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Trends in US hamper Biden’s ‘America is back’ message to Europe

Europeans worry that Biden could be succeeded by another 'America first' president whose goals might be very different

President Joe Biden waves as he and first lady Jill Biden walk on the ellipse to board Marine One on Wednesday on the first leg of their journey to Europe.
President Joe Biden waves as he and first lady Jill Biden walk on the ellipse to board Marine One on Wednesday on the first leg of their journey to Europe. (Getty Images)

President Joe Biden heads to Europe this week for his first foreign trip as president, intent on soldering back together the trans-Atlantic ties that were splintered by his predecessor.

But the Biden administration’s ability to renew Europeans’ faith in the long-term U.S. commitment to internationalism and the post-World War II democratic order is constrained by European concerns about recent domestic events, notably the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and Republican efforts to sow doubt about the integrity of elections and to restrict access to the ballot.

The ongoing rightward drift of the Republican Party, which has not lessened since the reelection loss of former President Donald Trump, has disquieted many Europeans. They are worried that despite Biden’s February declaration that “America is back,” his administration’s emphasis on the importance of alliances, human rights and democracy may just wind up as a blip in the long-term evolution of U.S. foreign policy.

These worries that Biden could be succeeded by another “America First”-type president may make it more difficult for the former Senate Foreign Relations chairman to secure European agreements on contentious subjects related to Iran, China, climate change and trade.

“I think there is a real sort of underlying concern that America’s return may be temporary,” Max Bergmann, a senior fellow specializing in foreign relations with Europe with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said in an interview. “Europeans are a little bit wary of following the lead of the United States.”

To be sure, there is still significant goodwill from Europe toward Biden and what he represents.

“There’s a lot of goodwill in Europe, and political will also, to make this relationship work,” Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director for the leading French newspaper Le Monde, said during a Council on Foreign Relations panel discussion last week. “Everyone has been so traumatized by the past four years. There is a real awareness that this [trans-Atlantic relationship] has to work … given the complexity of the world, of the global environment.”

That goodwill, coupled with a shared interest in sending a reassuring signal to the international community amid the persistent coronavirus pandemic, is likely, experts say, to result in a series of productive, uncontroversial meetings this week and next between Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the G-7 leading industrialized nations, NATO and the European Union.

A concluding summit next Wednesday in Geneva between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to be much more difficult but perhaps free of the eyebrow-raising dramatics that characterized Trump’s multiple meetings with the former KGB officer.

The Biden administration has been able to carry out a “very quick” reset of the trans-Atlantic relationship that in several regards has had a “very realpolitik” element to it, said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, who leads the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, at the CFR event.

After four years of being belittled and bedeviled by Trump’s actions and rhetoric, “Europeans have greater appreciation and understanding of the dynamism of American society,” Ashbrook said. “This honeymoon phase is a very different one emotionally and, just in terms of time, much shorter than President Obama’s.”

America will still be America

But even as Europeans are more sympathetic to the domestic pressures Biden is under, “there is also this feeling that the United States is still the United States,” Kauffmann said.

For all of the Biden administration’s rhetoric about acting multilaterally and having better cooperation with European allies than Trump did, in several instances Biden has acted unilaterally and with little consultation beforehand to affected European partners, experts say.

These areas include announcing in April that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September, leaving Germany to scramble to figure out how to ensure an orderly departure of its own roughly 1,300 soldiers still deployed in the country.

Similarly, key European partners did not receive a heads-up from Biden before he announced last month the U.S. would support a World Trade Organization patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines to encourage their faster distribution in developing countries.

“Europeans were caught by surprise and resented it a little bit, probably,” Kauffmann said of the vaccine announcement.

Additional flies in the trans-Atlantic ointment include Europeans’ frustration that Biden has still not lifted steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by Trump and his extension of a coronavirus-related travel ban on Europeans coming to the U.S.

“Europeans are feeling slightly disappointed in the first few months of the Biden administration on certain aspects,” Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, said in a press call last week.

Still, Europeans recognize the Trump era didn’t come out of nowhere and that “America First was a response to a primal scream in the electorate” that feels U.S. foreign policy has become overextended abroad amid underinvestment at home, Charles Kupchan, who directed European affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told the CFR audience.

Kupchan argued that the biggest concern for Europe in its trans-Atlantic relationship ought not to be what to do about China, Russia, trade disputes or defense burden-sharing but how the U.S. two-party political system responds to the hard-right moves of the Republican Party.

“The most important issue for Europeans to keep an eye on is [U.S.] domestic politics, the big question as to whether Biden is a temporary detour from the populism and Trump 2.0,” he said. “We could well see the Republicans retake the House next year and see Europeans much more worried.”

European discomfort with the prospect of a return of America First foreign policies will play into Europeans’ willingness or unwillingness to strike deals with the Biden administration on tough issues such as how to reduce carbon emissions, imposing a global minimum corporate tax, digital market access and responding to China’s aggressive trade practices, many experts say.

Major economic powers like Germany and France, in particular, will wonder what happens if a future Trump-like U.S. president decides to unilaterally withdraw from the international agreements struck by the Biden administration, as Trump did with the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord negotiated by President Barack Obama. That could make them more cautious to go out on a limb with their own domestic audiences in making difficult compromises, including on trade-related matters, with the U.S.

“The Biden administration has to, I think, operate with one eye toward knowing that … we could have a totally different administration,” Bergmann said. “So, whatever you’re going to do globally, you need to figure out how you can sort of really lock it in. So it’s not just temporary, it can’t just be easily undone by the next folks that come in.”

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