Is American Really Back? That’s What America’s European Allies Would Like to Know

America is back,” claimed U.S. President Joe Biden in his first foreign policy speech after taking office after four tumultuous years of a Trump presidency. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he pledged in his inaugural address in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these promises in a speech in March, noting that the United States was working tirelessly to “reconnect with our friends and allies, and to reinvent partnerships.” Based on rhetoric alone, the Biden administration’s intentions to repair the damaged relationships with its allies, particularly those in Europe, were unmistakable.

While the United States reasserts its return to diplomacy and reiterates the importance of its alliances, it is unclear whether these laudable yet ambitious pieces of rhetoric are actionable or only a pipe dream. In Europe’s eyes, the Biden administration got a lot right at the beginning of his presidency. Yet, in a year that seems to involve crisis after crisis in trans-Atlantic relations – including the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the inept handling of the AUKUS announcement –America’s European allies are questioning the United States’ sincerity. In the eyes of its European allies, is America indeed back? That still remains to be seen.

Is Europe Getting Left Behind?

The United States’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban in August is one example of why Europe is questioning whether America is actually back. With little consultation or communication, the United States “dragged its NATO allies into an embarrassing mess that they had warned against,” one that likely could have been avoided. The withdrawal triggered an age-old insecurity for Europe – wondering whether the United States was leaving Europe behind. This has led Europe to ponder whether it should invoke a strategic autonomy tactic most often championed by France. Mr. Biden, who promised to reset relations with American allies, came close to squandering the excitement and relief felt by European allies after he won the 2020 election as Europe is now coming to terms with the fact that they may never truly be able to rely on the United States for its security.

Is Washington Retreating from Europe?

The United States blindsided its European allies with the announcement of a formal alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in September. To the United States, this was simply about deepening relationships with allies in its effort to counter China, a lynchpin of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The announcement of the nuclear submarine pact caused confusion and disappointment in Europe. This is particularly true for France, the one European nation most directly impacted by the pact as Australia cancelled a $66 million submarine deal with France. France, naturally, reacted in anger, temporarily withdrawing its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra, and cancelling a gala in Washington to celebrate the friendship between the U.S. and France. While France and the United States have largely reconciled, the abrupt nature of the AUKUS deal – which President Biden acknowledged was “clumsy” – caused some concern for America’s European allies since the root of Europe’s disappointment about the AUKUS deal is the fear that the United States is retreating from Europe – the central focus of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War – in favor for the Indo-Pacific region.

Great Power Rivalry Rears Its Ugly Head

The United States and its allies in Europe perceive the threats posed by China and Russia differently. President Biden has labeled China as the world’s “greatest geopolitical threat” of this century. As a result, he has re-shifted U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific with the aim of countering China. The United States would prefer its European partners be part of its. Yet, Europe does not view China with the same level of alarm. Europe, as the French Finance Minister recently noted, wants to engage China as Europe is weary about of damaging the continent’s economic ties to the growing economic giant, though European sentiment may be changing.

Similarly, the United States and its European allies maintain disparate views on the threat posed by Russia as some in Europe – especially those in Central and Eastern Europe –believe the U.S. will not support its allies in the region in favor of improved relations with Russia. The United States’ decision not to sanction the German company overseeing the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 pipeline in favor of maintaining good relations with Germany only reinforced this fear. Just this week, Belarus, a Russian ally, weaponized migration by luring desperate Middle Eastern migrants to the Poland-Belarus border in an effort to force the EU to lift sanctions imposed against Belarus. Moreover, the recent buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine has also alarmed the U.S. and its allies in Europe. To Europe, the United States’ myopic view to the threat posed by Russia is quite frustrating, though it seems that the United States may becoming more attuned to the threat.

Europe Is Right to Be Wary of the United States’ Reliability

The Biden administration came into office in January with promises to repair America’s relationships with its allies. However, several events as well as different threat perspectives are causing Europe to question the United States’ sincerity. Whether the U.S. is back remains to be seen, but the time has come for the Biden administration to review its policies toward Europe and assess whether the United States is doing what it can to reassure its European allies that the United States is back after four years of the turbulent Trump administration and an inconsistent first year in office.

Subs Down Under?

