Dan Baer and Rosa Balfour: Introduction
The hope that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration would usher in a transformation of the tone and strength of relations between the United States and Europe was bound to be, at least partially, an unrequited one. After all, relaunching transatlantic cooperation and repairing damage from preceding years would be more difficult than flipping a switch. Moreover, in the last year, both the United States and Europe have had episodes of diplomatic engagement—or lack thereof—that have left transatlantic partners feeling quizzical or worse. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the signing of the AUKUS deal—the defense agreement between Australia, the UK, and the United States—were interpreted in many European capitals as signals, not that America was back but of a changing strategy: a sharper focus on China’s rise and its global impact, coupled with overseas military commitments reoriented toward Asian security. Seen from Washington, Europe’s rush to finalize an investment agreement with China in the weeks between Biden’s election and his inauguration left some senior officials wondering if the reunion that many veterans of earlier administrations had anticipated with European counterparts would be less congenial than they had hoped.
And yet, while we do not dismiss the difficulties that remain, the narrative of unmet expectations has obscured the fact that there has been real progress on policy and politics in the transatlantic relationship in the past year. Transatlanticists should welcome sobriety—it’s a tough world out there—but should also be wary of maudlin handwringing and nostalgia for supposedly easier times. Spending too much energy looking backward might keep the transatlantic partnership from seizing the opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate going forward.
To that end, we asked scholars to assess transatlantic cooperation on some of the most pressing current affairs, with an eye to how the quality and urgency of this cooperation has changed during Biden’s first year. At the Summit for Democracy, a Biden election promise viewed with caution in Brussels, the EU’s substantive contribution was acknowledged by giving it equal visibility, though this did not dispel some suspicions that Washington’s democracy agenda is influenced by its geopolitical one. With respect to the current crisis with Russia, U.S. officials have been shuttling to Brussels to share intelligence on Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border and have vowed to involve European partners, even if the format of the discussions seems less important in Washington than in Brussels. In the Balkans, the EU and United States have been working together to contain fallouts. In security and defense, a renewed pragmatic cooperation suggests a greater U.S. acceptance of more European autonomy in security matters. These instances are giving the relationship a new multidimensional depth and purpose.
The EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC), an early European proposal endorsed by the United States, perhaps has the best potential to exemplify the multidimensionality of the relationship. Talks in the TTC range from long-standing irritants such as tariffs to how to govern big tech. While the EU and United States have divergent principles—for instance, between top-down regulation and market-driven rules—working through practicalities can help find shared understandings. On some issues, such as corporate taxation, standoffs between the United States and EU have been solved. Finding common ground on trade provides not just a pragmatic entry point into the thorny question of how to deal with China, where tactics are not transatlantically aligned, but also to shape the future international environment based on rights and rules.
On a less encouraging note, the impact of transatlantic cooperation on the wider Middle East is still to be seen. While Washington is committed to talking with Tehran through European diplomacy, the lost ground is hard to recuperate. European officials are still uncertain about U.S. engagement in the rest of the region but are reluctant to shape a policy of their own as they lose influence and any shadow of unity. This will haunt European security as other actors gain ground in neighboring countries, from the East Mediterranean to North Africa and the Sahel. The climate dossier, one of the most urgent global issues, is where the gap between rosy expectations and commitments by the United States is widest—despite concrete progress by the Biden administration—and where EU leadership is not able to influence the domestic constraints to a greater U.S. role.
As we reflect on the last year—and look to the future—two observations stand out. The first is that the theatrics of transatlantic rapprochement following Donald Trump’s presidency—flashy, convivial June summits between the United States and the EU, the United States and the UK, the G-7, and at NATO—got the most attention as representations of positive and shared intentions. But in many ways, the thornier and more complicated work on technical issues and regulatory alignment, or the collaboration between European and U.S. diplomats in smaller capitals that are less often in headlines, are the bigger test in the coming years. The transatlantic relationship has expanded beyond the bounds of conventional trade and security policy, and the opportunities to innovate and improve transnational governance on a range of issues are dizzying. The second observation is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a growing but incomplete recognition that a deeper relationship on this wide range of issues is not a matter of convenience but rather of necessity. The brief, historical moment of U.S. unipolarity has ended, and the alternative to more robust Euro-American cooperation is a world in which global challenges are unaddressed and democracies are unsafe.
