Disaster Relief – but Europe should keep calm and carry on
We may believe the election of Joe Biden will bring us back to diplomatic business as we knew it. But the Trump presidency was not a random accident. Europe would be well advised to keep calm and carry on working towards a capacity to act more independently.
Once again we have been captivated with an American presidential election cycle because, arguably, it remains the most consequential country on the global scene. But this time our preoccupation was also tinged with a degree of disaster tourism, as we anxiously gathered in front of “the world’s biggest billboard”, in Walter Russell Mead’s characterisation.1
All the more so because of the incumbent officeholder, whose greatest talent is not for real estate development, nor for running a country but for producing reality shows. Depending on one’s preferences, Donald Trump’s Caps Lock presidency has been an exercise in scandalising or seducing.
Trump’s election was not a random accident
Either way, his audiences have been fascinated, often fuelled by obsessive media reporting (‘Ten things Trump did while you were not watching’ – even though the president is known for his short working hours and we were watching all the time).
Spectacle, however, distracts from the bigger picture telling us that for reasons both domestic and international, the United States is in a process of changing. No matter who is in charge, this will affect the country’s foreign policy.
It is tempting to assume that the incoming administration means that we will return to diplomatic business as we knew it. President-elect Joe Biden hinted at this scenario in an earlier article in Foreign Affairs, when he vowed, once inaugurated, to take “immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances (…) and once more have America lead the world”.2
But Trump’s election was not a random accident, and this time he got substantially more votes than in 2016 (and in the absence of the COVID-19 pandemic he would probably have been re-elected). Long-term socio-economic, demographic and cultural developments in the US have changed the nation’s landscape and pitted communities against one another to the extent that fixing democracy, and formulating a new unifying social contract, will prove to be a daunting task requiring much of the new president’s time.
Allies will celebrate the change of tone and a new policy agenda of American re-engagement but will reserve the right to remain cautious
Meanwhile, the international environment has evolved too. Power balances are shifting and Biden’s ambition to strengthen global democracy by rallying ‘the free nations of the world’ will be at least as challenging, if only because ‘freedom’ is no longer an unambiguous concept. Surveys may indicate that a solid majority of Americans still support taking an active part in world affairs, but further questioning reveals deep partisan divergences.3
Besides, after Trump, who never believed in an exceptional international role, US retrenchment and erratic behaviour are no longer a hypothetical prospect. Allies will celebrate the change of tone and a new policy agenda of American re-engagement but will reserve the right to remain cautious, certainly if the Republicans retain a majority in the Senate.
For Europeans, the transatlantic partnership matters most. In marriage terms, the alliance that emerged after the Second World War was driven not so much by love at first sight as by rational calculation, bringing the US and European countries together in what was to become an uneasy relationship whose integrity in critical situations was preserved by external drivers.
Naturally, after 75 years, the relationship is subject to wear and tear, especially after the last four years of divorce from bed and board. Even if the elderly couple decides to move in together again, they may keep separate bedrooms, since life together has become less straightforward.
The clouds hanging over international trade will not suddenly disappear
On the sunny side of the road, social media will not be used anymore as the principal diplomatic conduit. Moreover, a Biden administration will have an instinctively more multilateral approach to the world and will recommit to issues like climate change, global health, human rights and arms control. It will also reconfirm the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and underwrite the organisation’s mutual assistance provisions.
At the same time, the ‘burden sharing’ discussion (European allies’ repeated pledge to spend more on defence) will be phrased differently but not abate. In a similar vein, the clouds hanging over international trade will not suddenly disappear, although tariffs on European products will not be framed as national security matters.
Other looming debates concern the pre-eminence of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency and Europe’s increasingly assertive stance on the digital economy, including plans to regulate and impose taxes on US tech giants.4
And then there is China. Europe is becoming more aware of the nature of China’s trading and intelligence-gathering practices but is not a Pacific power. Therefore, American efforts to enlist support, through NATO, for Cold War-like deterrence are not likely to gain much traction. More generally, the transatlantic conversation will be burdened by the global economic effects of the pandemic.
During times of geopolitical transition and uncertainty, there is no room for nostalgic complacency about American leadership
To use the slogan of a non-European Union member state, Europe would be well advised to keep calm and carry on working towards ‘strategic autonomy’ or, in more down-to-earth vocabulary, developing its capacity to act independently from outsiders across various domains, including security and defence.
During times of geopolitical transition and uncertainty, there is no room for nostalgic complacency about American leadership and as any prudent stockbroker would recommend, Europe has to spread its risks. Sooner or later, the inherent tensions between two parallel foreign and security policy tracks (one through NATO, the other through the EU) will come to the surface again and Europe will have to hedge against this eventuality by investing in its own capabilities and decision-making procedures.
Even if our fascination with America will not subside (we are familiar with the biographies of Supreme Court nominees while we do not know the name of Russia’s prime minister), our foreign policy orientation may shift in the context of new priorities and, not least, Washington’s own repositioning.
It is not a given that “the work that God and history has called upon us to do”, as Biden put it during his victory speech last Saturday, will always be a joint endeavour.
- 1Walter Russel Mead, ‘The World Still Watches America’, Wall Street Journal, 2 November 2020.
- 2Joe Biden, ‘Why America Must Lead Again’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020.
- 3Dina Smeltz, Ivo H. Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, Craig Kafura & Brendan Helm, ‘Divided we Stand: Democrats and Republicans Diverge on US Foreign Policy’, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 17 September 2020.
- 4Nicholas Vinocur, ‘Europe and the US are drifting apart on tech. Joe Biden wouldn’t fix that’, Politico, 3 November 2020.
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