PREMIUM TAG BLOG: The Risk of Imagining a Transatlantic Reset

By Elin Schiffer

The Biden administration and the Europeans have to move fast to strengthen multilateral institutions that will survive a return of Trump-like policies and approach to the transatlantic relationship.

Europe is breathing a big sigh of relief about the return of reason to the White House. But leaders on this side of the Atlantic know there is no time to lose. The Biden administration faces mid-term elections in two years’ time. In 2024 there is another presidential election campaign.  All the more reason for the Europeans to come up with initiatives that have substance and that will endure after 2024, no matter who will be in the White House. 

The need for enhanced cooperation with the US is a consequence of Biden winning the election but also the fear that Trump-like foreign policy and approach might return one day. 

Looking back, George W Bush’s administration pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, one of the early international agreements on climate change. While Europeans stood firm in their support of the US after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush decision to intervene militarily in the Middle East caused divisions among Europe’s leaders. Then came Barack Obama. He put global warming and arms control back on the agenda, with his support for the Paris Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). His appreciated actions and intentions were quickly undone by his successor, Donald Trump.

This should be a valuable lesson for the Europeans to realize with what speed policies over the other side of the Atlantic can be reversed. Since that is the case, it is essential to construct a transatlantic relationship that is stable in the long-term.

Certainly, cooperation will be easier given how the Biden administration want to mend relations with Europe. But some of Trump’s grievances – and they were, leaving aside the harsh tone, much the same as Obama’s – will remain. At the recent NATO defense ministers meeting in February, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called for more burden-sharing while at the same time emphasizing “[…] NATO as the bedrock of enduring trans-Atlantic security”.

On trade, the expectations are low for a new trade agreement with the US[2]. Efforts to forge a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would have been just as vital as a US-European roadmap for dealing with issues relating to China’s increasing influence. As for China, Biden is likely to maintain a tougher approach to China than the EU. 

Despite these predictable differences, the transatlantic relationship will certainly be revitalized during the Biden administration, both bilaterally with individual states and in multilateral forums such as NATO and the EU. However, the danger of seeing this as a transatlantic reset can lead to Déjà vu.

Because no matter how many initiatives are taken and realized under the Biden administration, the risk remains that what happened in 2017 might as well happen in 2025: a newly inaugurated president can erase years of work with the stroke of a pen and with it a new transatlantic agenda that will be exceptionally broad (security, trade, climate change, technology, strengthening democracy).

To guarantee sustainability, Europeans should focus on a few key issues.

First, Europeans should promote multilateral forums for institutionalized dialogue not only in NATO and the UN, but also in new forms such as the EU-US Security and Defense Dialogue. This requires clear, strategic preparations. An idea would be to invite high-level US officials to attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council at least once a year. This is what Europe’s top diplomat Josep Borrell did during his first call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. These meetings must also have substance to be beneficial to both sides.

Second, all new initiatives should be framed in a way that emphasize domestic and international benefits. This is very important. As the post pandemic recovery ultimately happens, both sides of the Atlantic are likely to be inward-looking.

Before assuming his current role, the new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan co-authored a report at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about creating a foreign policy that works for the middle class. One of the main points was about breaking the domestic/foreign policy silos. In the new Interim National Security Strategy, this is further emphasized.

This central aspect was also underlined in Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s first big speech titled “A Foreign Policy for the American People”. He highlighted the three questions that will guide the Biden administration: “What will our foreign policy mean for American workers and their families? What do we need to do around the world to make us stronger here at home? And what do we need to do at home to make us stronger in the world?”

This is important for Europeans to understand: US foreign and domestic policy are not isolated from each other. 

Finally, Europe needs to develop its capabilities across the full spectrum to become a more capable partner in the transatlantic relationship. Europe’s ability and willingness to take more responsibility for its neighborhood will not happen overnight. There are too many policy differences.

However, it is important to continue with the political push for greater European presence and action on the global stage. Such an agenda from the Europeans will indicate to the US that Europe is willing, and trying, to take a greater share of the burden to solve important issues. 

While it is wishful to see the Biden administration as a demonstration of a new era in transatlantic relations, Europeans need to realize that an era cannot only be four years. In the end, this is about guaranteeing that the new transatlantic agenda endures beyond the next four years and is not a victim to a tweet or the pen that signs an executive order.