The Alphen Group: V-Conference: “The Strategic Consequences of America’s Choice”

November, 16th 2020 

“It is time the European pillow became the European pillar”. 

Purpose: The purpose was to consider the strategic consequences of the forthcoming Biden administration and the strategic consequences with which the new Administration will have to deal, with particular focus on transatlantic relations and Europe.

Core message: The “mother of all challenges” will remain geopolitics. Therefore, the positive engagement and leadership of the United States in international affairs is still vital. Under Biden the transatlantic relationship will likely be more predictable, more of a partnership and thus better able to exert “shaping power”.  However, COVID-19 is forcing Allies on both sides of the Atlantic to focus on domestic matters with the available political bandwidth for foreign and security policy limited. The Biden administration will be more “decent” and better aligned with European values and multilateralism, but it will still demand Europeans do more for their own defence. America’s internal divisions will be Washington’s main preoccupation. 

The Meeting: The new Administration will spend at least a year dealing with domestic matters as Biden seeks to shore up the Blue Wall, even as the Democrats face divisions between progressives and realists. Trumpism will remain a powerful force in US politics.  Biden will seek to restore trust, transparency and truth in the transatlantic relationship, will rebuild American support for multilateralism, and ensure the US remains a ‘European’ power, but Washington will still demand Europeans share more of the burdens of risk and cost. Co-operation on cyber and climate change will also be highlighted. Europeans will need to understand (and do) the need for greater capacity and the ability to act across different domains. Regional actions against Jihadism may distract Europe from Great Power geopolitics, but the scale of the threat will demand greater European effort and continuing US enabling capacities in Africa.

Europeans, Germans in particular, must seize the ‘Biden moment’. A lack of European ambition could sorely test a relationship in which Berlin must now assume greater responsibility than at any time since World War Two. A New Atlantic Initiative is needed with NATO given a new Strategic Concept which reduces America’s military footprint in Europe, but confirms its presence. Further initiatives on resilience (with a focus on Article 3 of the Washington Treaty), deeper strategic partnerships within the Alliance, a re-commitment to make Europe’s ‘fat militaries’ leaner and meaner, and a common strategy on China should be fostered. Republican control of the Senate will make it hard for Biden to seek formal treaties in areas such as arms control. Canadians will focus on the Ottawa Group and support for WTO reform and solidarity against Chinese rule-flouting. 

JLF assessment: Behind the furore of the US presidential elections COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of China with profound geopolitical implications for both North Americans and Europeans. The future cohesion of the transatlantic alliance now demands both sides of the Atlantic increase their commitment and contributions to that cohesion. The sheer extent of the security agenda, allied to political and economic constraints also suggests the European pillar must assume greater strategic responsibility. In short, “the transatlantic relationship needs the EU to be a more powerful strategic actor”. There is place for neither illusion nor nostalgia. 

Julian Lindley-French