nord Stream 2—were all aimed at winning Germany over as a partner,” said a Berlin-based observer. “And, frankly, Berlin just pocketed all that.”

In 2022, with a new German government, there is an opportunity for greater cooperation. The new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “considers Biden a like-minded leader,” said a Berlin foreign policy expert. “There is plenty of interest in working more with the United States on a whole range of issues.”

The Russian threat to invade Ukraine poses the most immediate test of transatlantic cooperation in 2022. How Europe and the United States respond—their ability to stay united in resisting Moscow’s demands for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and, if necessary, their steadfastness in maintaining joint economic sanctions against Russia that will prove more costly for Europe than for the United States—could be the most significant test of the security alliance since the Cold War.

No longer in Europe are they talking about who is the sick man in Europe," noted a worried New York-based foreign policy expert. "It’s America that is the sick man.

Going forward, there is also unprecedented European uncertainty about the trajectory of US democracy and what that means for transatlantic relations. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm, has judged the United States a “backsliding democracy.” And a median of only 18% of the publics in nine European nations believes that US democracy is a good example for other countries to follow. “No longer in Europe are they talking about who is the sick man in Europe,” noted a worried New York-based foreign policy expert. “It’s America that is the sick man.”

The upcoming 2022 US Congressional elections and Biden’s fading public opinion poll numbers have Europeans quite worried.

“There is panic on what will happen in the United States,” said a Washington-based veteran of transatlantic relations. “Europeans hear that the Republicans may win the House and Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024.”

“The Biden administration is working in a very narrow window of opportunity,” noted a US expert at a British think tank. “We may only have 10–11 months,” added a worried Social Democratic member of the European Parliament, “because after the midterm elections, things may be different.” And then the question will be, observed a former high-ranking EU official, “will Biden have any political capital to expend on things that are important for Europe?”

In February 2021, Biden told the Munich Security Conference that “America is back.” But in transatlantic relations, there is no return to the status quo ante. The domestic and international challenges facing both Europe and the United States have changed. The Trump experience, Afghanistan, and the US pivot to Asia have left Europeans wondering if they can count on the United States. Moreover, Washington’s slowness to move on lifting the steel tariffs, its inability to deliver more meaningful commitments on climate change, and the worsening partisanship of US domestic politics “has fed a conclusion in Europe that the relationship with the United States will never go back to 2016,” said a former US ambassador to NATO. “Domestic US politics will make it more difficult for the United States to lead in the traditional way, to provide public goods, even if Trump does not come back.”

“A fundamental trust has been broken,” he concluded. “The challenge is to find a new purpose for the relationship.”

The accomplishments, and the shortcomings, of the transatlantic relationship in 2021 provide a cautionary roadmap of what that new relationship can be in 2022 and beyond.

Trade Cooperation Promising

Cooperation on trade issues has been a very positive development in transatlantic relations in 2021, both symbolically and politically, even if it took some time to develop.

Burned by their frustrating efforts to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership during the Obama years and mindful of the Biden administration’s wariness of protectionist sentiment among its voting base, neither Brussels nor Washington has evidenced any interest in a bilateral trade agreement. Similarly, London’s entreaties for a UK-US free trade deal have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

Nevertheless, important progress has been made on the trade front. At the beginning of Biden’s term, the transatlantic landscape was littered with both longstanding and more recent trade disputes. The two sides have been fighting over aircraft subsidies to Boeing and Airbus for 17 years, with the United States winning and exercising the right to retaliate in 2019 and the European Union getting the green light to strike back in October 2020. In June 2021, at the US-EU summit in Brussels, officials agreed on a five-year suspension of retaliatory tariffs in this dispute. And a working group was established to discuss subsidy limits in the face of prospective commercial aircraft competition from China. (They also agreed to establish the Trade and Technology Council, but that is covered in the next section of our review.) 

Past victims of these tit-for-tat tariffs could not have been more pleased. “Ask a French wine exporter if he thinks Biden is no better than Trump,” said a senior French trade official, underscoring the importance of this agreement.