On September 15, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a plan to share highly sensitive submarine technology with Australia. U.S. President Joe Biden, along with his British and Australian counterparts, unveiled the new defense alliance, known as AUKUS. As the first step, the United States and United Kingdom are going to bolster Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines, a fleet of submarines that are faster, more capable, harder to detect, and potentially more lethal than conventional-powered ones.

The alliance announcement is largely seen as part of President Biden’s larger pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and appears to be geared toward countering China’s rise, though the announcement did not specifically name China. President Biden’s recent decision to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia provides U.S. allies with valuable insight into the Biden administration’s approach to the United States’ alliance structure.

Maybe the Special Relationship is…Special?

The United States and the United Kingdom have long enjoyed a special relationship, dating back to World War II summarized by a phrase coined by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill 1946. Since then, the two countries have cooperated closely on security, economic, cultural, intelligence, and diplomatic matters. In particular, U.S. and British militaries maintain high levels of respect for one another and cooperate closely. In fact, the United Kingdom is the only country with which the United States shares such sensitive nuclear information, signifying an extremely high level of trust.

This new alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia only further deepens the U.S.-U.K. relationship. In recent years, there has been discussion on whether the special relationship has more meaning for the British than the Americans. However, President Biden, through the recent announcement, illustrates the importance the relationship to his administration and his foreign policy efforts.  

Can We Make It Up to You?

While the United States and Australia also maintain long-standing military and diplomatic relations, relations between the two countries proved a bit frosty during the first several months of the Biden administration. The Biden administration, in the eyes of many allies including Australia, really dropped the ball by not communicating better about U.S. plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, resulting in a cooling in the relationship.

The Biden administration’s inclusion of Australia on the announcement of this new alliance and the sharing of nearly sacred nuclear submarine technology serves several purposes for the Biden administration. For one, the new alliance bolsters the United States’ relationship with Australia. Moreover, the announcement of such an alliance with one of its closest allies in Asia further supports the Biden administration’s pivot to Asia and emphasis on countering China. Above all, however, this decision underscores the importance of the U.S.-Australian relationship in the Biden administration’s foreign policy efforts.

Forget About It, Europe!

Unlike the excitement the announcement caused in the United Kingdom as well as the surprise in Australia, the announcement raised France’s ire to a level not seen since 2003 over the U.S.-French disagreement over the Iraq war. This even led France to recall the country’s ambassadors from the United States and Australia. France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” as deplorable. “This is not done between allies,” he further lamented. One reason for France’s reaction is because, until recently, France was pursuing a similar agreement with Australia. While the deal included less sophisticated technology for Australian submarines and that deal ultimately collapsed, France still feels slighted.

Another reason why this angered the French is because the United Kingdom is the United States’ partner on this deal, not France. This logic involves an age-old insecurity in which France has long been suspicious of an “Anglophone cabal pursuing its own strategic interests” to France’s detriment. There is some speculation that this decision could damage U.S.-French relations. There are also questions on whether announcement is a larger indication of the Biden administration’s view of the United States’ European allies. Much to France’s chagrin, however, this deal really had nothing to do with France or Europe; the announcement of a new alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia has other purposes: further deepening its relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia and, the Biden administration’s primary focus, countering China.

Conclusion

On September 15, the United States, with its British and Australian allies, announced that the United States and the United Kingdom would share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. This decision provides important insight into how the Biden administration views America’s alliance structure. Beyond that, the deal seeks to deepen the U.S. relationship with both the United Kingdom and Australia and as a part of the Biden administration’s efforts to pivot to Asia and counter the rise of China. It does not, however, indicate any changes in the Biden administration’s policy toward or affinity for America’s European allies, particularly France.

The Liberal World Order and the U.S. Alliance System: A Very Short History

After the Second World War ended in 1945, much of the world lay in ruins. After enduring a war that spanned nearly the entire globe, the loss of roughly 75 million people, and that cost trillions of dollars in damage, world leaders formed a system of international organizations and agreements to foster cooperation in the post-war world – the liberal international order. The liberal world order, which has governed much of international relations for more than 70 years, works to propagate democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights.

