11 January
Written by Stewart M. Patrick

International expectations are high for Joe Biden’s presidency, but perhaps nowhere more than in Europe, where political leaders and observers see an opportunity to revitalize the trans-Atlantic relationship after years of drift and then downright antagonism under Donald Trump. They have reason to be optimistic. Biden and his pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, are confirmed Atlanticists. They recognize that, despite Asia’s rise, the United States and Europe are still the load-bearing pillars of any open and stable international system. The president-elect has pleased Europeans so far by pledging to return to the Paris Agreement on climate change, remain in the World Health Organization despite Trump’s attempt to leave it, reengage in diplomacy with Iran, deescalate trade conflicts and generally follow the path of multilateralism.
But this can’t be just a “back to the future” moment. Renewing the trans-Atlantic partnership will require adapting existing security, political and economic arrangements to new transnational threats, geopolitical rivalries and domestic realities. Reforming NATO and deepening the relationship between the U.S. and the European Union will be central to this agenda.

Going back to the late 1940s, 13 successive Democratic and Republican administrations promoted both NATO and European integration in the interest of uniting the world’s leading democracies, a club to which others—Japan, Australia and South Korea among them—also came to belong. To be sure, trans-Atlantic ties eroded during George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies, hastened by the former’s disastrous invasion of Iraq and the latter’s “pivot” to Asia, which appeared to come at Europe’s expense. But it was Trump’s election that posed the first existential threat to allied solidarity. He questioned the U.S. commitment to NATO, actively encouraged the EU’s dissolution and generally took a wrecking ball to the West.

Biden has promised a restoration, and Europeans have reciprocated. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, has invited Biden to a summit early this year, where he hopes leaders will endorse the alliance’s new “strategic concept,” which was drafted late last year. Meanwhile, EU officials in Brussels view Biden’s election as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. In December, the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy together released a report to the European Parliament and the European Council on “A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change,” envisioning a revival of the trans-Atlantic relationship as “the linchpin of a new global alliance of like-minded partners.” If the Trump era energized European calls for “strategic autonomy,” the prospects of a Biden presidency seem to herald a strategic realignment. To make this work, though, Washington will need to work toward a more equal strategic partnership with Europe, rather than continue to assume U.S. leadership.

Here are three areas where progress is essential if this lofty rhetoric is to be put into action:
A common strategy toward China. The biggest geopolitical challenge is adopting a united EU-U.S. front in standing up to Beijing, something Europeans have long resisted and which the Trump years complicated. The terrain has begun to shift, however, as many in Europe become alarmed at China’s military modernization, regional ambitions, diplomatic bullying and domestic repression, including in Hong Kong. The EU’s strategy document on a “new agenda” with Washington calls for closer coordination on the “strategic challenge” posed by China, while NATO’s draft “strategic concept” calls on the alliance to push back on Chinese assertiveness.
Whether Europeans are prepared to walk this talk is unclear, in part because different EU states diverge on the dangers the emerging superpower presents and the risks they are prepared to run in antagonizing Beijing. Last week, the EU overrode objections from Biden’s transition team in approving a major trade deal with China. While Brussels claimed the timing was coincidental, it was a slap in the face to the incoming administration. A truly unified trans-Atlantic stance will emerge only if the two sides reach a common assessment of the various threats China poses and coordinate their policies accordingly across multiple dimensions. Yet many Europeans remain wary of being drawn into a new Cold War, the terms of which are defined by Washington.

Washington will need to work toward a more equal strategic partnership with Europe, rather than continue to assume U.S. leadership.

Reimagining NATO. French President Emmanuel Macron made waves in 2019 by describing NATO as “brain dead,” still searching for its raison d’etre 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell. The high-level report intended to guide the alliance through 2030 responds to this critique, with 138 specific recommendations running over 60 pages. Its main recommendation is that NATO should enhance its political role so that it is better positioned to confront not only systemic rivals like authoritarian China and Russia, but a range of destabilizing trends, from terrorism to disruptive technologies, nuclear proliferation, regional instability and even climate change.

Realizing this vision implies a three-pronged approach. The first step is to nurture political cohesion within the alliance itself through ongoing consultations among its 30 members, which often diverge in their threat perceptions and strategic priorities and, in the cases of Hungary, Poland and Turkey, have deviated from a democratic path. The second is to build trust and understanding between NATO and the EU, whose relationship has often been fraught, particularly regarding their respective defense, security and political roles. Finally, NATO must formulate a new “global blueprint,” as it put it, to help ensure that its far-flung partnerships, including in Asia, advance the collective strategic and political interests of its members. Biden will have an opportunity to advance all three goals at his first NATO summit.

Broadening the EU-U.S. Partnership. Unlike Trump, who considers the EU a “foe” and has maneuvered to divide its members, Biden welcomes the bloc’s integration and emergence as a coherent, self-reliant actor able to share the mantle of global leadership. So the situation is ripe for EU-U.S. cooperation across a wide range of issues, beyond China. The EU’s recent vision statement outlines a sweeping trans-Atlantic policy agenda, including robust bilateral cooperation in developing and ensuring the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines; slashing carbon emissions and protecting biodiversity; governing digital commerce and artificial intelligence; defending democracy globally against authoritarian assaults, extremism and misinformation; and much, much more.

The EU will presumably seek Biden’s endorsement for a variant of its “new agenda” with Washington at a proposed bilateral summit in Brussels in the coming months. Given the new administration’s broad alignment with EU preferences, the two sides should reach such an agreement. The hard work on intricate details will come later, as the two sides labor to overcome lingering policy irritants and reconcile different regulatory approaches, from standards of digital privacy to the implementation of carbon taxes.

As they reengage with the U.S. after Trump, European leaders would be prudent not simply to cuddle up to the new Democratic administration, which might last only four years, but also to woo congressional Republicans, in the hopes of resurrecting America’s traditional bipartisan trans-Atlanticism. This will not be easy, given the GOP’s nationalist and even nativist shift under Trump, skepticism of the EU among the rank-and-file Republican voters, and the changing demographic composition of the U.S., in which fewer Americans claim European ancestry.

Still, two-thirds of U.S. citizens continue to believe that NATO benefits the U.S., according to recent surveys, and at least half still regard the EU favorably. These are numbers the EU, and Biden, can work with.