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The Structural Constraints on Transatlantic Cooperation
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with US Vice President Joe Biden at the start of their meeting at the Chancellery on February 1, 2013 in in Berlin, Germany.
German Government Press Office/Steffen Kugler-Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images

The Structural Constraints on Transatlantic Cooperation

Peter Rough

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The Look Ahead Series is a collection of policy memos examining the challenges that political, military, and business leaders must contend with today to ensure a secure, free, and prosperous world tomorrow.

It is no secret that presidential transitions are arduous undertakings. In ordinary times, the Biden administration would need three to six months to reach full strength; during a global pandemic, that timeline is more likely to stretch into the fall. Just as the Biden administration finds its footing, however, the most important country in Europe, Germany, will enter into hotly contested parliamentary elections. And once a new government takes power in Berlin, the race for the Élysée will commence in France. Thereafter, the inauguration of the president of France will take place just as congressional campaigns get underway in the United States. It’s a truism that someone in the West is always heading to the polls, but these are not just any countries—they are key pillars of transatlantic order.

It is therefore hard to escape the conclusion that the rough-and-tumble nature of domestic politics, both here and abroad, will shadow transatlantic relations for the foreseeable future if not the entirety of the Biden presidency. In an era of globalization, when foreign policy is especially sensitive to domestic politics, President Joe Biden and his European counterparts may find it difficult to execute their agendas.

The key is effective multilateralism, Biden confidantes and European officials intone. And their determination to demonstrate success and vanquish the forces of national populism during Biden’s presidential term is palpable. But they will face a tall order, starting with the divide between the Anglosphere and continental Europe on the very purpose of multilateral diplomacy.

The English-speaking peoples of the world increasingly view multilateralism as a coalition to contain China as it flouts the basic rules of comity. In Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, elected leaders can ill afford to show weakness toward China, which is now perceived by those publics as a challenger on par with, if not surpassing, the Soviet Union during the Cold War. By banding together, so the thinking goes, the West and the democracies of Asia can improve their hand against Beijing.

By contrast, continental Europeans, led by Germany, view multilateralism much as the Anglosphere did in decades past: as an inclusive forum for cooperation rather than confrontation. The initiative that embodies this ethos best is the Alliance for Multilateralism, which the foreign ministers of France and Germany launched in April 2019. The purpose of the Alliance is to convene all those who wish to play a part in solving the world’s most nettlesome problems, from climate change to human rights violations. Much like the Paris Peace Forum and the World Economic Forum, the focus is on global governance and mediation rather than geopolitical competition and confrontation—an emphasis that is welcomed by the continent’s most politically influential industries, which have grown heavily dependent on China. Late last month, Germany struck an investment agreement on behalf of the European Union (EU) with the Middle Kingdom, which Great Britain, had it not left the EU, would surely have vetoed.

In ordinary times, the prospect of a rising China would be challenging enough to Western unity. But Biden inherits the White House from a populist who made decisions that were, by definition, popular, especially among the working-class voters Biden hopes to win back to the Democratic Party fold. This poses a conundrum for Biden because a significant amount of Donald Trump’s ire was directed at what he deemed an unbalanced relationship with Europe.

While Biden’s foreign policy advisors may counsel against, say, maintaining the steel and aluminum tariffs on Europe, his political team will be wary of offending Rust Belt voters. The same tension applies to most other international economic issues. For example, if Biden goes through with his plans to green the economy without shedding industrial jobs, he will need subsidies that challenge World Trade Organization rules. Biden has also announced that he will not anytime soon jettison the Trump administration’s Phase One agreement with Beijing, which prioritizes American over European exporters. Although the agreement will be part of a broader review of China policy, in which Biden does not wish to “prejudice” his options, he and his team are aware that ditching the Phase One deal would also expose them to biting criticism at home. Instead of embracing Europe, Biden will be under pressure to focus on reducing the huge US current account deficit. The halcyon days of the post-Cold war era, when George H.W. Bush envisioned “a world of open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds,” are long gone.

In the intervening three decades, Europe, led by Germany, has developed an asymmetry that accounts, in part, for the more recent irritants in US-European relations. Under the protective umbrella of the United States, Europe has grown into an economic superpower with a political appetite to match. But it has not made the requisite investments in hard power. As Europe’s power has grown and memories of the Cold War have faded, it struck out on its own on several key security issues while remaining militarily dependent on the US. How long such a contradiction is sustainable is anyone’s guess, but it leads to the charge, leveled most often by Trump, that Europe is free riding off of the United States.

That the Biden administration shares Western Europe’s outlook on a host of issues, most notably the Iran nuclear accord, will lessen this contradiction. But take Nordstream II, the giant export gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Through the project Europe will empower the very country, Russia, against which the United States defends it. Of course, new issues, especially in the technological domain, may supplant old disputes as future challenges. And unforeseen crises, like the coronavirus pandemic, could force the West to reset its priorities and shift its attention. But the need for Europe to modernize its armed forces and take more responsibility for its own security will remain an American point of emphasis no matter who sits in the White House.

This will prove all the more challenging because the coronavirus pandemic has wracked the West’s economies. Europe will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis in far worse shape than it was before. Across the continent, countries face ballooning deficits and falling demographics just a decade after the financial crisis, itself a traumatic experience. As of this writing, it appears that Northern Europe may escape the pandemic battered and bruised, but the Mediterranean South has been knocked down badly. Under such circumstances, will these countries prioritize defense outlays?

Undoubtedly, America will spend the coming years, even decades, focused predominantly on the Indo-Pacific. But it must not neglect Europe, lest traditional rivalries spring back to life and transatlantic differences grow larger. Only the United States, active and engaged in coordinating regional strategy, can marshal the power of the West and bridge internal divisions. That this is in the American interest is indisputable. The US position in Europe, channeled through NATO, serves as a powerful bridgehead on the Eurasian continent. Because of its democratic character, great wealth, trading importance, and military alliance with the United States, Europe poses a formidable obstacle to any challenger of the American-built international order. Let’s hope a few election cycles don’t change that.

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