Written by Steven Erlang
Four years ago, European leaders were traumatized by President Donald Trump, who cheered Brexit and eviscerated NATO, declaring the alliance “obsolete,” calling member countries deadbeats and at first refusing to explicitly endorse NATO’s bedrock mutual defense principle.
As they prepare to welcome President Joe Biden, the simple fact that he regards Europe as an ally and NATO as a vital element of Western security is almost a revelation. Yet the wrenching experience of the last presidential administration has left scars that some experts say will not soon heal.
“Don’t underestimate the Trump years as a shock to the [European Union],” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe. “There is the shadow of his return and the EU will be left in the cold again. So the EU is more cautious in embracing U.S. demands.”
And there are serious issues to discuss, ranging from the Afghanistan pullout to military spending, Russia and China, from trade disputes and tariff issues to climate and vaccine diplomacy.
Yet as much as the Europeans appreciate Biden’s vows of constancy and affection, they have just witnessed how 75 years of U.S. foreign policy can vanish overnight with a change in the presidency.
And they fear that it can happen again — that America has changed, and that Biden is “an intermezzo” between more populist, nationalist presidents, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund.
They know that Biden’s policies will have price tags discreetly attached. They are not sure, for example, how his commitment to a “foreign policy for the middle class” differs from Trump’s “America first.”
They also know that the electoral clock is ticking, with Germany set to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel in September, May’s French presidential election and the U.S. midterms only 17 months away, which could limit Biden’s room to maneuver.
Still, Biden’s visits to NATO on June 14 and then the EU for brief summits, after his attendance at the Group of 7 in Britain, will be more than symbolic. The meetings are synchronized so that he can arrive in Geneva on June 16 with allied consultation and support for his first meeting as president with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
“The hopeful, optimistic view is that Biden is kicking off a new relationship, showing faith in Brussels and NATO, saying the right words and kicking off the key strategic process” of renovating the alliance for the next decade, said Jana Puglierin, Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But Biden also wants to see bang for the buck, and we need to show tangible results. This is not unconditional love, but friends with benefits.”
François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, sees only positives from the Biden trip.
“The U.S. is back, Biden’s back; there’s nothing cynical here,” said Heisbourg, a special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “Biden has some strong views, and he is determined to implement them. International affairs are not his priority, but his basic positioning is ‘Let’s be friends again, to reestablish comity and civility with allies.’”
But eventually, Heisbourg said, “policy reviews have to become policy.”
Ivo Daalder, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama, sees the whole trip as “part of ‘We’re back,’ and important to show that alliances and partners matter, that we want to work with other countries and be nice to our friends. Even the G-7 will be like that.”
But he and others note that Biden has not yet named ambassadors to either NATO or the EU — or to most European countries, for that matter — let alone had them confirmed. For now, officials insist, that absence is not vital, and many of the most likely candidates are well known.
Daalder said allies, at some point, need ambassadors who they know can get on the phone immediately with the secretaries of state and defense and, if necessary, Biden.
The NATO summit meeting of 30 leaders will be short, with one 2 1/2-hour session after an opening ceremony, which would leave just five minutes for each leader to speak.
The leaders will agree on a communique now being negotiated, discuss the Afghanistan withdrawal and sign off on an important yearlong study on how to remodel NATO’s strategic concept to meet new challenges in cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, antimissile defense, disinformation, “emerging disruptive technologies” and numerous other issues.
In 2010, when the strategic concept was last revised, NATO assumed that Russia could be a partner and China was barely mentioned. The new one will begin with very different assumptions.
NATO officials and ambassadors say there is much to discuss down the road, questions such as how much and where a regional trans-Atlantic alliance should try to counter China, and what capabilities NATO needs and how many of them should come from common funding or remain the responsibility of member countries.
How to adapt to the EU’s still vague desire for “strategic autonomy” while encouraging European military spending and efficiency and avoiding duplication with NATO is another concern. So is the question of how to make NATO a more politically savvy institution, as French President Emmanuel Macron has demanded, perhaps by establishing new meetings of member states’ key officials, including state national security advisers and political directors.
More quietly, leaders will begin to talk in bilateral sessions about replacing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, whose term was extended for two years to keep matters calm during the Trump presidency. His term ends in September 2022.
The other main issues for this brief NATO summit meeting will be topical: how to manage Afghanistan during and after withdrawal, Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China and Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus.
Anyone interested in trains running on time will find the NATO summit compelling, said the ambassador of a NATO country. Those who are more interested in trains that collide will be disappointed.
The same will be true of Biden’s June 15 meeting, which is grandly called a summit with the European Union. Biden is scheduled to meet with two of the EU’s presidents, Charles Michel of the European Council, who represents the leaders of the 27-member states, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful bureaucracy.
Biden will have met 21 of the 27 EU leaders the previous day at NATO, since there is considerable overlap in the two organizations. Key exceptions are Turkey, a NATO member that is troublesome in its effort to balance relations with Russia and its enmity toward Greece, and Cyprus, an EU member that blocks most coordination with NATO because of its enmity toward Turkey.
The bloc has a wide range of issues to discuss, including tariff and trade disputes stemming from Airbus and Boeing, and steel and aluminum; and new issues such as how to enforce a new a minimum global corporate tax rate under an important agreement reached Saturday by the G-7 finance ministers.
Other issues include data transfer; military spending and procurement; military mobility; transition to a carbon-neutral economy, including carbon pricing; how to regulate global technology giants and social media companies; how to reform key multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization; and, of course, how best to deal with a rising China and an aggressive Russia.
There is wariness, too, and not just about the possibility that another Trump-like president could follow Biden. Despite warm words of consultation, German officials in particular believe that Biden’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 was made unilaterally in the old pattern, with Washington deciding and the allies following along, Puglierin said.
Similarly, European leaders were angered and embarrassed by Biden’s decision to support the waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines. That move, after mounting domestic criticism, was done without warning to allies, let alone consultation.
Europeans do not see China as the peer rival that Washington does and remain more dependent than the United States on both China and Russia for trade and energy. And some worry that Biden’s effort to define the world as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism is too black-and-white.
“Touching base with allies before the Putin summit is important and goes beyond symbolism,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s International Affairs Institute. “But Europeans are deluding themselves that things can go back the way they were.”
Europeans need to step up, she said, and work with Biden to get agreements on key issues such as climate, vaccines and trade “that can create a Western critical mass that spills into a broader, global multilateral agreement.”
That is the best way, she said, to show that “democracy delivers.”