Feb 13, 2024

America-Proofing Europe

Rather than focusing on Donald Trump, Europeans should start thinking about what a second term for US President Joe Biden will mean.

US President Joe Biden boards Marine One for travel back to Washington DC from the Wall Street Landing Zone after attending the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. September 22, 2022.
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Europeans are currently obsessing about a return of Donald Trump to the White House and thinking about ways of dealing with it; the recent Foreign Affairs article “Trump-Proofing Europe” by former Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, outgoing director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) Guntram Wolff, and others is a good example. Trump’s outrageous statements of February 10 at a rally in Conway (South Carolina), seemingly inviting Russia to invade European security deadbeats, is another example why this is important and necessary.

However, it is still more likely that Europe will be facing a second administration led by US President Joe Biden. Thus, it should be thinking more seriously about the implications of a “Biden 2” rather than a “Trump 2”. 

While “Biden 2” is certainly preferable, it does not mean that the transatlantic relationship will be back to its old patterns. As the authors of the Foreign Affairs article point out, “Even if Trump does not win in November, Europe has work to do. It may simply no longer be able to rely on the United States to be a consistent partner, no matter who’s in charge.” And a recent editorial in The Washington Post rightly argues, “Whether or not he wins, Mr. Trump has already created a more dangerous world, in which the power and principles of the United States are seen not as constants but as variables.” For Europe, it thus becomes a matter of “America-proofing” rather than “Trump-proofing.”

Key Shapers of the American Factor

What should Europeans expect from a second Biden term? There are several key factors that should enter European calculations regarding the next four years and beyond. 

First, the personalities will change. The Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, and others are all likely to be different people come 2025. Most importantly, Europeans should prepare for the possibility that Biden will not be president for the full four years. Given his age and declining physical ability, Biden may step aside after a year or two and ease the transition to a new generation of leaders with a US President Kamala Harris at the top. This will mean a whole new team of foreign policy officials, many of whom will be from a younger generation which will be less Europe-oriented, including the new president.

There is also the Congressional factor to consider. It is highly probable that “Biden 2” will face the gridlock in the US Congress which has characterized much of the past four years. The complete subordination of strategic interests to partisan concerns, so evident in the standoff over continued funding for Ukraine, will continue in the new Congress. The “imperial presidency” will be a thing of the past with the United States resembling the French Fifth Republic with the additional decentralization of a divided federal system. American democracy is clearly in deep trouble and while it should survive the Trump challenge it will not be the democracy Europeans have come to expect since the end of World War II. The “America first”-thinking that Trump has revived is unlikely to go away and the growing challenge of immigration and diversity will likely reinforce parochial nationalism.

Intensifying Trends

While the Biden team will be much more Europe-friendly than the alternative, some of the trends that have become apparent already in the first term will only intensify. These include an ever-growing preoccupation with China and the new coalition it heads with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Unlike during the Cold War, Europe will no longer be the central strategic theater and American policymakers will continue to shift responsibility to Europeans for their defense as the broader pluralistic global context continues to reshape American priorities.

There is also likely to be greater budgetary constraints given the swelling federal deficit with consequent pressures on defense spending and its allocation to the detriment of Europe. The issues of burden-sharing and free riding will not go away if Trump goes away and is not only one for Republicans. While Trump may have opposed German and European free riding for the wrong reasons, those concerns were not unjustified and will only grow as pressures grow on the US budget and the priority setting of a new world order.

Europeans also cannot expect much relief from Biden on trade issues as there is likely to be a continued industrial policy which focuses on American production and protection from outside competition. While Biden won’t be as protectionist as Trump, the core of “Bidenomics” is to shift industrial production back to the US and to prioritize jobs over free trade. There will certainly be an “American first” economic policy in Biden’s second term.

The American political context and political culture is also becoming less European and less Eurocentric. The authors in the Foreign Affairs article write that Trump “was the first US president who did not treat Europe as family.” However, Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s administrations were more distant from the “Old Continent” than previous ones, too, and this trend goes beyond one person or administration. The changing ethnic demography and shift of power away from the east coast which has worried European leaders for decades will only continue, contributing to an ongoing drift away from Europe. 

Signs of impending generational changes in views of the world can be seen in the United States and also in Europe which presage a very different world order for the 21st century. In the United States the war between Israel and Hamas has revealed important generational differences with younger Americans more skeptical of Israel and more supportive of the Palestinians, creating problems for Biden. This reflects a changing and much more diverse America which has implications not only for US views on Israel in the Middle East but also regarding China, Russia, and Europe. Similar, though weaker, trends are also apparent in the United Kingdom.

The European Factor

Europe as well is likely to change significantly over the next four years. The prospects for far-right leader Marine Le Pen winning the presidency in France as well as rising populism in Germany and other parts of Europe will put strains on the transatlantic relationship. It will be difficult to characterize the West as a paragon of democracy and freedom versus autocracy if there are more Viktor Orbáns in Europe. The strong criticism of the Orbán government by the US ambassador to Hungary is an indication of how things could develop during a second Biden term. Europe’s leading power, Germany, is likely to be characterized by weak multi-party coalition governments and by an economic model which will not be as successful as it has been over the past three or four decades. The rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is another warning sign for the future of the transatlantic relationship.

Concerns will arise as to how much European support there will be for Ukraine if the US is no longer able to provide as much as it has over the past two years. If European support waivers, this will encourage the US Congress and the US at large to do less as well. Much depends on the nature of governments in Europe and whether populists will become dominant. 

