But in the long, quiet corridors of Washington politics, a different picture of the government’s attitude towards Europe emerges. There, China is the clear, even obsessive focus of Biden’s foreign policy. From the perspective of the new administration, it is the global and ideological challenge of the next generation, the clear successor to the Cold War and the War on Terror as an organizational principle of American foreign policy. To meet this generational challenge, every other foreign policy issue must be subordinated to a global conflict with an equal competitor. White House meetings with titles like “China and Latin America”, “China and 5G” and “China and Climate” follow this script.
Allies, Biden officials often say and even seem to believe America’s main advantage in the fight against China. European allies are an important part of this nascent anti-Chinese alliance network, but unlike during the Cold War, Europe is no longer the central front. At best, it can play a supporting role in the American fight against Chinese authoritarianism.
All the summit and diplomatic attention aside, the Biden government’s early actions show that it does not believe that Europe will ever be vital to this new geopolitical battle. A president known as a longtime transatlantic champion has no longer given European politics a priority. Given the government’s many foreign policy problems, this reluctance is understandable. But it is missing out on a long-term opportunity to fuel the growth of a more effective, geopolitical European partner who could work with the United States to help face the rise of China.
The fact that Europe is not a priority for Biden is already reflected in the personnel and political decisions of his government. Biden created powerful new “coordinator” positions on the National Security Council for the Indo-Pacific and Middle East and filled them with seasoned officials, Kurt Campbell and Brett McGurk, respectively, who are known for their ability to advance bureaucracy. But the government has not created a similar position for Europe.
This reflects the fact that the Middle East is more problematic than Europe, while America’s Asian partners – Japan, South Korea, Australia and India – are more important to the central struggle with China than distant Europeans. It is significant that the Japanese Prime Minister and the South Korean President were the first and so far only foreign leaders to visit Biden’s Covid-restricted White House.
The Biden administration has not yet gotten around to lifting the Trump-era tariffs on European steel and aluminum, which were imposed for supposed reasons of national security (talks on the subject finally started in mid-May). It upheld the Covid-inspired travel ban for the EU. the reversal of the Trump administration January the late decision to end it. And it essentially hung up Europeans out to dry when they suddenly reversed policies on whether Covid-19 vaccines should have intellectual property protection. On this issue, the government seems to have decided to become Europeans look like the bad guys That would allow the United States to compete with China in vaccine diplomacy.
In general, the Biden team has established a pattern of working with Europe in which, while being superficial, they pay relatively little attention to European issues. US consultations with European allies took place immediately prior to the announcement of the decision on major matters affecting Europeans, such as the decision to protect the vaccine and the decision to withdraw NATO forces from Afghanistan (most of which are Europeans). This is a big improvement over the Trump years when Europeans often found out about important US decisions via tweet or through the press. But there is still a lack of real partnership. European officials have complained privately about this pattern, sometimes loud. But even when European officials objected to the decision-making process in Afghanistan, they did voted unanimously in favor of NATO’s support for the plan.
This pattern confirms a widespread feeling in US government circles that Europeans almost inevitably complain about a lack of input in US decision-making processes, but never do anything about it. The absence of real consultation does not diminish European support and broad consultation does not increase it. Why make time-consuming compromises when the end result is about the same?
The government’s prioritization of China even extends to the one European policy issue that took up the time of Biden’s early government, the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Germany supports the project while many of America’s Central and Eastern European allies – and some strong voices in the US Congress – oppose it on the grounds that it will increase Russian influence in Europe. Alluding to the German government, Biden has According to reports, decided not to sanction the German company that is building the pipeline.
When giving reasons for the decision White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki nwritten down how important it is to have good relationships with Germany, adding, “We make a number of decisions based on a number of global factors.” The global factor in question was almost certainly China – Germany is China’s largest customer and largest supplier in Europe and the main European ally in managing the rise of China. Overall, the government has taken a tough stance on Russia and sanctioned the Russian companies involved in Nord Stream 2. But their careful calibration shows that maintaining a common front against China with Germany takes precedence over maintaining solidarity with the Central and Eastern European allies with regard to Russia.
Biden’s reasons for not prioritizing European allies go beyond geography. There is considerable skepticism in Washington that a divided, self-serving Europe will ever generate much support for US efforts against China. After decades of waiting for a more effective and geopolitically minded Europe, after endless, frustrating efforts to get Europeans to spend as much as 2 percent of GDP on defense, and after seeing yet another demonstration of Europe’s chronic ineptitude during the pandemic Taking action together, US officials have largely come to the conclusion that Europe will never be able to fend for itself, let alone contribute to security in other regions. Many in Europe seem to agree.
As a result, Europe has become, above all, a place where speeches and diplomacy are given in picturesque locations. American officials will continue to emerge and initiate the ritual incantations of transatlantic solidarity. They will continue to urge Europeans to spend more on defense and to support US efforts to “manage China’s rise”.
But US politicians no longer believe in Europe’s ability to do much beyond maintaining transatlantic economic ties (which are still very important). Europeans’ reluctance to spend on defense means they will not be major geopolitical actors in East Asia; their addiction to the Chinese market means they will never fully support the American campaign of geoeconomic pressure on China; and, as Brexit so vividly demonstrated recently, their chronic internal divisions mean they would never be effective in these efforts, even if they wanted to. However, Europe’s democratic values and long alliance with America also mean that China can never turn Europeans against the United States. In short, Europe is not the solution to America’s all-consuming China-politics obsession, but neither is it the problem.
It’s hard to blame a busy new government for giving Europe a low priority. In the longer term, however, the United States and Europe are both missing out on an important opportunity to forge a real partnership that would improve their skills in dealing with issues such as China, Russia and even climate change.
The main problem is neither American arrogance nor European weakness. Rather, it is the toxic interaction between the two. For over 70 years, the United States and its allies in Europe have formed a profound cycle of interdependence in which American frustration with European inaction has encouraged US governments to treat European allies like teenagers who cannot be trusted they take care of themselves. As is so often the case with teenagers, this tutelage has only fueled further European irresponsibility and confirmed the original American impulse. Together, the two sides have formed a tacit US-European conspiracy to turn Europe into a geopolitical backwater.
It is a great loss for both parties. Americans will want deep and genuine European support in what is certainly a long struggle for the rise of China. Europeans say – and in some ways probably think so too – that they want to be geopolitical actors in the world and share responsibility for shaping the new international system that is emerging. Together, the United States, the EU and the United Kingdom could achieve these goals, but there is no evidence that either of them is ready to break the cycle of interdependence. But at least we can be confident that the summit press conferences will go well.