A US foreign policy that is increasingly focused on strategic competition with China will – whoever is president – subordinate relationships with European allies to this overriding priority.
Atlanticists tend to view the 2020 US presidential election as a make-or-break moment. They argue that the transatlantic relationship has already been damaged by the presidency of Donald Trump, and that a second term might deliver the fatal blow not just to the relationship, but to the liberal international order of which it is often seen to be a part. A Biden administration, in contrast, would recommit to the US’s long-standing alliances and to multilateralism, and work with its allies on European security and developing a coordinated transatlantic approach to China – increasingly the focus in the relationship between Europe and the US.
This chapter argues that the implications of the 2020 election for the transatlantic relationship are not quite as clear-cut as this view suggests. Even before Trump was elected as president in 2016, the transatlantic relationship was already in a kind of structural crisis. The increasing focus of US foreign policy on China and the resultant pressure on resources has for some years intensified discussions about burden-sharing: as president, Barack Obama went so far as to describe European allies as ‘free riders’. As US foreign policy becomes increasingly focused on strategic competition with China and subordinates relationships with long-standing allies to that overriding priority, Europe will be faced with difficult choices – whoever is president.
In Europe, meanwhile, Trump’s presidency has put momentum behind the idea of ‘European sovereignty’, something that Atlanticists who believe that Europe and the US can cooperate on China tend to underestimate. Even if Trump is re-elected in November, Europeans are unlikely to achieve ‘strategic autonomy’. Rather, Europe is likely to be divided, as France and like-minded member states seek to develop defence initiatives within the EU, while others such as Poland look to further bilateralize their security relationship with the US. But – regardless of who is in the White House next year – the notion of ‘European sovereignty’ will limit Europe’s willingness to defer to the US on China policy.
The structural crisis of the transatlantic relationship
While Trump clearly represents a break in US policy towards Europe, that break is not quite as dramatic as might first appear. Atlanticists seem to imagine that until Trump became president, the US had been consistently supportive of the European project. But while it is true that the impetus for the first steps towards European integration came from the US – in this sense it can even be seen as an American project – the US has gradually become less unequivocal in its support for what became the EU. There have also been partisan differences: broadly, Democratic presidents have historically been more supportive of the EU than have Republicans.
The tendency among Atlanticists to idealize US policy towards Europe before Trump entered the White House obscures the pressures on the transatlantic relationship that were already evident prior to his run for the presidency in 2016. In recent decades, Europe has come under increasing pressure to take greater responsibility for its own security as the US has declined in relative terms and has become more and more focused – particularly in response to the rise of China – on what is now termed the Indo-Pacific. A consequence of this has been an effort to reduce US commitments in parts of the world, such as Europe, that are no longer seen as critical to the US, or that are able to maintain security without significant US help – what Dan Hamilton has called ‘selective burden shedding’.
The uncertainty about the US security guarantee towards Europe that followed Trump’s election four years ago intensified the ongoing debate about the future of NATO, and in particular created momentum in Europe around the French concept of ‘strategic autonomy’. In practice, however, collective security in Europe has become more bilateralized, as countries like Poland have sought to negotiate separately with the US in an effort to win greater commitments for themselves. Debates about European security were already further complicated by the UK’s decision to leave the EU: while the UK remained unconditionally committed to European security, it reduced the military resources available for defence integration within the EU.
The China challenge
These issues around burden-sharing will continue regardless of the outcome of the presidential election in November – and will be exacerbated by the pressure on US resources of dealing with the rise of China. US foreign policy has become even more focused on China under President Trump than it was with the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. Trump has notably adopted a more confrontational stance on China than did his predecessor; and has also drawn a line under Obama’s China strategy by following through on his 2016 election pledge to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was a central element of the ‘pivot’. Instead, Trump has sought to radically alter the US–China economic relationship by taking a more protectionist approach to trade.
In doing so, Trump largely abandoned Washington’s efforts, begun under the Obama administration, to work with European allies on Asia policy. Indeed, in 2018 the Trump administration went so far as to impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium from the EU as well as from China. After the EU failed to secure an exemption from the tariffs, it retaliated with counter-tariffs on US products. It was in the context of these escalating tensions over trade, and the imposition of new economic sanctions that would penalize European companies that continue to do business in Iran, that the concept of ‘European sovereignty’ took hold.
A consensus has now emerged in Washington around the idea of ‘strategic competition’ with China.
A consensus has now emerged in Washington around the idea of ‘strategic competition’ with China. But it is far from clear that there is a transatlantic consensus. There has been much discussion of the shift in thinking on China in Europe, particularly since the publication of a European Commission paper in March 2019 that described China as a ‘systemic rival’ – leading some analysts to speculate that Europe and the US may be moving towards a joint approach. But although many Europeans want to pursue a tougher strategy in order to ‘level the playing field’ on economic issues, few want to see a more comprehensive ‘decoupling’ from the Chinese economy. In fact, German companies like BASF and Volkswagen have doubled down on production in China in recent years by building new plants in China.