In addition to asking a collection of experts to weigh in on particular issues or regions, we conducted a pulse-check survey with a wider group of experts to get their sense of how transatlantic relations are faring across domains. In all areas, the experts see a gap between the quality of the current work being done by transatlantic partners and the urgency of achieving strong cooperation in that issue set. The graphics below each entry present a snapshot of experts’ views.
Thomas de Waal: On Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus
Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus—the six countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine that fall under the EU’s Eastern Partnership—constitute a region that seems to be in an unending, slow-motion crisis. Seen from the United States, these countries risk being perceived as a problem region, which only merits serious attention when an urgent security imperative, such as the current standoff with Russia over Ukraine, demands it. European leaders have no such option, nor a good track record on crafting a rapid response to a fast-developing security threat.
For three decades, these countries have suffered from the lasting effects of the unresolved, protracted conflicts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as poor governance and weak democratic institutions. All have taken a heavy demographic hit that is hard to measure; Ukraine held its last census in 2001 and may have lost many millions to emigration since then. In the last two years, these problems have been compounded by the public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19. Armenia and Azerbaijan went back to war. Belarus experienced an unsuccessful democratic uprising and authoritarian crackdown. Georgia is in a protracted political crisis. Ukraine is at the epicenter of a new confrontation with Russia.
It will take a generation or two to resolve all these problems. At best, the EU and the United States can stabilize the situation in the medium term and offer a helping hand to governments and civil society organizations. The two outside actors have traditionally cooperated fairly well, even despite the interruption caused by Trump’s administration. But there are fears in the region that their commitment may falter: that the United States is reducing its interest overall or that the EU lacks the unity and resolve to prevent democratic backsliding or threats from Russia.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where the issues are mainly local or regional, the EU and the United States mainly reinforce each other’s messages well and play to each other’s strengths.
But Ukraine requires harder work. Moscow is currently testing the level of Western commitment to the country with new confrontational tactics and demands. The Russians evidently would prefer to deal directly with the United States and treat not just Ukraine but also the European powers as American stooges. When Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov leaked twenty-eight pages of diplomatic correspondence from his French and German counterparts, he may have been trying to discredit the Normandy format of negotiations with Berlin and Paris over eastern Ukraine and deal directly with Washington.
To some in Moscow, it looks as though the U.S. administration accepted this bargain when Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked directly with each other on December 7 and December 30. The next challenge is to demonstrate that this was not an enduring negotiating framework. The messages need to be heard more clearly that all actors will have an equal seat at the table in talks on European security and the future of countries such as Ukraine that are the neighbors not just of Russia, but of the European Union and many other states as well.
Allison Carragher: On the Western Balkans
The Western Balkans is unique among opportunities for transatlantic cooperation because the EU has the lead and accession remains the key policy. While the United States and EU sustained strong working-level cooperation on the Balkans throughout the Trump administration, there was a disconnect with the White House. Under Biden, the transatlantic allies are again synchronized to the very top. That leadership team is also expanding. In the United States, Biden is bringing respected Balkan hands back into government with nominations such as James O’Brien and Christopher Hill. The UK, which witnessed a noteworthy parliamentary debate on Bosnia, also recently named its first special envoy for the Western Balkans. Three of the EU’s nine special representative positions are dedicated to the Western Balkans. Such personnel decisions reflect a commitment to the region and an opportunity for broader cooperation.
In the past year, concerning developments in the Western Balkans have prompted a transatlantic response. At the UN Security Council, efforts by Russia and China to terminate the EU’s peacekeeping mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) were narrowly circumvented by the United States, the UK, and France—but not without gutting the international Office of the High Representative. In September, a flare-up over license plates saw the deployment of special police, armored vehicles, and blockades on both sides of the Serbia-Kosovo border. A month later, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik announced a plan to withdraw the Republika Srpska from shared state institutions in BiH and form its own army, tax authority, and judiciary—a move many consider tantamount to secession. In each of these cases, the Western reaction was coordinated. NATO increased patrols throughout Kosovo under its peacekeeping mission. The United States and the EU issued a joint statement on the Western Balkans reiterating support for the territorial integrity of BiH, the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, and the launch of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The statement on the Republika Srpska’s separatist legislation was issued by Quint (British, French, German, Italian, and U.S.) embassies together with the EU. While coordination has improved this year, the next challenge will be translating this policy harmonization into action.
