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Foreign Policy

Biden’s New West

Mar 11, 2021
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Recently, through speeches at the G7 meeting, the Munich Security Conference and the U.S. State Department, along with his announcement of the U.S. return to the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, new U.S. President Joe Biden has shown his respect for traditional values in the U.S. and Europe, and European countries have recognized it.

It can be said that the transatlantic relationship again shows some of the cohesion that disappeared in the past four years. Judging from Biden's speeches, he is not only interested in rebuilding U.S. relations with allies but, more important, revitalizing Western values, increasing internal ties within the West, restoring U.S. leadership within the West and even recreating a “New West.”

But back in the real world, the U.S. and Europe will find that the Trump damage is not so easy to repair, and that there are many long-standing problems between the two sides, so that the New West is easier said than done.

First, the U.S.-Europe bond of interests and shared values has weakened over the past four years, and Europe may not follow the many calls made by the United States. Biden’s speeches not only signaled cooperation with Europe but also made a lot of demands. He hoped that European leaders would join him in defending Western values, preparing for long-term competition with China and resisting the Russian threat.

But if the United States checks its trading partners, it will find that the economic, trade and investment cooperation between China and Europe has been strengthened in the past few years, and now China has replaced the United States as the EU's top trading partner.

More than simply competing with China, Europe wants to continue to increase cooperation with China and expand its own interests. More important, European politicians know very well that the situation has increasingly shown that it is almost impossible to slow down China’s rising momentum, and confronting it will do more harm than good.

Russia is, after all, Europe’s close neighbor, and Europe does not want to stalemate relations. French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that Europe and Russia will continue their dialogue in the next step.

In the wake of the Navalny incident, and despite very negative views within Europe, the newly adopted sanctions against Russia are still only symbolic and do not involve sensitive areas.

How to treat China and Russia is only one aspect. In recent years, the U.S. and Europe’s respective perceptions of Western values are also changing significantly. Mutual disdain is growing rapidly. So it will not be easy for the U.S. to stay close with Europe based on shared values.

Second, Europe is still distrustful of the United States, and Biden will find it difficult to reverse that situation in the short term. Trump made Europeans understand what is called the “uncertainty of a great power.” Polling shows that more than one third of Europeans think the United States is unreliable. This distrust, once established, is not something a change of government can resolve.

In particular, the U.S.  experienced frequent domestic chaos in the last election cycle, including the storming of the Capitol by angry citizens and the second impeachment of Trump, both of which are unprecedented. The United States’ credibility and appeal have thus been seriously weakened.

At the Munich Security Conference, Biden was effusive and even obsequious, to which Merkel and Macron responded in a calm and cool manner. Merkel also pointed out the many problems in current U.S.-European relations.

In fact, the United States is also aware of these. There is a view that to regain the trust of its allies and partners, it ought to be important for the United States to reassure them that the policies and agreements signed by each U.S. administration will not change significantly. But it’s difficult for the United States to make such assurances, and it will be tough for Biden.

Currently, Trump has strong support behind him, and in four years, he himself or his imitators or successors are bound to try to make a comeback, so there is a great deal of uncertainty about whether Biden can be re-elected. Once a new Trump comes to power, Europe is likely to suffer for second time.

That being the case, it is best for Europe not to stick to the Biden government without reservation. Some level of suspicion and reservation are necessary.

Third, the United States and Europe are each facing many internal problems, seriously compressing the space for mutual cooperation. Behind Biden is a highly fractured U.S. society, with the two major political parties at loggerheads and most of the Democrats’ proposals meeting relentless Republican opposition.

The new administration's $1.9 trillion relief package is difficult to pass after such severe blows as the pandemic and election turmoil, as well as the urgent need for national infrastructure development.

The EU hopes the U.S. will do something about climate change and the Iranian nuclear issue, and Biden has indeed taken diplomatic action. But given the domestic opposition, the U.S. may not be able to satisfy the EU in the end. Europe itself has many weaknesses that constrain its cooperation with the United States.

Biden will probably continue to stick to the hard line on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but Germany is heavily dependent on Russia for energy, and the suspension of the pipeline will impact Germany’s national security. At present, the pipeline remains under construction despite pressure from the United States. In addition, Germany is currently in a special period of leadership transition, and it’s difficult for it to make major changes in internal or external policies.

Brexit has dealt a serious blow to the EU, and the need to bridge the budget gap requires member states to raise their level of payments, which has triggered strong discontent and weakened the already weak cohesion. Europe will face fierce internal disputes over many of its future issues.

Fourth, the two sides will soon encounter specific differences, and the way to deal with these problems will foreshadow the future of transatlantic relations.

In addition to Nord Stream 2, the U.S. and Europe have long-standing differences on NATO, trade and science and technology, although they are dealing with them in a more traditional way. Under Trump, the U.S. adopted a series of highly offensive policies, and Trump himself was very disrespectful of European leaders, leading to an acute split in relations between the U.S. and Europe.

Over the past few years, the U.S.-European airline industry subsidy dispute has continued to worsen, with both sides taking retaliatory measures. Trump also announced before he left office that he would impose punitive tariffs on some products from France and Germany. Europe, on the other hand, is preparing to impose a digital tax on U.S. internet companies, and the two sides have been engaged in several rounds of games on the issue.

Europe's upcoming carbon tariffs will also have a big impact on U.S. companies. The U.S. does not have uniform domestic carbon pricing, and entering the EU's carbon emissions trading system would mean handing over the rule-making power to the EU, which is also unacceptable to the U.S.

Biden had worked in the White House for eight years as vice president and has participated in various capacities in interactions between the U.S. and Europe. He knows a lot of people, and his series of political initiatives after taking office exude a familiar flavor, as if he is acting according to his political memory.

But the world has changed a lot in the past four years, and the U.S. and Europe are very different from what they were before. Trump may not be just a short-lived shock; many of the changes he brought are structural. If Biden relies solely on his political memory to promote U.S.-European relations, expecting to return to the Western world of the past, I am afraid that many of his hopes will fail.

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