On the margins of the G20 Summit in October, Washington and Brussels agreed to end prohibitive tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on European shipments of steel and aluminum with a quota that will allow these European products to enter US markets duty-free. In return, the EU dropped retaliatory duties on high-profile US exports. Washington and Brussels also agreed to revive multilateral efforts to reduce global overcapacity in steel production, a three-decade-old ambition that is even more urgent today thanks to China’s massive production levels.

Although trade economists complained that the deal was “managed trade,” a former European business lobbyist praised the progress: “I am impressed by the pragmatism on both sides, especially with regard to steel and aluminum. Biden needed a deal to sell to his electorate and the European steel industry is suffering. It was a pragmatic solution that I did not expect at the beginning of the year.”

Biden needed a deal to sell to his electorate and the European steel industry is suffering. It was a pragmatic solution that I did not expect at the beginning of the year.

As a means of slowing global warming, the EU plans to impose a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” a fee on CO2 emission-intensive imports, such as steel and cement. This tax is meant to ensure that European producers are not disadvantaged by Brussels’ efforts to curb such emissions, which will raise domestic production costs. With the United States unlikely to impose its own border tax, new transatlantic trade friction would be inevitable. To head this off, Washington and Brussels say they will develop a plan by 2024 to favor the imports of low-carbon steel and aluminum. In itself, commented a former high-ranking EU trade official, “this ‘green steel’ deal is not meaningful, it’s spinning something with very little content. But it could lead to sectoral carbon deals” that might help avoid an inevitable trade fight over how best to slow climate change.

In the G20, European governments and the United States spearheaded an agreement on a 15 percent minimum global corporate tax rate on the profits of large multinationals, while allocating a portion of those revenues to the countries to which those companies export. The agreement is aimed at minimizing decades-old tax competition between nations. If implemented, this minimum tax could provide a major curb on corporate tax avoidance using tax havens. It should also roll back the threat of digital services taxes that several European nations have imposed or plan to implement, which the US government has deemed unfair (but suspended retaliation pending multilateral solutions).

There has been one significant exception to closer transatlantic relations on trade: a lack of progress on reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is dysfunctional, both as a negotiating forum—where it has failed to produce major trade liberalization—and as a dispute settlement mechanism—because the United States, frustrated by decisions it disagreed with, has refused to assent to the appointment of members of the appellate body created to settle disputes. So far, the Biden administration has blocked resolution of this impasse due to “systematic concerns” about the dispute body overstepping its mandate.

Before Biden’s inauguration, incoming senior US officials vowed that WTO reform would be their top trade priority. The administration did end the standoff that had prevented the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as WTO Director-General. But other than that, one year into Biden’s term there is no tangible evidence of any US effort toward progress at the WTO.

“The United States is absent in Geneva,” complained a former senior WTO official, who ominously speculated: “Does the United States still need the WTO if it wants to weaponize trade against China? To do that, you need to get rid of the WTO.” 

Developments in 2022 could well foreshadow the WTO’s fate. The United States, Europe, and Japan have revived their plurilateral talks on new subsidy disciplines, which they then want to multilateralize through the WTO. Success would help revive the Geneva-based institution. Failure, coupled with a continued stalemate on dispute settlement, may mean Europe and the United States will need other venues to develop new trade rules and resolve disputes.

Trade Cooperation Rating: Promising

We rate trade cooperation as promising, with one significant reservation. While not enough progress has been made at the WTO, the significant transatlantic deals struck on steel and aluminum, aircraft subsidies, and a minimum global corporate tax rate are quite an achievement in one year. Progress will need to be sustained—with more energy focused on the WTO—for the grade to be carried into year two.

Technology Cooperation Passing

In 2021, the most forward-leaning transatlantic initiative was the creation of the Trade and Technology Council (TTC), a European Union proposal embraced by the Biden administration. The goal is to coordinate approaches to key trade, economic, and technology issues, such as standards, secure supply chains, data governance and platform regulation, export controls, and investment screening.

The TTC is explicitly not an effort to craft a free trade agreement or revive the previous effort (TTIP). Despite its name, observed a European Union official, “the TTC is about big T for tech and little t for trade.”

“The ambitions are to bury the hatchet,” said an Estonian technology expert, “for the United States and the EU to recognize that they are on the same side of the battle. To stop arguing, to find common ground, to reassert leadership in standard-setting bodies, and to continue to work on cybersecurity and data protection.”

