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Foreign Policy

Good Old Days are Gone

Nov 23, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

When news came that Joe Biden had decisively defeated Donald Trump and was president-elect, most of Europe breathed a sigh of relief, believing that four years of Trump’s fire and fury will fade. People are expressing optimism about transatlantic relations, with suggestions that a reset of alliances will emerge and that the West will act as a team on the world stage.

But more levelheaded people are of the view that transatlantic ties will never go back to the good old days, and in fact the schism between the two sides may only deepen over time. 

It’s true that Biden, a staunch supporter of the transatlantic alliance, will reaffirm support to the EU, reassure NATO, rejoin the Paris agreement and reinforce the WHO and other international organizations. He will engage with Iran to reinstate or improve the nuclear deal repudiated by Trump. Biden will see Europe as a partner, which could usher in a honeymoon period.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is not what is was four years ago. Against all the odds concerning his out-and-out lies about unprecedented health and economic crises, Trump still managed to get nearly half of American voters to endorse him.

Without a doubt, there are wool-over-their-eyes voters, but not all those who voted for Trump are gullible or uninformed. They stick with Trump knowing his foibles full well. Faced with a highly divisive and polarized society, Biden will feel immediate strain in crafting and acting on his foreign policy, given his diminished leeway. It is impossible for him to reject Trump’s policies outright and do an about-face on EU policy.

Protracted disagreements will persist. Biden will continue demanding that Germany and other countries continue to raise defense spending, and he’ll continue to block the Nord Stream 2 project between Russia and Germany. Biden may not withdraw troops from Germany as Trump did, but neither will he commit more resources to transatlantic defenses, as increased spending on Europe means reduced spending on R&D on advanced weapons for the Asia-Pacific region.

In the meantime, Biden may rally the U.S. alliance against China. Here is a dilemma: An EU quest for supranational sovereignty carries less value for the U.S., but a Europe that navigates the middle ground between the U.S. and China is of even less help. The latter scenario will render the EU less sovereign and less secure.

Europe has a different  perception of a security threat because of its geographical proximity to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa, all of which are conflict-prone. When conflicts break out, the U.S. usually sits idly by or even muddies the waters, rather than playing a positive role in stabilizing the regional situation. Because of the different perception of what constitutes a threat, competition between the U.S. and Europe may emerge.

In the same vein, Europe is not what it was four years ago. The baptism of fire under the Trump administration has brought home the message that the U.S. is not to be trusted, and Europe must take matters into its own hands. French Foreign Minister  Jean-Yves Le Drian told an ambassador to European countries that in an increasingly cruel world, Europe must banish all wishful thinking and be the master of its own fate; otherwise, others will come to dictate the fate of Europe.

What has changed is that in the past four years Europe safeguarded its sovereignty through the military and strategically independent means. In a nutshell, Europe seeks to become a global pole and pursue an independent foreign policy rather than reducing itself to a tool of U.S. foreign policy. As such, Europe has become more adamant and confident in pursuing its own interests.

According to the arbitration report released by the World Trade Organization in October, as the U.S. government has consistently provided subsidies to Boeing in violation of the rules, the EU is entitled to impose tariffs on U.S. commodities and services. Surprisingly, the EU will not wait until Biden comes into office to negotiate a package solution to trade disputes. It passed resolutions that impose tariffs on U.S. imports that will cast a shadow over U.S.-EU economic and trade relations.

The EU has also crafted an agreement on the participation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, with the aim of deepening defense cooperation with EU members, promoting defense integration across the EU, including development of commanding centers, manufacturing drones, building jet fighters and upgrading tanks. Non-EU countries need to comply with EU rules to take part in these programs, such as bringing added-value, avoiding disparaging the defense interests of the EU and ensuring access to these programs across Europe.

Trump promised revenge should the U.S. be denied access to these programs. It is no secret that Europe released the new PESCO agreement to boost its strategic independence, bearing the the U.S. and UK in mind.

Europe is translating the technological sovereignty slogan into action. There have been rounds of fierce debate on digital taxation, digital protection and data storage, but agreements remain elusive. After repeated postponements, France has announced it will start levying a digital tax on U.S. tech juggernauts. How the U.S. government will respond remains to be seen.

On other issues, both sides insist the other should reach out first, as negotiations have reached a stalemate. 2021 may mark the beginning of a digital trade war between the U.S. and EU.

Having said that, the EU and U.S. remain highly interdependent and share many intertwined interests, so cooperation between them will remain close. Confrontation and competition will rise, but they will begin to pivot to others when crafting their foreign policies. So, it will be difficult for the transatlantic alliance to go back to the good old days, even with Biden as president of the United States. 

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