*This post is second in a series exploring what America’s allies in Europe can expect from the Biden administration.*
In line with his campaign promises and recent foreign policy speech, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is seeking to repair U.S. alliances, specifically those in Europe. In this effort, Biden reached out to the U.S.’s primary allies in Europe: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden recognizes that good relations with its European allies are key to the U.S restoring its global leadership and confronting the global challenges facing both the U.S. and its European allies.
U.S.-European relations, which include the relationships between the United States and NATO, the European Union (EU), and bilateral relations with individual countries, have long been close, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, the Trump administration was extremely critical and often mistreated the United States’ European allies.
Much to Europe’s chagrin, Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and rebuffed multilateralism and participation in international organizations and treaties that the Europe has grown accustomed to seeing from its American partners. Trump also imposed tariffs on the EU. He labeled the organization as a “foe” and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” Worse of all, Europe questioned whether they could rely on their partner across the Atlantic.
Most European leaders were relieved, and even rejoiced, at the news that Biden won the November 2020 election. While most European leaders are approaching the U.S. with cautious optimism, they also acknowledge that relations will improve vastly. Biden has made improving relation with its European allies as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two sides will not agree on every issue. In fact, there are likely several issues that will monopolize U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration.
In 2015, the United States, in concert with the P5+1, and Iran signed a deal designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018 for two reasons: lack of permanence in the deal and because the deal did not include Iran’s regional aggression, including ballistic missile development and support for militant groups around the region. Trump subsequently imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, angering his European allies.
Regrettably, Iran advanced its nuclear program since the U.S. withdrawal. As a result, Biden has noted his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, but Europe recognizes it will not be quite as easy as that. The United States’ potential reentry into the deal will be an issue that occupies U.S.-European relations during the Biden administration.
The rise of China is another issue that will likely absorb both the United States and Europe’s attention over the next four years. The High Representative of the European Union recently noted that the United States and Europe are mostly aligned on China. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide. And that does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”
Most important for Europe is not being caught in the middle of a “trade battle” between the U.S. and China. And yet, the EU negotiated a new trade deal with China at the end of 2020, with the assumption that engaging with Beijing is the most effective means of altering its behavior.
The timing of the deal, however, frustrated the incoming Biden administration weeks away from taking office, hoping that Europe would consult with them first. But the EU went ahead with the deal anyway. Biden has promised to consult with allies on all matter of issues related to China, but this trade deal caused Europe and the U.S. to start off on a curious footing.
Europe’s participation in providing for its own security will also demand attention on both sides. European security was a major sticking point for the Trump administration, one that will likely carry over into the Biden administration. Trump was not the first U.S. president to question whether Europe should contribute more to its own security; this was a common sentiment of former presidents as well.
European leaders, led by President Macron, have begun calling for strategic autonomy, or what Europeans call “promoting greater European independence from the United States.” Most European leaders acknowledge that Europe could play a bigger role in defending itself instead of relying primarily on the United States. For one, divisions exist between the United States and Europe, and within Europe itself, on what signifies a major challenge, depending on the audience.
Biden, despite his promised efforts to improve U.S. alliances with its European partners, is expected to encourage Europe to assume more responsibility for its own security, though taking a less draconian approach than Trump. While Biden announced that the United States would not remove U.S. troops from Germany and will take a more rational position on this issue, the degree to which Europe defends itself without relying so much on the United States is one that will dominate U.S.-European relations over the coming years.
One of the foundational themes of Biden’s foreign policy is improving relations with U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe. While most European leaders are happy about Biden’s election and the United States’ return to a more traditional, familiar foreign policy, they are also approaching the U.S. with caution. Relations will be much more cooperative, friendly, and smooth during the Biden administration than over the last four years; however, the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of China, and European security will likely be the focal points of U.S.-European relations under the new administration.