As part of the liberal world order, the United States built a system of alliances in Europe and Asia, which have formed “the backbone of the liberal international order for more than 70 years.” The primary purpose of the alliance system was to maintain the balance of power on those continents against the United States’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. These efforts resulted in a series of formal treaty alliances based on collective defense.

U.S. Alliances in Europe

The European continent was nearly devastated after the Second World War. The United States, realizing that communism could potentially spill over into Europe, was instrumental in helping its Western European allies rebuild, particularly through the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the Truman Doctrine. In this vein, in 1949, the United States, along with ten Western European countries and Canada, founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. This multilateral alliance was created to counter and combat the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communism throughout Europe and, to this day, serves as the center of European security.

The NATO alliance has endured quite a bit in its existence. NATO experienced “the transformation of the European security system from East-West confrontation to a Western-centric post-Cold War, during which NATO conducted its first shooting war in the Balkans [in the 1990s].” After that, NATO participated in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, a conflict in Somalia, among other involvements, and increased its membership total nearly two-fold.

While several countries joined NATO between the early 1950s and late 1990s, much of NATO’s expansion took place in 1999 and 2004, when ten former Soviet satellite states joined the alliance. Since the revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the desire of Central and Eastern European countries to join NATO increased dramatically.

While there were and remain some divisions between the NATO member states on expanding membership to these countries, NATO continued to expand. The idea behind this expansion was that membership would promote peace and stability in Europe, particularly among those in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, there are 30 NATO members states. Future expansion is constantly debated within the alliance and is the primary cause of tensions between the alliance and Russia. NATO recently announced that the alliance will be shifting its focus to the rise of China as well.

U.S. Alliances in Asia

Much like Europe, Asia was also ravaged by the Second World War. As a result, the United States established alliances with key partners in the region. In what is referred to as the hub-and-spokes system, the United States, through its bilateral alliances in Asia, had the same goal of countering the Soviet Union and its desire to spread communism.

For one, in 1952, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia signed a mutual defense treaty. Interestingly, New Zealand is no longer included in the formal treaty due to U.S. concerns over its nuclear policies in the 1980s. However, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends, just not formal allies. Australia is often referred to as one of the United States’ closest allies in Asia.

Moreover, the United States and Japan evolved from mortal enemies in the Second World War to close allies through the signing of the Treaty of Japan in 1951. Japan remains the United States’ closest ally in Asia. The United States also signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea after the end of the Korean War in 1953, with a pledge that both sides would defend one another in the event of an attack.

The United States also has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippines, formerly a U.S. territory after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, signed a treaty in 1951. The United States and Thailand were both signatories of the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Though the group disbanded in 1977, the Manila Pact outlines the U.S. security commitments to Thailand.

The United States and Taiwan were also formal allies when the U.S. signed a defense treaty with the Republic of China. This changed, however, when the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government in 1979. Consequently, there are no security guarantees. Yet, the United States sells arms to Taiwan, much to China’s consternation. While the United States no longer has formal alliances with Taiwan and New Zealand, it still maintains alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand with a renewed focus on the rise of China.

Conclusion

After the Second World War, with much of the world in ruins, world leaders established the liberal world order. A major part of this order was the United States’ alliance system, designed to maintain the balance of power in Europe and Asia and counter the Soviet Union, its primary adversary. Over the past seven decades, these alliances have formed the backbone of the liberal world order and stand strong today.

Assuaging U.S. Allies in Asia

*This post is final in a series exploring what America’s allies in Asia can expect from the Biden administration and the regional concern about China’s recent assertive behavior.*

U.S. Alliances in Asia

At the end of World War II, the United States established a system of bilateral, treaty-based alliances[1] in the Asia-Pacific region designed to “contain communism in the region.” These alliances involve a “shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks.” In short, these allies are ones that the United States is willing (and obligated by the treaty) to defend if that ally is attacked.

Beyond those formal defense alliances, the United States also formed and maintained close and strategic partnerships with several other countries in Asia, most importantly, India. Through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world, the United States has maintained these strategic alliances and partnerships to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and to meet regional and global challenges head on. 