Today, the issues in the Western Balkans carry a sense of urgency not felt since the 1990s. Any escalation on the Serbia-Kosovo border or within BiH that could spark armed conflict is of primary importance. Other disputes follow political timelines with their own senses of urgency. For example, if a compromise cannot be reached with the new Bulgarian government to launch accession negotiations before North Macedonia’s parliamentary elections, there is a plausible risk of the latter’s hard-won progress toward EU membership being lost. The EU’s credibility would also crumble. Urgent global challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, cannot be overcome in this region without transatlantic assistance. The same goes for the slow-burning crises of democracy and governance, which are also acute. Lastly, the United States and the EU must remain vigilant to the rise of Russia and China in Europe’s inner courtyard.
Marc Pierini and Pierre Vimont: Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa
As Biden came into office, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was at risk of European disillusionment, with European partners expecting a fundamental change from the policy and approach during the Donald Trump years.
As foreseen, that break did not happen, and disenchantment has become the overwhelming mood in the region. Despite talk of strategic convergence, the hopes of mutual U.S. and EU engagement in the many crises riddling the Middle East have remained unfulfilled. (The exception is the Iranian nuclear negotiations, where the Biden team has lived up to expectations by joining up efforts with its three European partners.) The conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen remain today where they were one year ago. Not to mention the Middle East peace process on which none of the usual honest brokers has indicated any readiness to take the lead.
So far, the only significant change comes from the regional partners that have initiated some cautious outreach to Syrian and Iranian leaders. But these local diplomatic efforts have not served U.S. and EU interests. On the contrary, they have reinforced the impression of a serious problem of credibility for Western allies in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal. The United States further streamlining its military presence in the Middle East will likely boost the perception of the West being sidelined. Thus, the Middle East diplomatic scene is progressively finding a momentum of its own under the influence and action of the regional actors. And with the United States prioritizing its competition with China, and Europe caught in the dilemma of giving more attention to the Russian military buildup in the east or to the jihadi threat in Africa, the call for more collaboration in the Middle East between the two partners sounds out of tune.
Amid this configuration, both Europe and the United States are probably doomed to defend a status quo policy for the time being. Yet even this prudent line requires a capacity for diplomatic agility and proactiveness that Europeans collectively have not shown so far. In Syria and Yemen, Europe remains largely powerless. When facing the domestic political stalemates in Tunisia or Lebanon, it is mostly silent. Some member states such as France, Germany, and Italy have launched individual initiatives, but with little impact so far. In the meantime, this lack of strategic effectiveness is playing into the hands of Russia and China, which are reinforcing their presence and influence in the region.
Could then Turkey, as one of the main priorities for a common U.S.-EU agenda, represent a more suitable diplomatic ground for complementary action?
During the first year of the Biden administration, there were convergent evolutions between the U.S. and some EU governments regarding the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the response to give to Turkey’s assertive actions in 2020 and its procurement of Russian missile defense systems. As a result, France and the United States have upgraded their strategic cooperation agreements with Greece, including military sales, while both the United States and the EU sided with Greece on the issue of its maritime boundaries with Turkey and called for restraint.
A key issue remains to be clarified: the role of Turkey in NATO. While Ankara is keen to stress its full participation in the alliance’s activities, it has been used by Moscow as a wedge against NATO. Turkey has de facto allowed Russia to get rid of both advanced NATO missile systems and fifth-generation aircraft on its southern flank, which represents one-third of its border with NATO countries. This is no small achievement.
As the EU develops its Strategic Compass and as NATO prepares for its summit in Madrid, intense consultation between the United States, key EU members states, and EU institutions is necessary in order to safeguard Europe’s defense architecture. More broadly, the compatibility of Turkey’s bilateral actions and its participation in NATO is at stake. While the current situation between Turkey and its partners and allies is fraught—to say nothing of Turkey’s huge domestic economic challenges and rising political uncertainty—perhaps close U.S. and European collaboration can find a path to the stronger, more stable relationship that would benefit all three.
