Where is the Transatlantic Relationship Going?
With Dr Alexandra de Hoop-Scheffer and Jeff Hawkins
(General Dominique Trinquand as moderator)
Joe Biden’s victory in the recent presidential elections, along with his desire to form an “alliance of democracies” has reignited the debate around the transatlantic link and its future. This debate revolves around three axes of reflection, the first concerning the rapprochement of the United States to Europe, the second mentions the intra-American dimension of the debate while the third focuses on the need for this relationship and Europe to evolve.
The United States return with a specific agenda
“America is back”, this is the main slogan of the Biden administration, referring to its rapprochement with Europe and more specifically the transatlantic link. Indeed, it is important to see to what extent the new American president breaks off with the approaches of his predecessor by placing alliances at the heart of American foreign policy. The multiplication of cooperation formats, through NATO or the European Union, the use of E3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) and QUAD (Australia, India, Japan, USA) makes it possible to discuss strategic topics and global issues. We can add to this a reinvestment of bilateral relations with Germany, exchanging on economic, political but also diplomatic subjects with a particular interest in the situation in Ukraine, showing continuity with the Obama administration.
America is therefore back and presents a very specific agenda along three major axes that aim to manage issues such as COVID-19, China and the climate.
The first axis is divided into two aspects, the first being “foreign policy for the American middle class”, framework which shapes all decisions concerning American foreign policy under the Biden administration and which therefore seeks to determine the benefits and the cost that the actions of the United States will have for the American taxpayer. The second seeks to implement “nation building at home”, a policy initiated by Obama and now seeking to be a response to the health challenge and racial tensions within the United States.
The second axis of this agenda is an extension of the posture adopted by the Trump administration concerning the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, the rise of the Middle Empire is seen as the main geostrategic challenge of the United States in the years to come. This perception of China as a significant military threat on a global level seeks to be imposed on the whole of Europe which, apart from France and the United Kingdom, does not yet share this vision of China.
The third axis that turns out to be the most problematic is the return of the American discourse on the alliance of democracies. This desire to promote democracy, which was supposed to make it possible to face autocratic regimes, had disappeared because of failures such as the one experienced in Iraq. It is difficult to reinstate such a discourse because of the loss of legitimacy of the United States given the record of its foreign policy and failures of its own democratic model. Therefore, there is a real desire for dialogue between the Biden administration and Europe in order to carry out introspective work on the subject of democracy and reflect on the resilience of the democratic model.
America is back… but for how long? An intra-America debate on its vision of the world
The end of Donald Trump’s presidency marks a moment of relief for the transatlantic alliance, which has gone through difficult years but has demonstrated a problem emanating from the United States.
Biden’s victory highlights a reality. The minority which wanted a second term for Donald Trump is actually very large numerically. Although the two candidates share common points, especially in regard to their campaign slogan (Trump’s Make America Great Again and Biden’ America is back), alluding to a glorious past, they represent a fundamentally different vision of the United States. This division, which crosses the divide between Republicans and Democrats, rather represents a desire for a break between the current administration and Trumpism.
This ideological divergence can lead to difficulties for the American president who will have to adapt to the results of the important elections of the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2022. It can easily be assumed that the loss of one or both chambers would impair Biden’s ability to realise his vision of the United States and to give the role he wants for his country on the international stage. Likewise, the next presidential elections in 2024 may lead to a return of protectionist and isolationist tendencies and possibly even a return of Trump.
Either way, and despite the significant clashes between Trumpism and the current administration, President Biden must retain some of the legacy left by Trump, in order to preserve a continuity that would allow him to once again gain the favour of a majority of the American voters for the upcoming elections.
Towards a need to evolve the transatlantic link and Europe
Trump’s four-year tenure has exacerbated the European debate on strategic autonomy and sovereignty, without leading to satisfactory results. The departure of the United Kingdom from the European framework underlined the limits of the Franco-German couple as a driving force for discussion of a strategically independent Europe. Across the Atlantic, the devaluation of the transatlantic link has demonstrated the need to maintain a multilateral approach on topics that America cannot tackle alone, be it China, COVID-19 and the climate.
This rapprochement of the United States with Europe is nevertheless accompanied by warnings from President Biden. Indeed, the perception of the European Union by the United States as a strategic and geopolitical actor is severely compromised. Recent incidents such a Borell’s visit to Moscow or the Sofagate continue to increase this trend. The asymmetric expectations between a European Union wishing a greater commitment from their American counterpart and the United States seeking a more efficient and independent Europe are also a source of tension in the transatlantic relationship.
Still, the Biden administration’s statements demonstrate the importance of not only maintaining the transatlantic link but also evolving it. The current transatlantic link is no longer sufficient to meet the major international challenges of the century. This is evidenced by certain setbacks such as those of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mismanagement of the health crisis of COVID-19.
Other actors such as Russia and China are helping to re-emphasize the importance of the military and security aspects of the alliance. All of these serve as an incentive to modernise and expand this platform for international cooperation, whether by inviting other countries or transforming this format into a platform for trilateral transatlantic and transpacific cooperation.
The Trump administration was an opportunity for Europeans to find common ground on the formation of a more united Europe. Thus, if Europe broadly accepts the multilateral approach advocated by President Biden, it exposes itself to the disastrous consequences that the American elections could have if the election results lead to the adoption of a more isolationist line. However, the European Union and the United States undeniably share common values, which have been translated through the transatlantic link. More than a military alliance, the culmination of this relationship deeply rooted in these common values could be the creation of a political alliance.
Finally, we must ask ourselves whether the departure of the military forces of the United States from Afghanistan marks the beginning of a withdrawal of the US or if it is only a page in history, which will give way to a greater involvement of the United States on the international scene.