The first meeting, in Pittsburgh in September 2021, included both US cabinet officials and EU commissioners, signaling initial high-level political commitment. Task forces have been charged with continuing the work and principals will meet again in 2022.

“We already agree on the need for investment controls,” said a Washington think tank expert on Europe who is close to the Biden administration. “On export controls, we know we need a new approach, but there is no agreement on how to get there. On the Privacy Shield and personal data, however, it will be tough to come up with a common approach.”

European officials caution against expectations of immediate deliverables. “What we are creating is a tissue of contacts,” said one veteran of past transatlantic trade negotiations. And they are heartened by the apparent Biden administration buy-in. “What we see,” the EU official continued, “is an empowerment at all levels of the US government, that they really want to work with us to find a common agenda.”

What we see," the EU official continued, "is an empowerment at all levels of the US government, that they really want to work with us to find a common agenda.

But such upbeat impressions are not universally shared. “We have an asymmetric buy-in on TTC,” cautioned a Berlin-based technology expert. “The Europeans are giving it more investment than the Americans. And there is no serious buy-in by the coalition partners in the new German government. It has not gone unnoticed that there is no mention of the TTC in the 175-page German coalition document.” 

Moreover, warned an American expert on transatlantic relations: “What is the purpose (of the TTC)? For the United States, it’s about China. For the Europeans, it’s working on market access and regulating social media. Can they find common ground?”

“The TTC still needs to deliver,” said a former member of the European Parliament. “We may only have four years,” echoing a concern that is a subtext in almost all European conversations: that Biden may be a one-term president.

A major unspoken challenge for the TTC is how to square American dominance in some emerging technologies with Europeans’ technological and regulatory ambitions. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in the rotating EU presidency chair for the first half of 2022, has long argued for European “digital sovereignty.” The EU’s recent plans to invest in European semiconductor production and the French-German-led Gaia-X European cloud initiative reflect such ambitions. US plans to provide its own support for semiconductors could lead to friction over conflicting market-distorting subsidies.

However, what worries some American observers is not that Europe will go its own way on technology, but that it will fail to keep up. “There has to be significant American investment in European technology,” argued the head of one Washington think tank. “If we don’t help strengthen Europe, its weakness will be a strategic problem for the United States.” Of Fortune Global 500 technology companies (both hardware and software), only three are European, compared to twelve US companies, eight from Japan, and six each from China and Taiwan. Although investments in European tech increased in 2020, Europe still lags well behind Asia and the United States.

Europeans are particularly encouraged that Biden anti-trust officials seem to be leaning toward a European way of governing technology platforms. But some Americans see it differently. In 2022, to create opportunities for European champions, the EU’s Digital Markets Act is expected to begin regulating large digital platforms—mostly US firms such as Amazon and Google—setting obligations and prohibitions that would radically alter how these US companies would be allowed to operate in the European Union. A transatlantic clash may be unavoidable.

The new beginning for transatlantic technology cooperation marked by the creation of the TTC will require fleshing out in 2022 if it is to prove meaningful. Furthermore, one topic the TTC avoids is the ongoing negotiations of a new Privacy Shield framework governing transatlantic data transfers. This will be a key—and thorny—issue for the year ahead as the two sides still have very different approaches to data protection.

Technology Cooperation Rating: Passing

Technology cooperation merits a passing rating. The TTC is a heartening initiative, but not enough rubber has yet met the road and more data protection fights still look likely.

Cooperation on China Promising

China is the elephant in the room when Europeans and Americans talk trade and technology. Once there was deep disagreement about the implications of China’s rise and what to do about it. In the last year there has been a striking transatlantic convergence of perspective. This has occurred both at the official level and in public opinion, where disapproval of China has never been greater, driven by shared concerns over human rights abuses and a growing awareness of the competitive challenge posed by China. Joint language on China came out of EU-EU, NATO, and G7 summits in Biden’s first year.

“Compare where we were a year ago with where we are now—it’s a sea change,” said a New York-based foreign policy expert. “China is a bright spot in transatlantic relations,” agreed a Washington-based analyst close to the Biden administration.