Cornelius Adbehr: On Iran
After four years of increasing transatlantic confrontation over Iran policy following America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, expectations of a joint approach with the incoming Biden administration were high. The past twelve months have seen solid cooperation, if also underwhelming progress on the dossier. Initially, the concern was that European allies might not be prepared to accommodate a decisive U.S. return to the negotiating table, as announced by Biden on the campaign trail, even though they had been the ones keeping the agreement alive. This turned into frustration over the sluggish pace of the administration to make tangible offers for a reopening of the talks.
The Islamic Republic has had its own role in stalling progress, from refusing to conclude the negotiations before a presidential election in June to slow-walking their resumption for five months after. Given the country’s advances in nuclear technology as well as in the stockpiling of highly enriched uranium, the urgency to restore the limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection regime, is obvious. However, with both Iran and the United States constrained by domestic politics that do not reward compromise with an adversary, any agreement to relax U.S. sanctions in return for the reintroduction of stringent nuclear controls will have to be carefully calibrated.
The continued focus on the nuclear file, though, belies a reality that is moving on. Israel has been establishing relations with Arab Gulf countries, and its new government is much less opposed to a nuclear accord than the previous one. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in turn, have begun to speak with Tehran directly about their security concerns, sensing that Washington is, slowly but surely, on its way out of the region. Meanwhile, Russia has gained an active security presence in the region via the Syrian theater while maintaining strong ties with Israel. Lastly, China remains a sought-after commercial partner that is gaining political clout as a result of America’s turn toward Asia.
It is these shifting geopolitical sands that should make the focus on regional cooperation an imperative for the coming year. Ideally, such a move would follow a revival or renewal of the JCPOA, the “longer and stronger” deal that Washington aspires to. However, the chances of failure increased during 2021, so a push for some kind of security arrangement is critical, especially in case talks should falter. The alternative is another violent conflagration that benefits only a handful of cynics, and not the people in the region itself.
Erik Brattberg: On Security and Defense Policy
While Biden’s team has removed any doubt about U.S. commitment to NATO after Trump’s threats—and has gone out of its way to support the EU—the past year has also seen some serious transatlantic diplomatic rifts, notably over the haphazard U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and the sudden announcement of the AUKUS security agreement in September.
These two events reinforced European concerns about shifting U.S. strategic priorities to the Indo-Pacific and triggered complaints about the inadequacy of U.S. consultation with transatlantic partners. Biden administration officials have responded by stepping up diplomatic engagement with European capitals. But the recent geopolitical turbulence between Russia and Ukraine also painfully illustrates Europe’s lack of power and influence on the world stage, prompting more voices in Europe to call for investing in European sovereignty. (The Ukraine crisis is also a clear reminder that Europe remains completely dependent on Washington for its own security for the foreseeable future.)
These broader geopolitical developments aside, the EU and the United States have made some tangible progress on improving bilateral security and defense cooperation during Biden’s first year in office, setting the stage for further progress over the next years. Notably, at the EU-U.S. summit in June, the two sides agreed on “the contribution EU security and defense initiatives can make to both European and Transatlantic security” and expressed support for further strengthening the “mutually reinforcing key strategic partnership” between the EU and NATO.
The summit also agreed to establish a dedicated EU-U.S. security and defense dialogue, which is slated to hold its inaugural meeting in early 2022. One of the topics the dialogue will address is U.S. participation in EU defense initiatives. Following an EU agreement to allow third parties to participate in EU defense initiatives under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework, the United States joined a project on military mobility and has expressed interest in exploring others. Another positive development is long-overdue progress on finalizing an administrative arrangement between the United States and the European Defence Agency, which could allow for greater U.S. participation in future EU defense industrial projects. Other areas where the EU and the United States are expected to enhance dialogue include cyber, climate security, and disruptive technologies.
This progress reflects the Biden administration’s determined efforts to move beyond Trump’s unhelpful criticisms of coordinated EU defense schemes. In his joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron in October to patch over the AUKUS debacle, Biden acknowledged “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense that . . . is complementary to NATO.” Yet even with this shift in rhetoric, Biden administration officials still prefer to see their European counterparts talk less about strategic autonomy and focus more on making practical and specific progress on strengthening European defense capabilities.
Going forward there is likely to be more progress between Brussels and Washington on security and defense cooperation. The Biden administration sees the EU as a partner of first resort and wants to raise the level of ambition in the relationship. This more pragmatic and encouraging U.S. position toward EU defense cooperation is long overdue. It has the potential to foster a healthier transatlantic balance where European countries gradually assume more responsibilities for their own security in exchange for continued U.S. commitment.
