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Why a President Biden Would Not Solve Transatlantic Tensions

Coauthor: Jonas Heering

When Americans elect a new president on November 3rd, European leaders will be closely watching, as many worry a continuation of President Trump’s policies will inflict irreparable damage on the transatlantic relationship. A Biden presidency, on the other hand, would reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance—or so European diplomats hope. 

This view is largely shared by two former high-level Obama administration officials that we recently interviewed for The Europe Desk podcast. But it hinges on an important question: How much of the current disagreements in the transatlantic relationship are driven by Trump, rather than stemming from systemic shifts in U.S. foreign policy? In key areas such as defense, China policy, and climate, a Biden presidency would only partially bridge U.S.-EU divisions. 

When it comes to defense, it is not clear that transatlantic tensions would abate under a Biden administration. While Biden would unlikely follow Trump in publicly questioning the value of NATO or unilaterally withdrawing troops from Europe, substantive policy disagreements would remain. Notably, U.S. demands for greater European defense spending are not unique to the Trump administration. Obama regularly implored NATO allies to meet their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. If elected, Biden is likely to maintain this stance.

The EU can similarly expect continued American resistance to its defense integration efforts. Pentagon officials have consistently expressed concern about EU initiatives such as PESCO and the European Defence Fund, suggesting they will undermine the coherence of NATO. This resistance to European ‘strategic autonomy’ does not stem from partisan ideology; rather, it is a consequence of the United States’ shifting position in the international order. Republicans and Democrats alike will face the same fundamental reality—namely, the U.S. interest in keeping Europe firmly within its orbit to bolster America’s dwindling global influence. No U.S. administration is therefore likely to welcome apparent European designs to establish itself as an independent power.

The key area where the United States seeks to mobilize European support is in its effort to confront China. As Beijing becomes increasingly assertive on the world stage, the United States will expect its allies’ support in the coming superpower struggle. Yet, for the most part, Europeans see things differently. Though there have been some signs of increasing transatlantic alignment on China policy, particularly on issues of security and human rights, European leaders still largely resist pressure to choose a side, preferring instead to pursue cooperation with both Washington and Beijing. While our interviewees thought that a Biden administration would be less forceful than Trump on China, the emerging bipartisan Washington consensus on China makes Congress likely to push any president to take a firm stance.

Admittedly, U.S. partisans do not always agree when it comes to China. A recent Pew Research survey demonstrates that Republicans favor a tough stance on China while Democrats favor closer economic cooperation with Beijing. Europeans will welcome this information, given their own economic dependence on Beijing. This does not mean, however, that a Biden administration would see eye-to-eye with Europe on China policy. Any tactical differences between Democrats and Republics about how to best confront Beijing pale in comparison to the fundamental divergence in threat perception between the United States and Europe: while Pew reports that 42% of Americans have a “very unfavorable” view of China, only 23% of Germans, 26% of the French, and 26% of Italians feel the same.

Another item that is likely to dominate the transatlantic agenda for the foreseeable future is climate change. Over the past four years, Europe and the United States have drifted further apart on this issue, as Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accords, while Brussels is pressing ahead with its European Green Deal. Although this divide would likely grow under another four years of Trump, Biden has signaled his intent to make climate change a priority under his presidency. 

But even if the United States re-enters the Paris Agreement and commits to tackling climate change, a Biden administration would face domestic opposition and international skepticism on its climate agenda. Americans are deeply divided on how they view climate change. While 75% of Democrats identify climate change as a critical threat to U.S. interests in a recent survey, only 21% of Republicans do. There is evidence that attitudes toward climate change are shifting among younger conservatives; but it is unlikely that Republican lawmakers would support some of Biden’s more ambitious climate change policies over the next four years—despite the optimism expressed by one of our interviewees. Internationally, observers might worry that even if the United States rejoins the Paris Accords in 2021, there is no guarantee that it will not withdraw again in 2025, should the Oval Office be occupied by a Republican again.

None of this is to deny that the transatlantic relationship would not significantly improve under a Biden administration—it certainly would, as Trump has not set the bar very high. But Americans and Europeans often hold significantly different opinions on how to confront global challenges. These divides are not just transatlantic, but also intra-EU and intra-U.S. Thus, while a Biden win in November would bring temporary relief to transatlantic tensions, it cannot mask the systemic challenges facing the EU-U.S. relationship going forward. 

Jonas Heering is an M.A. candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a Co-Host of The Europe Desk podcast.

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