U.S. President Joe Biden embarked on his European tour with clear, deliberately limited objectives: to rekindle the unity of the transatlantic partnership around old and new adversaries (Russia and China respectively), to infuse clarity and predictability into a mutual U.S. and EU effort toward strategic stability, and to define a common path to address some of the long-term global challenges both sides face. Beyond the push for transatlantic cohesion, the U.S. narrative was that Western democracies were fighting against authoritarian rivals and reaffirming their lead in the international order.
All in all, this message was well received. Traumatized by four years of former president Donald Trump’s disorderly foreign policy, Europeans were eager to be comforted by the belief that America was back. Naturally, the transatlantic partners revealed their usual differences when responding to the call for unity. National interests and the Europeans’ more nuanced vision of the confrontation between global powers resulted in some lengthy discussions about the communiqués that concluded the three summits between the G7, NATO, and the EU and United States. Yet Europeans came out of this whole sequence of events impressed by the sheer professionalism of the new U.S. administration. The discipline and efficiency shown during the whole visit, from preparation to on-the-ground logistics—particularly around the U.S.-Russia meeting in Geneva—gave European officials the reassuring feeling that they were partnering again with a reliable U.S. diplomatic team.
Why, then, is there a lingering sense of unfinished business in the aftermath of Biden’s visit? Part of this impression probably lies with the mismatched expectations that existed even before the summit meetings took place. The Americans came to Europe with the deliberate intent of rebuilding transatlantic cohesion and showcasing Western nations’ commitment to promoting liberal democracy and a free market economy. For U.S. diplomats, Biden’s visit to Europe was not the time to start in-depth discussions on any detailed agenda. These discussions would come later. Conversely, Europeans were hoping to get a few low-hanging fruits in the ongoing trade disputes and some agreements, for instance on banning coal to address climate change. In other words, one side was hooked on narrative, while the other expected at least a few concrete results (but only got one, with the suspension of the Airbus-Boeing dispute).
In the end, not much harm resulted from the discrepancy in expectations. The gap was essentially bridged with a constructive agenda of future consultations and working groups. Yet the feeling of a lost opportunity has not been entirely dispelled. With these summit meetings offering the prospect of vibrant cooperation, European leaders want a clear understanding of what collaboration with Washington will mean in practical terms, if only to ensure they start on the right footing. Without such a clarification, this transatlantic goodwill runs the risk of being hampered by unnecessary confusion and bickering. The indispensable link between good intentions and concrete action has been missing so far. At the end of the day, the U.S. administration got its message through, but it may have leaned too much on generalities. Arguably, Biden’s visit came too early for the summit meetings to deliver results at this stage. But the very broad consensus reached during the visit leaves a lot of space to be filled if the two sides genuinely wish to work together.
Engaging With China
Nowhere has this shortcoming been more visible than on the issue of future relations with China—rightly perceived by all observers as the true priority of Biden’s visit. In the joint statement issued at the end of the EU-U.S. summit, both sides endorsed the threefold approach of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry already enshrined in the EU 2019 strategic communication. But such broad guidelines can be given quite different meanings, depending on how the two partners intend to promote their respective economic or political interests. And it is far from certain that the United States and Europe share exactly the same view about how to deal with China in the long run. The Biden administration openly states its intention to retain its global leadership position ahead of Beijing’s ever-growing power. By contrast, Europeans seem more focused on getting from the Chinese leaders a clear commitment to abide by the rules-based international order, particularly in trade matters where Europe wants to impose an improved level playing field. Therein lies a potential mismatch between the Europeans and the U.S. administration, if the latter stands by its current confrontational approach with China.
Additional policy discrepancies loom ahead in spite of the broad agreements made in the many summit statements. On climate change, the EU is currently working on a carbon adjustment mechanism that will apply to less environmentally friendly imports—an initiative that is stirring genuine concern on the U.S. side to say the least. As for the decision approved at the EU-U.S. meeting to launch full-fledged cooperation in trade and technology, much still needs to be discussed—if only to avoid the United States taking on preeminent leadership in areas of major importance for European industry. Defining new standards development, elaborating regulatory or competition policies, and rebalancing semiconductor supply chains are critical efforts that Europe cannot transfer to its American partners. European nations’ future technological edge relies on their capacity to stay at the frontline of innovation and research. Any technological partnership with the United States, such as the one endorsed at the Brussels meeting, will require a delicate balancing act if the Europeans want to retain their innovative clout.
Reviving the West’s Power and Influence
Lastly, beyond these legitimate concerns stands a more profound question that the U.S. president’s visit to Europe has not really answered. It relates to the capacity of Western democracies to retain their power of attraction. Reinforcing transatlantic unity is certainly a precondition for Western allies to recoup some of their lost geopolitical presence and influence. But unity can easily become an empty shell if it is not sustained by a genuine and comprehensive response to the current trend of “Westlessness” so aptly described at the Munich Security Conference last year.
Here, the answer must be both internal and external. It lies first with an urgent rekindling of the liberal democracy model at a time when the disenfranchisement of the middle classes is further fueling social frustration and democratic apathy. It also calls for more agile foreign policies from Western nations to bring relevant assistance to partner countries in dire need of security and economic support. Yet current trends in Africa and the Middle East, for instance, do not favor a rise in either U.S. or European influence, as both sides are struggling in these regions against China’s increasing economic dominance, Russia’s military presence, and the engagement of other regional powers. Adding to the sense of a slow Western abandonment are the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq and the recalibration of France’s military involvement in the Sahel region.
Responding to a perceived irreversible decline in liberal democracy requires transatlantic partners to come up with a comprehensive plan. It should span from renovating their own democratic systems to revisiting their foreign and security policies and promoting the revision of multilateral diplomacy. Such high-level and large-scale mobilization inside the liberal democracy camp is what has been missing during Biden’s visit. It is true that this European tour was not intended for that purpose, but time is running out fast and liberal democracies are facing a tall order. They must now start discussing in detail the collaborative approach and division of labor needed for a Western reset. No one can underestimate the difficulties of drumming up common purpose among transatlantic partners to achieve an objective of such magnitude. But if the United States and EU are indeed serious about renewed unity, it is now time to show it.