But what ultimately matters even more is whether the EU can finally demonstrate that it indeed is a serious security and defense player. The forthcoming release of the new EU Strategic Compass later this spring—alongside NATO’s new Strategic Concept—is a crucial test as to whether European leaders are ready to seize the momentum. With security threats proliferating in Europe’s neighborhood, they may soon not have a choice.
Lizza Bomassi and Paul Haenle: On China
When Biden took office, it was expected that the United States would look to repair transatlantic ties before trying to set out a common agenda vis-a-vis China. To this end, Washington acted swiftly to rejoin multilateral institutions, resolve transatlantic trade disputes, and refocus efforts on shared global challenges. These efforts went a long way toward strengthening transatlantic cooperation on policy toward China and clearly paid off in areas such as climate and human rights. However, there remain other areas where full alignment has been more challenging—in technology, trade, and security.
Part of the reason for this divergence in the U.S.-EU relationship, as we wrote previously, is that while the EU and the United States share similar assessments of China, their policy responses are invariably conditioned by local and regional circumstances. As a regional organization with many small- and medium-sized members, the EU avoids making binary choices between Washington and Beijing. This is undoubtedly somewhat frustrating for the United States, which sees China as one of its top foreign policy priorities.
Yet while the relationship has been dogged by hiccups, such as the unexpected (at least from the EU side) U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the announcement of AUKUS in September, transatlantic ties are stronger overall than they were one year ago. This sets the stage for more robust cooperation on China going forward.
Meanwhile, 2021 was an eventful year in Chinese politics and foreign policy. Many of these developments make a strong case for Washington and Brussels to agree—at least in principle—to the top lines, or guiding principles, where there should be no ambiguity in policy. In the beginning of the year, China passed its Fourteenth Five-Year Plan, including ambitious targets to achieve “self-reliance” in key science and technology fields. The new U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council could provide a platform for transatlantic partners to protect their science and technology ecosystems and invest in new and innovative technologies. On the economic front, the U.S.-China Phase 1 trade deal, which expired at the end of 2021, could present an opportunity for the United States and the EU to better align their trade policies toward China, especially given the impasse on the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. In the security field, China continues to assert its expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea and take aggressive actions toward Taiwan. The United States and the EU can do more to reinforce their position that disputes be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law. Germany, under the new chancellorship of Olaf Scholz, is already giving indications that it will take a harder line on China than under former chancellor Angela Merkel. Finally, at home, China has been undergoing a rapid political tightening in the run-up to the Twentieth Party Congress later this year.
It is fair to say that the United States and the EU have not always treated China with the urgency that it deserves. This is partly because of how China is categorized (either as a rival, competitor, or ally) depending on the issue of the day. This strategy has served the EU well thus far, allowing for the type of nuanced approach to geopolitics that the EU excels at. Yet, as Merkel recently lamented, Germany may have been “too naive in [its] approach to some cooperation partnerships.” Building on their closer alignment in 2021, the United States and the EU should continue to advocate that China adhere to international norms on governance and human rights. China is a formidable power that will continue to present long-term challenges to the international system, even as the three sides work together to solve global challenges like climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Anu Bradford and Raluca Csernatoni: On Technology
After the friction-filled era under Trump, Europe has welcomed the new U.S. administration with optimism. Consistent with Biden’s lifelong commitment to transatlanticism, this past year has witnessed a shift in U.S. diplomatic rhetoric, from outright hostility toward a more normalized tone supporting enhanced EU-U.S. collaboration. This is also the case for the technological domain, with Washington demonstrating its eagerness to build coalitions with European allies and other techno-democracies to counter the rise of authoritarian China.
Most concretely, the Biden administration has been supportive of the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which had its inaugural meeting in September 2021 and serves as a forum for the EU and United States to coordinate their trade and technology policy approaches based on shared democratic values. The TTC offers a significant opportunity to make progress in aligning transatlantic interests in artificial intelligence regulation, technological standards setting, security of supply chains, screening foreign direct investments and exports, and increasing cybersecurity resilience.
