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Reviving NATO under a Biden Presidency

In January 2021, the US will have a president that has built his foreign policy agenda around restoring traditional alliances and rebuilding engagement with the international community. The leaders of NATO member states have been quick to embrace President-elect Joe Biden, viewing his upcoming inaguration as a hallmark of warming transatlantic relations. Despite Biden’s professed support for European allies, however, competing domestic priorities, economic pressures emerging from Covid-19, and the latent fear of another isolationist US leader remain barriers to European allies regaining full trust in the American commitment to NATO.

51st Munich Security Conference 2015: Petro Poroschenko (President, Ukraine), Dr. Angela Merkel (Federal Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Vice President, United States of America). Image by Marc Müller © 2015

In his foreign policy platform, President-elect Joe Biden has conveyed his commitment to reinvigorating US-European ties. Based on his commitments to “restore our historic partnerships” and “lead the effort to reimagine them for the future,” EU leaders will be expecting a return to the warm transatlantic relations enjoyed under Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama. Other key phrases from Biden’s platform, including a restoration of US “moral leadership” and a promise to “host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World” ignite the image of a liberal international order led by US and European partners.

Given ongoing domestic pressures, however, restoring international alliances will not be an immediate priority for the 46th president. Faced with a contested transition, an economic recession, and a global pandemic that continues to devastate the United States, Biden’s first hundred days will be devoted to addressing these kitchen table concerns. The foreign engagement that will come out of the early days of the Biden Administration will be tangentially related to Covid-19 – starting the process for the US to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) and engaging in talks around vaccine pooling – or will focus on bringing the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement, something Biden has promised to start on his first day in office. Given these competing priorities that have already been laid out by President-elect Biden and his foreign policy team, we should not expect substantive engagement on NATO relations in the early days of 2021.

Even once high-level transatlantic talks do commence, budgetary commitments and burden sharing will likely remain a point of contention between the US and European allies. Biden’s foreign policy platform includes a promise to push NATO members “to recommit to their responsibilities as members of a democratic alliance.” Pressuring partners to increase their defense spending has been a long-standing policy of US leaders, not only under Trump but also under Obama and Bush Jr. President-elect Biden gives no indication that his administration will break with this practice for a shared security investment.

As governments worldwide struggle under an economic downturn as a result of Covid-19, a US push for increased defense spending will not be well received by Europeans. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, discretionary spending, including on defense, was slashed throughout Europe, and very few NATO allies met the standard two percent GDP commitment. Recognizing the economic pressure of his peers (and coping with major cuts to the US defense budget), President Obama made no public mention of NATO defense commitments from 2009 to 2014, when the American and European economies began to show signs of recovery. Only then did the White House renew calls for burden sharing. While it is still difficult to predict the long-term reverberations from Covid-19, the short-term impact on the global economy has been even more severe than the 2008 stock market crash. Regardless of the political goodwill put forward by President-elect Biden, NATO allies may find it impossible to meet American demands for defense spending.

A final barrier to comprehensive engagement on NATO under Biden’s administration is the need to rebuild allied trust. After four years of a US administration that strained US-European relations and dismissed NATO as a bad deal for Americans, the renewed acceptance of the US as a good faith actor in the transatlantic alliance will not be an overnight process. Furthermore, the 2020 presidential election was closer than many experts believed it would be, seeming to “validate Trump’s perspective as much as it did Biden’s” and demonstrating that a large proportion of Americans still support the values posited by President Trump. Allied leaders will approach President-elect Biden with a wary eye towards 2024, limiting the scope of their commitments to the US in case another isolationist president should take office.

Biden has put forward a foreign policy plan based on restoring transatlantic ties and rebuilding relationships with US allies in Europe. As with other aspects of domestic and foreign policy, however, NATO will not see a “return to normalcy under Joe Biden.” The strain placed on the alliance during President Trump’s administration will take time heal, but beyond partisan divides, the Covid-19 pandemic is also hindering progress, compelling NATO states to prioritize their own political and economic situations over solidifying NATO defenses.  

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Kathryn Urban

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