With the exception of France and the UK, which have carried out naval operations in the South China Sea, European states do not want to get involved in territorial issues in the Asia-Pacific region, which they tend to regard as a struggle for primacy between China and the US. Moreover, although Europeans often claim that human rights are a ‘European value’, they have also shown a reluctance to take a stand on issues such as China’s treatment of Uighurs, on which the US has become increasingly vocal. (And at an institutional level, any member state can block a statement or even a discussion on such matters by the EU.) In fact, many EU member states may see attempts to push them into alignment with US policy – for example through economic sanctions on Chinese companies that would have a secondary impact on European firms – as a violation of ‘European sovereignty’.
A second Trump administration
It is almost as difficult to predict what a second Trump term might look like as it was to predict, four years ago, how his first term might unfold. Perhaps the biggest questions for Europe will be around the future of NATO, from which Trump threatened to withdraw the US – though opposition in Congress will likely prevent him following through on this. If Trump is re-elected in November, a second term would certainly give further momentum to the proponents of ‘European sovereignty’. It is also possible in this context that Europe – and in particular Germany – might increase defence spending to the extent that would be necessary for Europe to ‘take its destiny into its own hands’, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel (herself due to leave office next year) has previously said it should. If this were to happen, it might actually make the transatlantic relationship more sustainable in the medium term by finally rebalancing it.
However, it is unlikely that even a second term for Donald Trump would be enough to bring about such a dramatic shift in European security policy. Even if the logic for ‘strategic autonomy’ becomes more compelling, the huge difficulties in achieving it would remain. What is more likely is that four more years of the Trump administration would result in further division in Europe between those EU member states like France that support ‘strategic autonomy’ and those like Poland that seek instead to deepen their bilateral security ties with the US (and perhaps other security providers like the UK). The withdrawal of US troops from Germany, recently announced by the Trump administration, would go ahead – and likely be followed by further steps along these lines.
Beyond the question of European security, there could also be an intensification of the conflict between Europe and the US on economic issues. A second Trump administration might go further in imposing tariffs on European exports – in particular on automobiles, as the president has repeatedly threatened. It would also likely increase economic pressure on China, which would indirectly affect Europe. In particular, the US might be expected to go further in imposing sanctions on Chinese companies, with the potential for a secondary impact on European firms. This would cause notable friction with Germany, whose companies are resistant to the idea of ‘decoupling’ with China.
A Biden presidency
From a European perspective, an administration led by Joe Biden would feel very different to a second Trump administration. A Biden administration can be expected to publicly embrace the transatlantic relationship, and this would be welcomed by many in Europe. It would align much more closely with Europeans on a range of issues such as climate change. It would also be much more supportive of the EU than Trump has been. Its instinct would be to work closely with Germany, which many of Biden’s foreign policy team admire. On the other hand, it is likely to want to downgrade the relationship with the UK – at least while Boris Johnson, who is widely seen by Democrats as a British version of Trump – remains prime minister.
A Biden administration can be expected to publicly embrace the transatlantic relationship, and this would be welcomed by many in Europe.
A Biden administration can be expected to take a tough stance on Putin’s Russia. In particular because of Russian interference in the last presidential election, many Democrats have become much more hawkish on Russia – a position previously associated more with Republicans like Senator John McCain – than they were prior to 2016. But while some in Europe, particularly in the Baltic states and Poland, would welcome such an approach, others, particularly in southern Europe, would be less enthusiastic. Although, as already noted, a Biden administration would likely seek closer cooperation with Germany, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline could remain a source of tension between Germany and the US as Congress implements further sanctions against companies and perhaps even government officials involved in the project.
Although a Biden administration would make a clear commitment to NATO, contention around burden-sharing between the US and its European allies would continue in a context in which US resources are increasingly focused on China. But a Biden administration would likely avoid publicly criticizing European NATO members, above all Germany, for their low level of defence spending, having seen Trump’s antagonistic line on this to be unproductive. Instead, his administration will try to cooperate with Europe on issues such as reform of the World Trade Organization, stabilizing the Middle East as the US footprint there decreases, and – above all – responding effectively to the China challenge.
However, efforts by the Biden administration to forge a transatlantic approach to China would take place in a different context than that seen under the Obama presidency. Democrats such as Kurt Campbell (who led attempts to develop a joint approach on China under the Obama administration) and Jake Sullivan have embraced the idea of ‘strategic competition’, but few Europeans will want to enter this competition on the US side. There may be some scope for cooperation on issues like the screening of investments by Chinese companies and controls on the export of sensitive technologies to China. But unlike the US, which is increasingly subordinating economic policy questions to the logic of strategic competition, European states can be expected to continue to view their dealings with China more through an economic lens.
Like a second Trump administration, a Biden administration could also impose sanctions on China that would have a secondary impact on European companies. Sanctions in response to human rights violations, which a Biden administration is likely to emphasize even more than the Trump administration has thus far, may present particular difficulties for European countries because of the exposure of their companies to the Chinese market. This might lead to particular friction with Germany. Meanwhile the UK, which in recent months has adopted an increasingly hawkish stance on China, may turn out to be one of the few European countries that is substantially aligned with the US on China. In other words, despite its instincts to work closely with Germany, a Biden administration might find that the UK is a more helpful partner in achieving its objectives with regard to China – and perhaps other areas too.