The TTC was launched in the shadow of the transatlantic drama over AUKUS, so it is too early to tell whether it can successfully address present and future tech challenges and renew the transatlantic bond. The AUKUS incident shows that for all the talk of revived transatlanticism, the United States will act, as it always has, in its own strategic interests. AUKUS further confirms that China takes center stage in U.S. geopolitical calculations, with the EU risking to become an afterthought.
There are also long-standing tensions between Brussels and Washington regarding technology regulation. The United States has in the past accused the EU of targeting U.S. tech companies with its stringent antitrust and data protection rules. And it is now watching closely how the EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act will affect U.S. interests. Transatlantic data flows also remain precarious after the European Court of Justice has twice invalidated the agreement that governed EU-U.S. data transfers.
However, the U.S. policy conversation is now shifting closer to the EU, with an increasing recognition in the country that big tech has become too powerful. The Biden administration is looking to revive antitrust enforcement against certain companies, while Congress is debating more interventionist technology regulations targeting market competition, privacy, and content moderation. These policy developments suggest that the transatlantic gap may be gradually closing, even though it remains unclear whether this new rhetoric will translate into actual policy change in the United States.
Building on these developments, the EU should actively engage on its own terms with the United States and other democratic countries around shared values and norms regarding responsible technological innovation, the preservation of an open and safe cyberspace, and the development of human-centric disruptive technologies. Beyond leveraging regulation, the EU should also aim to operationalize its digital and technological sovereignty in critical areas and build its open strategic autonomy in the face of the growing tech rivalry between the United States and China. This also means the creation of a more cohesive EU external tech policy agenda to deal collectively with contested policy choices, such as whether to welcome the Chinese tech company Huawei to build 5G networks across Europe.
Yet the EU’s pursuit to boost its homegrown technological and digital capacity and to reduce dependencies on others, including the United States, might raise concerns about growing protectionism and further deepen the transatlantic rift. The EU may similarly be concerned that the United States has engaged in protectionist actions in support of its own high-tech industries, while publicly advocating the techno-globalism promoted by big tech. To avoid shifts to techno-nationalism, both the EU and United States should reject this emerging global norm and recommit to open markets. To mitigate and counter the negative effects of techno-nationalist policies, the EU should promote both new policy instruments for critical infrastructure protections in the case of key strategic technologies and at the same time boost the competitiveness of the European innovation ecosystem.
Neither the EU nor the United States can safeguard their democratic, economic, technological, and strategic interests alone. Instead, they need to seize the opportunity the TTC presents to deepen EU-U.S. ties and shape the global trade and technology policy toward their shared values. There is no better path for preserving the liberal democratic foundations of the global internet.
Olivia Lazard: On Climate
In April 2021, Biden announced that the United States would become climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest, and that it would reduce greenhouse gas emission by at least 52 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030. This pledge alone makes Biden the most climate-progressive president in U.S. history, even though the pledge is more modest than EU or UK plans.
But bringing the United States into the climate fight is proving harder than planned. At home, the American landscape is marked by bitter infighting. The Senate passed the infrastructure bill, which allocates billions of dollars to prepare for climate change, but the Build Back Better bill, which would devote billions to clean energy, remains stalled. Partisan politics weaken U.S. credibility and effectiveness abroad and diminish its ability to partner with transatlantic allies who are ploughing ahead on climate planning.
The Biden administration was expected to have trouble quickly steering the climate ship in the opposite direction of the Trump years. But a larger development makes U.S.-EU cooperation on climate even more difficult: The United States sees the world through the lens of current geopolitical realities, thereby overlooking the urgency of climate action, rather than seizing it as an opportunity to help reshape geopolitics in the face of accelerating and devastating climate disruptions. As a result, Washington fails to use leverage with its partners to deploy exponential action and actually widens trust and action gaps on both security and climate issues.
One example was the AUKUS deal. The United States partnered with Australia without using the deal as a way to obtain much firmer climate action ahead of COP26. Australia remains one of the strongest climate delayers among liberal democracies, pumping up coal use at home and through exports, mostly to Asia. In addition to antagonizing European partners, the deal missed an opportunity to use supply chain dependencies to usher transition tipping points, and tie global security to the fight against climate change.
