Apr 28, 2021

A Transatlantic Tally

The Biden administration has begun substantial repair work on the pillars of the transatlantic partnership. But cracks remain.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
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“We will repair our alliances,” US President Joe Biden promised in his inaugural address. And at a virtual Munich Security Conference meeting in February 2021, he added, the “partnership between Europe and the United States … must remain the cornerstone.” Thus, when the White House announced that the president’s first overseas travel will take him to Belgium and the UK, it reiterated its intention to “revitalize the transatlantic relationship.”

As the report cards for Biden’s first 100 days come in—it is time for a transatlantic tally. Has the new US administration delivered on the promise to reengage Europe? What’s the status of the transatlantic relationship?

At the end of President Donald Trump’s term, relations were at a “low point.” The Trump administration had done severe damage to the central pillars of the partnership: common interests, institutions, identity. By now, the Biden administration has begun the repair work—with words and deeds. Let’s look at the progress so far.

Common (Conflicts of) Interest

The Biden administration has shifted the focus from conflicts of interest to common interests.

In their public statements, US officials propose cooperation on a long list of shared challenges ranging from COVID-19 to the global economic crisis and the climate crisis, to the threat of nuclear proliferation. And they match words with deeds. Take the climate crisis for instance. On Day One, the US rejoined the Paris Agreement. Since then, the Biden administration has announced it will cut emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels—paving the way for a transatlantic climate partnership. Now the European Union member states must show that they mean business. From now until the next UN Climate Conference in November, the transatlantic partners must lead the diplomatic effort to encourage more ambitious national climate targets—not least by increasing their own. The transatlantic partnership can help generate the momentum necessary to hit the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While the current focus lies on transatlantic cooperation, the conflicts of interest, however, have not disappeared. The goal of raising defense spending to 2 percent of the GDP might no longer be the bone of contention it was under Trump, but burden-sharing within NATO will remain a contentious issue, as will the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. A recent EU “progress report” signals some transatlantic rapprochement on China. But differences between the US approach of strategic competition and the European multi-track approach remain.

As of yet, it is also unclear whether the Biden administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class” will also work for Europeans. Biden has signed an executive order designed to strengthen “Buy American” provisions and, for now, the Trump-era tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe remain in place. This is not a complete about-face from “America First.” A “Trade and Technology Council,” as proposed by the EU, could offer a much-needed forum to tackle such problems, especially since conflicts over digital taxes, for instance, will continue to create friction. Yet in principle, both sides have an interest in transatlantic standard-setting, in particular vis-à-vis China’s digital rise.

Going forward, the transatlantic partners must recognize common interests and respect diverging ones. This requires the European states to get their act together and agree—on common interests, on what they are willing to invest in order to realize them, and on where to draw the line. The United States, in turn, will need to recognize that relationships occasionally require compromise. If progress is made on those fronts, the transatlantic partners can make progress together on tackling common challenges.

A Seat at the Head of the Table

The Biden administration has recommitted to international institutions. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, himself a multilateralist, puts the break from Trump most starkly: “We’re always better off at the table, not outside the room.” He promises “wherever the rules for international security and the global economy are being written, America will be there.”

That promise has been backed by action. In a reversal of Trump’s policies, the Biden administration has rejoined not only the Paris Agreement, but also the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Human Rights Council, has extended New Start, and re-started talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). The administration has also renewed the US commitment to NATO and its Article V. That message was just amplified by the news that Biden will appoint Julianne Smith, his former security advisor and steadfast transatlanticist, as ambassador to NATO. And, the administration has reversed Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from Germany, announcing an increase instead.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin writes on NATO: “We must consult together, decide together, and act together.” And yet, regarding the pullout from Afghanistan, the United States has consulted its allies, and they will act together, but the decision was America’s alone. The allies followed suit but were left with some unease. There is no denying that NATO, as the “cornerstone of transatlantic security,” faces numerous challenges—from adaptation to new threats to dealing with intra-alliance clashes involving member state Turkey.

New Transatlantic “We Feeling”

The Biden administration puts great emphasis on the shared transatlantic identity rooted in common values. Biden sends a message to forces inside and outside the democratic societies bent on eroding their system. He pits “those who argue … autocracy is the best way forward” against “those who understand that democracy is essential.” Biden explicitly calls out China and Russia. This emphasis on common values seeks to close the ranks. It has led to US and EU sanctions against China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang—the first such coordinated effort under Biden.

While most of Biden’s rhetoric constitutes a break with Trump, the values talk is a departure from President Barack Obama. During his “inaugural” trip to Europe in 2009, Obama had portrayed the transatlantic partnership as permeable. He had stressed inclusive values such as “our common humanity” and argued, “our fates are tied together, not just the fate of Europe and America, but the fate of the entire world.” His focus, thus, lay on the international rather than the transatlantic community. The juxtaposition of Biden and Obama shows how much has changed in the past 10 plus years shifting from Obama’s call for “unprecedented cooperation” worldwide to Biden’s prognosis of “steep competition.”

Yet, none of today’s challenges can be met without cooperation from non-democracies. Biden recognizes this when he says, we “must not return to the [reflexive] opposition and rigid blocs of the Cold War” adding “competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.” And here, Europeans should take Biden at his word. It is in their own best interest.

Built Back Better?

So has Biden delivered? Has he built alliances back better? Not all allies agree. “The honeymoon is over before it began,” a German diplomat reportedly said on the first interactions with the new Biden administration, hinting at an expectations gap on both sides of the Atlantic.

Still, the United States, Canada, and the EU member states are each other’s best partners. They share the greatest overlap in common interests, a wide net of common institutions (and the shared interest in upholding them), as well as a unique foundation of common values. But even under such ideal conditions, alliances do not come easy. And the infrastructure of the transatlantic alliance had been crumbling. The Biden administration has done significant repair work in the first 100 days. But cracks remain. Alliance maintenance is daily work. The tally has shown, there are many challenges ahead for the transatlantic partnership. The triple summits in June—G7, EU-US, and NATO—will be the first real test if the structure holds.

Katharina Emschermann is deputy director of the Center for International Security at the Hertie School in Berlin.