PREMIUM TAG BLOG: President Biden Needs a Strong, Supportive Europe. Now.

If done for the right reasons, a strong, independent Europe does not have to be seen in Washington as a challenge, but as a goal the US wants its partner to achieve.  

Spring has burst upon the scene in Washington, with not just the fabled Cherry Blossoms staging a show along the Tidal Basin, but dogwoods and azaleas too, reminding DC of its southern heritage.  

Spring has brought a new beginning in politics too, as the former Trump Administration has decamped for Mar-a-Lago and the Biden Administration has taken the reins of power.  

Sounding more like Franklin Roosevelt than any Democrat since the New Deal, President Biden has launched multi-trillion dollar domestic programs to deal not just with the pandemic and its economic impact, but to address urgent domestic issues that have languished for years but now must be addressed.

Racial injustice, access to health care, and climate change are just a few of the domestic issues he is focused on while he commands the House and Senate with slender margins that may last for only two years.  He is a man in a hurry.

Spring has come to the transatlantic relationship too after the gusts and snows of a four year winter.  

But many in Europe (and in Washington too) haven’t put away their winter coats yet.  The midterm elections in two years will give us an early look at the state of American politics and how that may manifest itself in the 2024 Presidential elections.  Is Trumpism a one-off accident of history or is it the Biden Administration’s return to normalcy that won’t stand the test of time?  One hundred days into the Biden Administration it is too early to tell who will win the contest of political resiliency, but Biden’s progressive domestic agenda will give the contest a real stress test as voters get a good taste of what big government costs and can provide. 

Certainly the warmer tones and friendly rhetoric about working with Allies heard coming from the White House (and from those parts of the Executive Branch that have managed to get appointees) is reassuring.  But can they be taken to the bank?  Should Allied governments hedge their bets that Democrats may lose in four years and winter will return?  And what are Biden Administration expectations for Allies and Partners in Europe? 

While the ham-fisted approach of the last four years is over for now, Europe still needs to address the bilateral complaint about burden-sharing.  European support for a robust US policy of challenging China’s rise is another test of transatlantic unity; the Biden Administration’s first bruising came at the hands of the EU even before inauguration day when the EU ignored the President elect’s request to hold off signing the EU’s financial investment agreement with China until there could be consultations.

Should European governments hedge their bets about where the US is going politically?  If hedging your bets means strengthening Europe’s ability to stand on its own two feet and lessen dependency on the US, then hedge away.  If hedging results in Europe becoming a strong partner for the US, enabling a partnership of equals, then that should be Europe’s goal anyway no matter the US trajectory.  

But if hedging means pulling away from the US and keeping the US at arms length, the more negative interpretation of “strategic autonomy”, then hedging is being used to undercut the transatlantic link to further political goals in some European capitals.

If done for the right reasons, a strong, independent Europe does not have to be seen in Washington as a challenge, but as a goal the US wants its partner to achieve.  In Europe, the drive to become stronger does not have to come at the expense of having a close relationship with the US or NATO.  But what has to be present is the political will in European capitals to spend the money and political capital to build that strength and to use it when necessary, and Washington has to be a help in that European endeavor and not a hinderance.  

Jim Townsend