The cement for a new transatlantic relationship should be a common commitment to democracy in a world of rising authoritarian challenges.
The United States president, Joe Biden, has made restoring alliances and partnerships a central feature of his foreign-policy agenda. As he arrives in Europe for the first overseas trip of his presidency, the time is ripe for the transatlantic relationship to advance an agenda of democratic resilience.
Strengthening policy co-ordination on Russia and China will be central to this agenda—although transatlantic partners are not expected to be in lockstep with him on every issue. Instead of lamenting where our approaches toward Moscow and Beijing may diverge, however, the US and its European partners should take advantage of renewed diplomatic engagement to make progress on defending democratic values at home and abroad.
Flurry of visits
In the first few months of the Biden administration, European capitals have seen a flurry of visits from high-level American officials, including the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin. June too will be busy for the transatlantic relationship, as Biden participates in summits of the G7 in England and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, as well as the first US-EU leaders’ meeting since 2014. He will then travel to Switzerland to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for the first time in his presidency.
The president’s action-packed trip to Europe is meant to convey a desire to revitalise the transatlantic relationship and renew US commitment to NATO and collective defence. His administration’s early emphasis on embracing its European partners—and rebuilding relationships which fell by the wayside during the administration of Donald Trump—is important and necessary. A key ingredient of effective transatlantic co-operation in the years ahead will be restored mutual trust between US and European leaders, including at EU level.
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This early diplomatic engagement should also create a strong foundation for collaboration on the geopolitical challenges presented by Russia and China and other transnational issues, including climate change, post-pandemic economic recovery and vaccine distribution. The next step will be to transform raised ambitions and expectations into concrete results.
Omen for co-operation
A positive omen for co-operation is that both sides of the Atlantic are more aligned now than at any time in recent memory in their analytic assessment of the challenges Moscow and Beijing pose to transatlantic values and democracy. This alignment will be particularly important in the case of China.
In May, the White House published its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to outline the administration’s foreign-policy priorities and its vision for international engagement. The strategic outlook avoids lumping Russia and China under the umbrella term ‘great power competition’, since China represents a challenge far superior to that of Russia. Indeed, competing with China to secure US interests and values in the domains of the Indo-Pacific, cybernetics, trade and global governance will remain a major preoccupation of the Biden administration.
Unlike Trump, Biden has indicated that he wants to work with America’s allies to push back against Chinese unfair-trade practices, human-rights abuses and bullying behaviour in the East and South China Seas. The problem with this intention, at least until now, has been Europe’s reticence to engage meaningfully in strategic competition with China. Deep commercial and investment ties, coupled with divisions on the European continent over how best to manage relations with Beijing, have inhibited significant co-operation with Washington.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment finalised in principle between the EU and China on the eve of the Biden presidency seemed to confirm transatlantic divisions on China. Europe’s tone may however be shifting in light of China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy throughout the pandemic and its heavy-handed sanctions on European think-tanks and members of the European Parliament, which came in response to Europe’s sanctions over the Chinese Communist Party’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang province. Due to Beijing’s missteps, both sides of the Atlantic now seem poised to develop a more robust and co-ordinated China policy.
Transatlantic views are also converging on Russia. Despite the administration’s pre-eminent focus on China, Washington views Moscow as a malevolent power with significant capabilities to disrupt and destabilise. Far from initiating a reset, the Biden administration’s highest ambition for the relationship is to build ‘stable and predictable’ ties and signal that it will respond strongly to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, cyber intrusions and election meddling. The summit between Biden and Putin will likely be a tense and uncomfortable airing of grievances, at best.
Europe has reached a similar assessment. There are few illusions about Putin’s objectives at home and in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. Views have only hardened amid Russia’s cyber hacks, poisoning and jailing of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and defence of Belarus’s recent act of air piracy.
Europe’s long-term perspective on Russia is tempered by the fact that it must engage with Moscow as an important neighbour. But European leaders have come to the sober realisation that Putin needs chaos and instability abroad to strengthen his power base at home, thereby limiting the potential for improved ties as long as he is in the Kremlin.
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Despite a renewed sense of possibility in the transatlantic relationship and an analytic convergence on the challenges posed by Russia and China, Biden and his European counterparts must overcome three hurdles. The first is a lingering concern in many European capitals that the transatlantic honeymoon will not last.
Many in Europe see the Biden administration as only a brief respite, before a Trump-esque alternative takes the reins again in 2024. This fear has created serious doubts about America’s commitment to the transatlantic relationship and the rules-based international order. It has also led to renewed calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’.
The second obstacle to genuine policy co-ordination stems from an entrenched Washington mentality that boosting ties with Europe may not lead to different or preferential outcomes, particularly on Russia or China policy. This line of argument holds that deep divisions in Europe over how best to manage relations with Russia and China—as well as commercial dependencies on China’s market and investment—will always prevent true policy alignment, regardless of the diplomatic niceties.
The third and perhaps greatest hurdle is the uncomfortable reality that Europe is not the key player in achieving the Biden administration’s wider foreign-policy objectives on China. America’s oldest and longest-standing partners and alliance (Europe and NATO) are not laser-focused on Washington’s primary geopolitical challenger (China), nor are they engaged in America’s most important strategic theatre (the Indo-Pacific). This reality has the potential further to shift Washington’s attention and resources away from Europe and toward Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
Instead of allowing this strategic misalignment to cast Europe into the periphery of US foreign policy, however, the administration and its European partners should incline towards defending our shared values through an agenda of democratic resilience.
This would involve strengthening our networks to resist malign authoritarian intrusions, securing our elections from authoritarian meddling and interference, and speaking out with a collective voice when human-rights violations are carried out with impunity. It must entail real co-operation on fighting corruption in our financial systems, to ensure that democracy delivers for its people. It should also involve working with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, to pool our capabilities and leverage where authoritarian adversaries seek to weaken and divide us.
The two sides of the Atlantic will never agree on every aspect of Russia and China’s authoritarian threats. Nor shall we agree on every policy recommendation and response. But let’s not allow those differences to inhibit genuine co-operation where our interests and values align. As Biden lands in Europe, he and his European counterparts begin the hard work of turning expectations into results. Defending our democracies in an era of global authoritarian resurgence is worth the effort.
This is part of a series on the transatlantic relationship, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Dr Torrey Taussig is research director of the Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a non-resident fellow in the Center for the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution.