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The four years of the Trump administration were a near-death experience for NATO and the transatlantic community. This is an experience from which Europe must learn and adapt. Now that Biden is president-elect, Europe can’t just press the snooze-button and go back to sleep. There can be no going back to things as they were before.
What will be the effect of a Biden presidency on relations with Europe? Biden has a long career in politics and much of it has been focused on foreign policy. The essence of his foreign policy beliefs has been pragmatism, diplomacy, and working with allies. He knows many world leaders personally and has always expressed a strong belief in international alliances and organisations. He has repeatedly argued that a close alliance with Europe is the basis of US security and has consistently championed NATO, including eventual membership for Ukraine and Georgia. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 he spoke bluntly about Putin’s aggression and the need to deter further Russian adventurism.
A Strategic Reset?
Biden will thus be inclined to repair and “reset” relations with Europe and to stand up to Russia, but it will not be his top priority. His first preoccupation must be the domestic situation which by January 2021 will almost certainly have worsened. Biden must tread a difficult balance between healing the wounds of partisanship and at the same time delivering on his ambitious program of social reform: increasing the minimum wage, expanding health care, increasing educational spending, taking action on climate change and alleviating racial tensions. All of this will cost money and absorb American energy in the foreseeable future.
Any energy that America has to spare for external challenges will most certainly be directed primarily at Asia and China, including rebuilding alliances to help contain Chinese expansionism in multiple domains. Bipartisan consensus is exceedingly rare in Washington nowadays, but there is now consensus on China being the new systemic challenger, and that it may take decades and major efforts to contain it. In this context, Russia – as a declining power – is a threat of secondary importance to the US. Biden’s rhetoric already shows signs of this.
For these reasons, America will be expecting Europe and NATO to do much more for its own security than hitherto, reducing the burdens and risks the US now shoulders for deterring Russia. The burden-sharing issue will not go away when Trump leaves the White House, as many Democrats and millions of voters share the frustration and anger at Europe for doing so little for its own security and taking advantage of the US. In light of the potentially catastrophic consequences of America turning its back on Europe, it is to be hoped that European governments can rise to the occasion and act realistically and responsibly, as German Minister of Defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has argued in a recent speech.
Three Hard Choices
However, doing so would necessitate that European governments and voters, not least in Germany, face up to at least three hard choices:
First, can Europe trust America again? Trump can be put off as an aberration, but not the millions who voted for him, nor the transmogrified Republican party. They will remain. What if an isolationist Republican returns to the White House in four years, or eight, or twelve? On the other hand, is there a realistic alternative to American security guarantees for Europe, including the nuclear dimension?
Second, is Europe prepared to step up and materially reduce the burden and risk that America now carries for Europe’s security, against both Russia and terrorism? This would not only entail spending substantially more money for defence but also contributing many more units and high-end capabilities. It would also mean squarely accepting that Russia is an adversary, and not a strategic partner, and building a robust military posture in East Europe that gives the Eastern Allies the same protection that Germany enjoyed during the Cold War. And as Russia is a nuclear power, which it likes to remind us, it also necessitates embracing nuclear deterrence, as an antidote.
Third, is Europe prepared to get off the fence concerning China and clearly side with the US if it pursues principles we share, although this might hurt trade interests? A Biden administration would not act as rashly and heavy-handedly as Trump may have done, but there would be a multi-dimensional and enduring conflict with China, in which it could be hard and costly to remain neutral and play both sides, especially if one wants America’s protection.
One might say that the Trump presidency has served Europeans notice that America’s security guarantee for Europe can be revoked unless we shape up and make ourselves useful. Can Europe now do what is necessary?