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Andrzej Kohut  29 czerwca 2021

Does Europe mean nothing to the US anymore? Biden visits Europe

Andrzej Kohut  29 czerwca 2021
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

It was the first time Biden visited Europe that had to wait its turn. G7 and NATO summits, meetings with Prime Minister Johnson and the British Queen, and finally a meeting with Putin. Despite a series of friendly statements, Europe has so far not received any significant gestures. It is China that is crucial to American foreign policy today. At the same time, Biden continues his policy of reset 2.0 in relations with Russia. Under Biden’s government, the US wishes for Europe to be free, Russia to stick to certain borders, Germany to cooperate, and the conflict in Ukraine not to escalate further.

Contrary to frequent statements issued during the European visit, Europe is not high on the new American President’s agenda. On the surface, in his program, Biden indicated that America, wishing to rebuild its leadership, must show its key allies that it is back and that NATO allies were very high on that list. Allegedly, the Democrats understood perfectly well the havoc caused by Trump’s policy towards the European Union and pointed to the need to repair mutual relations. Allegedly, Biden’s first foreign visit was focusing on the old continent.

However, it is China that is crucial to American foreign policy today. The first weeks of Biden’s presidency focused on strengthening relations with allies in Asia, i.e. Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. It was to those partners first that Biden wanted to show that America is back. There was also a meeting with the Chinese delegation in Alaska. Moreover, countries that could create problems for the new administration, namely Israel and Russia, were placed high on the list of urgent topics (each of them for different reasons, of course).

Europe, on the other hand, had to wait a long while for its turn. A series of friendly statements did not bring about any relevant action. The US travel ban for European travelers related to COVID-19 was not lifted despite significant improvements in the pandemic situation on both sides of the Atlantic. The Americans also managed to unpleasantly surprise their European allies by proposing such measures as to abolish patent protection for vaccines. Admittedly, communication has improved as Europeans no longer need to learn about groundbreaking decisions from the president’s tweets but it is hard to conclude that American unilateralism is waning.

The US needs allies

So how does Biden see the place of European partners in the foreign policy of his administration today? An interesting source of knowledge on this subject may be the text recently published by the President himself in the Washington Post, in which Biden quite precisely describes the goals behind the subsequent items of the agenda of his European trip.

First of all, Biden draws up the point the United States is now at, namely the vaccination campaign has been successful and the economy has kicked off under the stimulus packages. America, which served as an example of how not to handle the first months of the pandemic, can finally stand before the rest of the world again as a leader and role model. This also allows referring to the troubling states – Russia and China – from a position of strength.

For some time now, the United States has been trying to show off the return of its self-confidence related to the fact that it succeeded in overcoming the pandemic crisis – for example by starting the transfer of vaccines to other countries or by proposing said lifting of patent protection for vaccines. Building the position of strength was already visible in Biden’s first telephone conversations with Putin and Xi Jinping, when he spoke up very sharply on human rights, among other things.

This time, however, Biden is putting more emphasis on the importance of allies who are necessary for Washington to be able to approach new challenges from a position of strength. Partners with similar values and a similar view of the future. in short: other democratic countries. And this is what Biden sees as the main goal of his European visit: building a bloc of democratic states that together will be able to respond to the challenge posed by authoritarian states, particularly China.

Impressive European tournée

One may read successive meetings attended by the American president in such a note. Setting aside the primarily courtesy-oriented meetings with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the British Queen, the G7 summit in Cornwall was an important point of the visit. The leaders met after a two-year interval as the last year’s meeting was canceled due to the pandemic. Biden already points out that the countries within the Group have done a great deal to agree on a global minimum tax for corporations. Furthermore, the topic of investments in infrastructure, especially in poorer countries, to curb Chinese expansion, as well as policies on new technologies to better prevent ransomware attacks (which have recently taken its toll on America) and tracking citizens with artificial intelligence to this solution did not become a powerful new tool in the hands of authoritarian leaders, namely China.

G7 sessions were held on Friday and Saturday. Then a nice Sunday with the Queen and on Monday, Biden met with NATO leaders, where, as announced, he highlighted the United States’ commitment to transatlantic cooperation and the principles governing the Alliance (above all to Article 5).

Following a period of uncertainty over Trump’s unclear statements as to whether the US would come to the aid of an attacked ally, Biden intends to put the matter beyond doubt. To show that the Alliance has the most enduring foundation of shared values. Finally, Biden also met with the leaders of the European Union to argue that democracies, not China, can be the ones to write the next chapters of world history.

Finally, Biden met with Putin in Geneva. Biden makes it clear that the meeting took place after he met all his friends, partners and allies – similar to the meeting with the Chinese in Alaska – to show that the Alliance is united in the face of the Russian threat to European security. At the same time, Biden writes that he expects stable and predictable relations with Russia.

In short: reset 2.0, which I have already talked about and wrote about many times over. There will be no pretend friendships, but there will be an attempt to reach a pragmatic deal with Russia to avoid generating unnecessary tensions. At the same time, red lines will be drawn clearly, the crossing of which by Moscow may end this period of stabilization quickly.

Will Biden’s plan work?

Trauma. This may be the most serious obstacle to the success of Biden’s plan to create a large, democratic bloc. After four years of Trump’s presidency, European leaders will continue to grapple with uncertainty over the US policy. Despite enthusiastic declarations, they may turn out to be less willing to rely on Washington, knowing that someone else may appear at the White House as early as January 2025. Perhaps even Trump himself. While Europeans have recently become increasingly wary of Beijing – even calling it a systemic rival – they are far from a black-and-white view of this rivalry in the American spirit.

Moreover, it is uncertain whether European leaders would trust the purity of Biden’s intentions. The American President talks a lot about their importance, but at the same time does not assign relations with Europe the highest priority. A good picture of the direction taken by the new administration is the issue of sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which I mentioned recently in the podcast: Under Biden’s government, the US wishes for Europe to be free, Russia to stick to certain borders, Germany to cooperate, and the conflict in Ukraine not to escalate further.

POLITICO recently published a text that puts the matter even more sharply: in today’s global competition, Europe no longer matters to the US. Its leaders have shown over the years that they cannot be independent, have no intention of developing their military capabilities and cannot contribute much to the American side. That is why Europe will remain a good stage for making occasional speeches and declaring friendships, but not much more. However, this may be a voice that seems to go too far.

The plan of Biden’s visit to Europe clearly emphasized that today the number one issue for the United States in foreign policy is competition and confrontation with China. This echoes in Biden’s text in almost every comment. This priority organizes many other items of foreign policy, including the attitude towards Europe. The Americans expect countries that share their values to form a democratic bloc, opposing the authoritarian bloc represented by China. The Europeans smile and highlight that America’s return (as announced by Biden) is great news, but they look at China differently and may have doubts regarding the persistence of American policy.

Polish version is available here.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.