Europe’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, hastily concluded after the 2020 US election in a move that rattled incoming Biden administration officials, has been shelved by the European Parliament. “Of the 10 working groups in the TTC,” noted a German expert on China, “eight are explicitly about China.” Brussels and Washington have begun a “Dialogue on China,” an EU initiative agreed to by the United States. “By having people think together, it creates reflexes that are the prerequisite for joint action,” explained one senior EU official. And in general, post AUKUS the US government has been regularly briefing EU partners on exchanges with the Chinese.

While “at the beginning of the year there was a great reluctance to talk about common cause on China,” observed a New York-based authority on the Chinese economy, “what is striking to me over the past six months is that the United States is now pushing on an open door.”

At the beginning of the year there was a great reluctance to talk about common cause on China," observed a New York-based authority on the Chinese economy, "what is striking to me over the past six months is that the United States is now pushing on an open door.

To date joint action is more limited, but on the rise. The European Parliament has passed a resolution on Taiwan that is “as tough as it gets,” observed both a conservative Polish international relations expert and a German Green Party member of the European Parliament. And EU parliamentarians have made the first official visit to Taipei in defiance of Beijing. Similarly, two US Congressional delegations visited Taiwan in 2021. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang Province. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all sent naval vessels through the South China Sea, complementing the US naval presence there, to signal a transatlantic assertion of the right of passage through waters where China claims sovereignty. And Washington and Brussels are pursuing parallel infrastructure investment projects in developing countries to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As important as these initiatives are, the tone on China emanating from the new government in Berlin crucially signals an appetite for even greater transatlantic cooperation. Germany has long regarded China as a strategic partner. But following a sharpening of tone from Germany’s powerful industry organization BDI (Federation of German Industries), the new coalition agreement of the Olaf Scholz-led German government labels China a “systemic rival.” It explicitly refers to human rights concerns, the smothering of democracy in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s threats against Taiwan. And, observes one German expert on China, the China section of the coalition agreement notably refers to Germany’s partnership with the United States and the language echoes that used by Washington.

“This is grounds for convergence,” said a Berlin-based technology expert, “especially on export controls and investment screening” in the TTC deliberations, as both efforts would implicitly be aimed at China.

Other Europeans caution realism about Germany’s ostensible new toughness on China. “Germany is a country where the biggest party is the car industry,” complained a former high-ranking EU trade official. Germany is, by far, the leading European exporter to China and Europe’s leading investor there. Nearly 40 percent of VW and Mercedes-Benz sales and 35 percent of BMW’s sales are in China. The German economy is more vulnerable to Beijing’s retaliation than any other. “As long as we are that dependent,” acknowledged a Green Party member of the Bundestag, “it will be hard to take a tough stance on China.”

In Washington, the problem is different. AUKUS has left the impression in Brussels, said a former US ambassador to the EU, that “the China folks in the White House are driving the bus. And they don’t have an appreciation of the EU as a useful partner on things that matter to the United States” in Asia. Going forward, the AUKUS imbroglio is a reminder of the potential stumbling blocks in allied convergence on China. “Obama announced an Asian pivot,” observed one American expert on Germany, “and Biden is implementing it.” AUKUS is what the Asian pivot looks like. As Washington’s attention shifts to Asia, more incidents sparking Europeans’ sense of abandonment or betrayal may be inevitable, despite the better sharing and the new US-EU dialogue in place.

Transatlantic cooperation on China is already being tested. Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of China, has opened a representation office in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. In retaliation, Beijing has imposed economic sanctions on the Baltic nation and has threatened to deny multinational firms access to China’s market if they export to China from Lithuania. Germany and Washington spoke out in support of Lithuania together after Germany’s foreign minister Baerbock visited with US Secretary of State Blinken at the beginning of January. The EU has proposed an Anti-Coercion Instrument for exactly such cases, but it has not yet been tested. If Washington and Brussels stand idly by while Beijing coerces individual EU member states and corporations in this manner, transatlantic cooperation on China, which has thus far seemed promising, could prove to be a paper tiger.

Cooperation on China Rating: Promising

We rate the Biden administration’s China policy in the first year as promising. Transatlantic convergence on language and positioning vis-à-vis Beijing has been notable (the Europeans deserve their share of this credit, as well) and Washington, despite some stumbles, is working hard to coordinate with partners. This sets the stage for smart coordinated action moving forward.