“Biden 2” is more likely to try to develop a working relationship with China than a Trump administration. However, the China-led new coalition with Russia, Iran, and North Korea is likely to be seen as the major strategic challenge facing America over the next decades. This may well become a major strain in transatlantic relations, given the ambivalence of European trading states about China and weaker strategic interest in the Indo-Pacific region. There is growing skepticism in Europe and in the EU about China's policies, but there is not likely to be a military dimension to Europe’s response. There will be temptation to distance European policies from those of the US administration on China. Israel and Middle Eastern policies are likely to be more contentious. If “Biden 2” continues its strong pro-Israel policies, tensions with Europe will likely grow.

As in America, generational trends are distancing younger Europeans from the US. These trends go beyond attitudes on the Middle East. In Europe the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends 2023 survey found that “Generation Z” Europeans were not transatlanticist by default and are less likely to see the US global influence as positive. They reflect a growing systemic trend toward an “à la carte world” in which the old political alignments are being replaced with more flexible arrangements. Having come of age in a post-bipolar world in which western democracies are increasingly more authoritarian, younger Europeans tend to perceive Russian and Chinese influence as more positive than older respondents. Views of America’s role in the world were shaped for young Europeans by the Iraq war, George W. Bush, and the financial crises of 2008, then by Trump as well as by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Transatlantic Trends 2023 study points out,

“This cannot be dismissed as youthful naiveté. That would ignore the geopolitical structural changes that shape Gen Z perceptions on, in fact, both sides of the Atlantic. It would also ignore the likelihood that the components of the consensus underpinning the transatlantic relationship will change over time. Gen Z’s belief in growing multipolarity, after all, only reflects reality.”

The survey concludes, 

“Young respondents are also more likely to predict a shift toward multipolarity in the next five years, with China succeeding the United States as the world’s most influential actor and the EU’s becoming a more powerful third player. These trends, already observed in 2021 and 2022, must not be ignored. They will shape the future transatlantic relationship.”

US foreign policy and American leadership have not instilled a great deal of confidence among younger Europeans. The levels of violence and the availability of guns in the United States as well as the assault on women’s rights have not gone unnoticed. The chaos and unpredictability of US politics is something they cannot avoid. They have also grown up taking the European Union for granted and want Europe to shape its own future.

Shaping the Future

What does this all mean for European leaders and what should they be doing now to prepare for this new less benign future? Interestingly, the measures Europeans are discussing for Trump-proofing Europe also apply to Biden-proofing. Only the time scale may vary.

The discussions that have begun about Europeans taking on more responsibility for defense and security policy must move to immediate and concrete policies. Europeans already understand that the world order has become much more pluralistic and that the United States can no longer provide the stability and security it provided for so many decades. The brutal Russian attack on Ukraine is something Europeans cannot avoid confronting. There is no going back and Europeans will be forced to take defense more seriously than they have for generations. 

Civilian power and soft power are no longer in vogue and are unlikely to be so for the next generation, as Russia is unlikely to change even after the demise of President Vladimir Putin. Putin has turned Russia into a garrison state and will surely use its only major asset, military power, in its approach to Europe. Younger European leaders are much more likely to understand that the world is not benign, and that history is not on their side unless they take actions to ensure better outcomes. 

Specifically, conventional forces will have to be immediately upgraded to cover for the gap left by American forces. Currently only 11 of 31 NATO states spend at least two percent of GDP on defense. Spending should be directed to equipment and infrastructure and less on personnel costs. The EU must play a major role in allowing joint procurement standardization and avoiding duplication of weapon systems if it wants to be able to withstand Russian aggression. The European Defense Agency—founded by the EU in 2004—at last must play a vigorous role in promoting standardization, joint production, and procurement of weapons systems.

The issue of nuclear deterrence will be central given growing concerns about the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent in Europe. Europeans will have to find ways to share nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons both with the US and with the independent nuclear deterrents in France and the UK. Raising the level of conventional deterrence is, however, more important than the nuclear issue, as Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated.

A More Balanced World

All this implies substantial and consistent political leadership making the case that the danger confronting Europe requires a new security model to deal with the clear and present threat Russia poses not only to Ukraine but to the broader European security. The Europeanization of NATO and the appointment of a European supreme allied commander in Europe (SACEUR) and an American secretary-general should be a priority. If Europeans begin to take defense seriously this will alleviate some of the pressures in the United States to devalue European security and will enhance the overall conventional deterrent.

The European social model is also under great stress and needs to be reinforced. European economies need to be reshaped and made more competitive in the new global order. Given the US is unlikely to be as supportive of free trade as it had been, the Europeans have got to come to terms with this new reality as they have in dealing with issues of social media, big tech, and climate. The EU has to take immigration policy seriously—not an easy task, but essential as a firewall against right-wing populism. As the Foreign Affairs authors point out, democracy promotion at home and in the neighborhood is crucial. Hungary can be a test case in this regard.

This does not mean the end of the European-American relationship. Rather, it will be reshaped in a very different style, one which is more balanced and tolerant of differences and divergences, even conflicts. Europeans must be far more open and aggressive in pushing back against dangerous American policies and leaders. Appeasing bullies, be they Russian or American, has proved to be a self-defeating strategy. A redefined West will still remain the foundation for dealing with a more hostile world, but it will need to be like the one US President John F. Kennedy called for in the early 1960s—more balanced and mature and not based on American predominance.

Stephen F. Szabo is Senior Resident Fellow at the American-German Institute in Washington, DC.