The Trump Years

U.S. relations with its key partners were largely bumpy during the Trump administration. Former President Trump castigated Japan and South Korea, demanding that the two allies pay more because the United States posts U.S. troops in those countries as part of the security alliances. This, in turn, caused these key allies to worry that  whether America’s commitment to them is conditional. Conversely, some in Asia appreciated Trump’s tougher stance on China and the fact that he tried to engage with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s nuclear program, with little to no results.

Trump further damaged U.S. ties to the region by removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and further scorning the “open, multilateral trading regimes that have buoyed Asia’s economic success.” As the Economist observes, “Never has America’s ability to underpin Asia’s stability and prosperity been so doubted by the region’s leadership and policymakers as over the past four years.”

The Biden Administration

President Joe Biden began his new administration by contacting the leaders of the United States’ key allies and partners in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. He reiterated his commitment to the bilateral relationships. Consequently, these countries have all signaled eagerness to work with the Biden administration and want to work with the United States to counter what they view as the most pressing issues in their region: the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior throughout the region. 

China’s Aggressive Behavior in the Asia-Pacific Region

China’s political, economic, and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has increased in recent years. From sending ships to put pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to its crackdown in Hong Kong or its territorial disputes in the South China Sea to its recent incursion of war planes over Taiwan to its genocidal repression of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, China’s behavior is, one could argue, aggressive.

Most of the United States’ allies and partners have expressed concern over this growing assertiveness. As a result, the Biden administration has “stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.” Scott Campbell, a member of the Center of Strategic Studies aptly described Biden’s approach: “China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy.” This is evidenced by the commitments and reassurances that Biden made when reaching out to its key allies and partners in Asia.

Japan

Japan views China as a threat to its security. In fact, Japan is “actively promoting military and economic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise.” During his conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden confirmed his commitment to “provide extended deterrence to Japan,” including affirming that the U.S.-Japan security treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, which both Japan and China claim.  

South Korea

South Korea’s relationship with China has been largely civil and even prosperous. What concerns South Korea is China’s continued relations with North Korea. China is essentially North Korea’s lifeline in a world where it has been very isolated, serving as North Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner. This causes grave concern to South Korea due to the North’s unchecked nuclear program and a desire to reunite the Korean peninsula. Recognizing this vulnerability, Biden spoke of bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” 

Australia

Australia has also voiced concerns about China’s regional behavior and has participated in a few diplomatic spats with Beijing. In his recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Biden, much like with South Korea and Japan, reiterated the importance of the alliance and discussed how the two allies can tackle the global challenges that face them, including the rise of China. After speaking with Biden, Morrison tweeted, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the U.S.

India

India is also enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospect of U.S.-Indian relations during the Biden administration, particularly in the face of China’s recent aggression. “China is the big elephant in the room,” noted an Indian writer and analyst. Long-existing tensions between India and China came to a head last summer when the armies from each side lined up along the disputed border in the Himalaya Mountains. Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart, promising to build upon the relationship and collaborate on global challenges.

The “Quad”

One multilateral forum with which the United States and its allies has countered a rising China is through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Originally formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a tsunami devastated countries in the Indian Ocean, Australia pulled out in 2007. The Quad was rehabilitated in 2017, expanding into military and economic areas as a result of the rise of China. The Biden administration has signaled to its allies will not be soft on China and will likely continue to use the Quad as a means of countering China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

China’s rising assertiveness in Asia is a recognized challenge by the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Countering China’s assertiveness remain be at the center of the Biden administration’s approach and includes reassuring U.S. allies and partners that the United States will cooperate and consult with them on what has been mutually agreed upon as the most pressing issue in the region: China’s increasingly assertive behavior.


[1] In the aftermath of World War II, the United States signed defense treaties with the following countries: The Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed on September 8, 1951; Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) on September 1, 1951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Philippines on August 30, 2951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953; and the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (Thailand) on September 8, 1954. Currently, the United States has five treaty alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance was suspended in the mid-1989s as a result of New Zealand’s nuclear policies. Today, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends but no longer formal allies. The United States and Taiwan were once allied under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of China, signed December 2, 1954. That treaty was terminated by the United States in1979 as a result of the U.S. decision to switch official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act now guides U.S, -Taiwan relations and was enacted on April 10, 1979 to ensure that the United States would continue to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the People’s Republic of China.