Climate Change Efforts Flawed

The Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP26) took place in November 2021 amid rising public and official concern about global warming. As two of the top three sources of CO2 emissions, the international effort to slow global warming requires significant US and European effort, especially since China’s leadership was absent in Glasgow. 

Glasgow was not as we hoped, but better than we feared,” observed a former high-ranking EU official. The pledges made in Glasgow should limit global warming to 2.1° Centigrade by 2100, better than the 2.7° likely with existing policies, but still far from the 1.5° warming cap agreed to at the 2015 Paris Climate Change conference.

European observers cite the US-EU initiated deal to cut methane emissions globally by 30 percent by 2030 as a major accomplishment because methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas warming agent. Moreover, added an Italian foreign policy expert, “the green logic underpinning the steel agreement will be underpinning other things in the future.” And the promise at Glasgow by 450 financial firms to align their lending and investments with the goal of net-zero CO2 emissions will have a significant cascading effect, argued one Wall Street observer.

Notably absent is European criticism of the US failure to deliver on the Biden administration’s much touted clean electricity program, which was blocked by the US Senate just before Glasgow. This initiative would have incentivized utilities to increase their use of renewable energy and penalized those that did not.

“You have to compare it to what the United States brought last time,” rationalized a former EU official. “We have moved the dial and now have to follow through,” added an American climate expert. But such follow-through, at least on the American side, will depend on a US Senate that has yet to pass Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, which contains funds to combat climate change. The administration will need to resort to executive orders and regulations to cut emissions, both of which could be reversed by a future US administration, as President Trump undid climate-focused regulatory changes by President Obama.

Going forward, argued an influential member of the European Parliament: “We have to do things together and avoid conflict over sensitive issues like carbon pricing and energy prices,” issues diplomatically avoided in Glasgow. That may prove easier said than done.

“We did not achieve at COP26 what we hoped to achieve,” said the head of a Brussels think tank. “I wish we could have made more progress on cooperation, because the upcoming midterm US Congressional elections may close some of those opportunities if the Republicans prevail. We are literally running out of time.” Because, warned a member of the Moderate party in the Swedish Riksdag, “even if the Democrats are trustworthy, it is a problem that the other party is not.”  

Climate Change Rating: Flawed

We rate action on climate change as flawed. Transatlantic cooperation on climate is back on track thanks to COP26, after being derailed by the Trump administration when it pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. But Glasgow fell short of initial expectations and, more importantly, failed to put the world on a sustainable warming path. More substantive climate coordination is urgently needed in 2022.

Security Coordination Passing

The transatlantic security alliance has long been the cornerstone of US-European relations. But US frustration that Europe is not adequately sharing the associated costs has been a perennial source of friction, culminating in President Trump’s threat to pull the United States out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Washington’s growing preoccupation with the security threat posed by China has also fueled European worries about a US military disengagement from Europe.

To allay concerns about US commitment to European security and the reliability of the United States as an ally, the Biden administration reversed Trump’s decision to draw down US forces in Europe, modestly boosted US military presence, and launched with Brussels an EU-US Security and Defense Dialogue. More broadly, the Pentagon’s Global Posture Review concluded that no major changes to US military deployments are necessary, including in Europe.

But the Biden administration’s unilateral decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan challenged the NATO principle of “in together, out together” and the disastrous execution raised new doubts about the reliability of the United States as a security partner.

“We were not surprised by the decision,” said the head of a Paris-based think tank. “The departure was foreseeable, but the way this was conducted made the Europeans realize that logistically they had to rely on the Americans.”

And, for the French in particular, the episode only underscored the need for greater European military capacity. “Strategic autonomy is still high on the French agenda,” the French think tank leader said, while admitting “without a lot of European support.”

“We welcome that President Biden, during his call with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, recognized the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense,” said a former Estonian official.

However, European experts acknowledge such security self-reliance is still years away, if ever. And even a modest initiative to involve the United States in a project to improve European military mobility has still not gotten off the ground.

More immediately, some observers warn that the Afghanistan experience may sour Europeans on new “out of area” military commitments. “It will have a huge strategic implication for how we want to be engaged in foreign conflicts,” warned the head of a German think tank.