At the same time, Washington lacks a vision of strategic leadership in multilateral forums, despite claimed support for them. For example, this manifested in the U.S.-China climate agreement. The language on “inefficient” fossil subsidies was extracted from the U.S.-China agreement, which was itself considered a win in the countries’ current standoff, even though the agreement contains little breakthrough other than mentioning cooperation on methane. But the language used led to the watering down of the final Glasgow Pact—a bitter pill for the majority of the international community. China and the United States keep binding the world into the timid commitments they are willing to make.
The weakening of language was a political letdown for the EU and the UK, which had geared climate diplomacy toward high mitigation ambitions. This was crucial to bridge trust gaps with climate-vulnerable countries, such as small state islands. A key factor for the latter was negotiations on “loss and damage”—compensation for the destruction already caused by climate change. These talks proved to be yet another disappointment, primarily from the United States, whose negotiators stalled talks in the final week. The small state islands then agreed to park loss and damage negotiations, as long as strong language on mitigation could be adopted within the final COP26 pact. They got neither, solidifying mistrust at the start of the climate decade.
In addition, while the United States did upgrade its pledges on climate finance, it failed to step up on action aligning with its historical and current responsibilities, further illustrating that its climate diplomacy is big on communication but lacks substance on content. And two weeks after COP26, the United States auctioned off 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to fossil industries, adding another straw to the camel’s back. Biden may not be chanting “America first,” but its echo still resonates too loudly in the face of devastating climate disruptions and the urgent need for collective action. Cooperation with Washington is certainly vital yet remains weak at best—and damaging at worst for transatlantic partners.
Two areas of climate cooperation have proved effective in the past year. The first one is the global methane pledge, which the EU and the United States both initiated. This was low-hanging fruit, but successfully seized. In the second, Washington, with support from transatlantic partners, put together the First Movers Coalition to address the supply-and-demand dilemma for low-carbon technologies currently in development. The focus on technologies is the way forward within the transatlantic relationship for now, until the United States moves into a better political-economic position to address fundamental changes at home and abroad. The danger to avoid will remain to give technologies their fair share within climate solutions, without falling into techno-solutionism.
Richard Youngs: On International Democracy
After the strains evident during Trump’s presidency, U.S. and European governments are back to talking constructively about coordinating their efforts to support and defend democracy. For now, these moves remain tentative, and it may take some time fully to restore mutual trust.
When the United States has coordinated on sanctions in the past year, it has been with Australia, Canada, and the UK more than with the EU—even if the latter has moved in a broadly similar direction in applying restrictive measures related to human rights. Biden’s mismanaged retreat from Afghanistan, decided without significant consultation with European allies, is likely to have a negative spillover to the prospects for transatlantic democracy–related missions in the future.
Most focus has been on the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy, rather than the traditional avenues of purely transatlantic cooperation. The Biden administration’s first such summit attracted the participation of more than one hundred governments, and a second gathering is planned for the end of 2022 after a “year of action” designed to give substance to this emergent process. The EU has had to position itself in relation to this broad, international, U.S.-led initiative.
In general terms, the summit process matches the calls the EU has been making for many years for wider multilateral coalitions on democracy and human rights issues—although these policies have not done a great deal in practice to inject content behind such calls. European governments favored a so-called big tent approach of including a large number of countries in the summit process, rather than only those with high scores in democracy rankings. In this, the United States and the EU seem to concur that the priority in today’s geopolitically challenging context is to broaden democratic coordination beyond the transatlantic community and make this as inclusive of as many states as possible.
Notwithstanding some shared momentum behind the summit process, the EU institutions and European governments are still not fully in line with U.S. policies on democracy and human rights. They disliked what they saw as a rather ad hoc and expedient way in which the United States decided unilaterally who to invite and not invite to the summit. The U.S. decision not to invite Hungary cost the EU its formal place at the summit, as the Hungarian government vetoed EU attendance when it was excluded. Most crucially, many in the EU and other democracies around the world suspect the Biden administration is conflating democracy support with its own geopolitical positioning, toward China in particular.
Even if the United States and the EU are broadly back on the same page with regard to democracy and human rights, they both face daunting challenges to sustain or re-establish any kind of credence in this agenda. Both U.S. and European agencies spend sizeable amounts on democracy projects but often struggle to ensure that these have much impact.
And with both U.S. and European democracy in a fragile state, many doubt that either the United States or the EU now have much moral legitimacy in pressing other governments for democratic reform.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for their support of this publication.