“The Germans are over nation-building and indefinite troop deployments without defining objectives,” warned another German foreign policy expert. Such reluctance could have implications for Berlin’s willingness to engage in the Sahel, North Africa, and the Balkans at a time when Europe’s near abroad is increasingly unstable.

But such worries are not universally shared. “I don’t think there is general reluctance to get engaged at all,” argued a former German ambassador.  “If there is a new flare-up in the Balkans, the Germans would be quick to respond.” And the EU, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States have recently warned Bosnian Serbs against any move toward secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Europe’s willingness to step up its military engagement in its near abroad to safeguard its own security could be the burden-sharing debate of the future. “The Biden administration will not pivot away from Europe, but from the Middle East,” predicted a former Obama administration official. “The big thing is: will the Europeans pick up some of the slack? Are they going to do more in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey?”

The problem “goes beyond capabilities,” a former European External Action Service (EEAS) adviser said. “It’s a political point. We have the capabilities. But are we willing to have body bags come home? The answer is no.”

The Biden administration has shown its willingness to help, reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw support for the French-led counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. But the ultimate test of greater European burden-sharing lies with the security threats posed by both Russia and China.

The Biden administration has no intention of embracing Moscow, as Trump at times appeared to do, nor does it want to “reboot” the relationship, as the Obama administration initially hoped to accomplish. Rather, Biden officials want to contain friction with Russia while they focus on China. However, as 2022 begins, thanks to Moscow’s threats to invade Ukraine, US-European relations with Russia have gone from simmer to boil.

Initially, observed the former EEAS adviser: “There has been a transatlantic convergence on how to deal with Moscow.”

The test of transatlantic resolve will come if Russia invades Ukraine. “No one even considers the fact that Europe should militarily respond to Ukraine,” lamented the adviser.

Any allied response will be economic sanctions and both NATO and Washington have threatened unprecedented measures. In May 2021, in a conciliatory gesture toward Germany’s outgoing government, the Biden administration, overruling Congressional objections, chose not to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is slated to bring Russian natural gas to Germany. Russian military action against Ukraine would put those sanctions back on the table and is already causing fissures in Germany’s new government, as well as causing concern among some gas-strapped European economies, raising doubts about allied solidarity. 

German officials argue for the need to engage with the Russians. “Negotiation is an instrument to keep the Russians at the table, rather than provoke them,” advised the former German ambassador to the United States. And the Biden administration agrees. But Europe is divided. Eastern Europeans, especially conservative Poles, voice strong opposition to any sign of concessions to Moscow.

At the same time, NATO now recognizes China as a security challenge for both Europe and North America. Brussels and Washington have a China dialogue. There is an emerging appreciation in Europe that Beijing’s expansion of its naval presence and capabilities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean threatens more than a third of European external trade in goods that pass through those bodies of water. And both Europe and the United States are deeply dependent on high-end computer chips made in Taiwan at a time when Beijing is upping its military pressure against the island.

We should be developing a comprehensive transatlantic strategy for the Indo-Pacific,” advised an American security expert. “This would require an appropriate European force in the Indo-Pacific. Europeans have to have enough skin in the game so the Chinese realize they can’t peel Europe from us.” Washington and Brussels have begun high-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific.

Security cooperation has always been the backbone of the transatlantic alliance. The Biden administration’s recommitment to NATO, emerging shared security threats, and the growing acceptance in European capitals that they will have to begin doing more for their own defense suggest that the transatlantic security relationship, which had frayed severely during the Trump era, has begun to be reconstituted. In 2022, that new alliance is likely to be tested, by Russia in Ukraine and possibly China over Taiwan.  

Security Coordination Rating: Passing

We rate transatlantic security cooperation as passing. Despite the damaging lack of alliance coordination in the Afghanistan pullout and the AUKUS incident, the Biden administration reaffirmed—both in words and deeds—the United States’ commitment to European security, and there is now encouraging coordination on China strategy. However, Europe’s capacity for strategic autonomy and its ability to take on more responsibility remains an important open question—potentially an imminently crucial one.


This publication was produced with the financial support of the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung.