State of the Union has lessons for transatlantic unity

Analysing key foreign policy aspects of President Joe Biden’s annual address, and what it means for the upcoming Munich Security Conference and the year ahead.

Expert comment Updated 9 February 2023 Published 8 February 2023 6 minute READ

Trade and economics are key areas to watch

Daniel W. Drezner

Russia’s absence from the Munich Security Conference will allow US and European policymakers to brag about their flourishing partnership. The past year has seen repeated predictions of a fracturing transatlantic relationship – only to see repeated agreement on how to sanction Russia and which arms to ship to Ukraine.

Putin invaded because he thought the West was divided. Events have proven him wrong. When one takes a step back, however, and examines the Biden administration’s embrace of geoeconomics, Putin’s assumption becomes easier to comprehend.

The strongest throughline between the Trump and Biden administrations has been their shared mindset on weaponized interdependence. Both administrations have been wary of US interdependence with an increasingly autocratic China.

The primary difference has been that, while the Trump administration talked a good game, the Biden administration has passed laws and issued executive orders making the pivot away from trade liberalization a reality.

The passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) amount to the most ambitious US attempt at industrial policy in decades, accompanied by multiple executive orders examining US supply chain resilience and imposing unprecedented export controls targeting China.

The Biden administration’s restrictions on exchange with China’s semiconductors includes the use of the ‘foreign direct product rule’, essentially a means of applying US export controls in an extraterritorial manner.

The Biden administration’s angry response to the WTO panel ruling against US steel and aluminum tariffs makes it clear the US will apply an expanded definition of national security to restrict trade. In many ways, the sanctions on Russia are a continuation of a US foreign economic policy grounded in geoeconomics.

Several of these measures have rankled European officials. The IRA massively subsidizes the North American production of environmentally-friendly cars, discriminating against European producers. And continued US hostility to the WTO leaves European officials wondering if they are the last bastion of multilateralism left in the world. In Washington and Davos last month, European policymakers made their displeasure clear.

The strongest throughline between the Trump and Biden administrations has been their shared mindset on weaponized interdependence

Daniel W. Drezner

The sanctions against Russia and export controls against China threaten to be additional sore subjects. During the strategic embargo of the Soviet Union, US officials wanted to maximize restrictions while European allies wanted more trade opportunities. Since then, Europeans have suspected that the US uses multilateral export controls regimes to advance its commercial interests, while Americans worry Europe underestimates the risks of business-as-usual with China.

The Biden administration has tried to finesse these trade tensions, and was successful at persuading the Netherlands to join the US in the export controls on China. More generally, Biden officials talk about ‘friendshoring’ and propose mechanisms for greater policy coordination, such as the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. But even in these gestures, US officials have taken greater market access off the table.

In the State of the Union address, Biden bragged about how the US ‘came together to defend a stronger and safer Europe’ as well as defending his ‘buy American’ plans and pledging to make sure the ‘supply chain for America begins in America’. At the upcoming Munich Security Conference, attention should be on how much officials talk about trade and economic issues. The more that topic comes up, the clearer it will be that both sides are subtweeting each other about the future of the transatlantic economic relationship.

Division on China now would bring a high price

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

President Biden has made unity his guiding principle and chief objective, but it is a tall order. His State of the Union address touted past bipartisan backing for investments in infrastructure, climate-friendly technologies, and semiconductor chips, along with a focus on creating jobs for working-class Americans, especially in manufacturing.

While Ukraine will continue to demand and deserve attention, the US will be looking beyond the urgent to focus on other less urgent but crucially important challenges. That means China

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

Little was said that was explicitly about China, but the Biden administration has said that China is its pacing challenge, and competing with China has shaped the ambition behind these legislative successes.

In fact, the hallmark of the address was its foreign policy minimalism. Biden hailed unity in the US defence of democracy in Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression. And in defending US sovereignty in the face of China’s violations, this time with a balloon.

But the presidents temporary minimalism on foreign policy will be short-lived. And unity with America’s partners and allies will continue to be at the centre of Biden’s strategy. In the past 12 months, it is the yardstick by which he has measured America’s success with respect to Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has so far served as a lubricant for the NATO alliance, and for the US relationship with its non-NATO allies.

This has not automatically sprung from the well of Russia’s aggression. NATO’s success, and transatlantic unity, has been achieved through the sheer force of diplomatic effort, not least by the US.

Now Biden is looking for unity on China. His administration has identified China as its pacing threat. While Ukraine will continue to demand and deserve attention, the US will be looking beyond the urgent to focus on other less urgent but crucially important challenges. That means China.

China’s balloon helps ensure unity will be an easy victory at home. For several days, the balloon floated across the US, captivating the American public, seizing the headlines, and hardening US attitudes towards its only peer competitor.

Republican leaders in Congress are determined to scrutinize US policy to ensure it is tough on China, especially on technology and deterrence. This intense domestic focus on China could put Biden in a bind as he seeks to resume diplomacy. It also explains why he was careful not to inflate the China threat in his address. Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing has already been postponed.

As the Munich Security Conference approaches, the president’s unity agenda will turn to Europe, but the timing is difficult. China is opening and a charm offensive across Europe is likely. Europe is vulnerable as it seeks to recover its economies, continue to hold Russia back, and inhibit greater alignment between Russia and China.

The risk for the US is that domestic pressure to take a harder line on China escalates and Europe refuses to keep up. But dividing on China would come at a high price, both for Europe and the US, so to avoid this, they should take a pragmatic and sequenced approach to cooperation.

The goal for now should be policy coordination, as success is vital to momentum and managing expectations in the current environment is critical. Alignment may be possible with discrete partners on specific topics. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

The US has postponed, not cancelled, Blinken’s trip while Europe is preparing to ramp up its diplomacy with China. A collective but temporary and shared transatlantic pause on diplomacy would offer low hanging fruit to give momentum to transatlantic cooperation.

It would also signal to China a unity that has a power of its own. A clear and coordinated signal, soon, that Europe and the US are moving forward with diplomacy is essential.

Munich can move the talk into action on Ukraine

James Nixey

Russia’s excommunication from this year’s Munich Security Conference is an opportunity. The principle of inclusivity may have pros and cons, but the cons have been evident since at least 2007 – its use as a platform for Russia’s leadership to launch broadsides about ‘western injustice’ and a reflexive default to increasingly inappropriate and harmful diplomatic courtesies and allowances.

Without the distraction of listening to Russian lies, there is at least now the remote possibility of a more unified West agreeing to specific action beyond the talk. As at the recent Ramstein talks, it is unlikely Munich will result in an agreement to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. That may prove a step too far for the West or it will need further Russian atrocities inflicted upon Ukrainians on a scale horrendous enough to prick consciences once again.

Most Ukrainian officials would privately argue that the danger to their country comes more from the West and forums such as the Munich Security Conference than it does from Russia

James Nixey

However, although President Biden’s State of the Union address has promised nothing new or innovative regarding Ukraine or Russia, it did re-establish the fundamentals of US support and so can serve as a ‘pre-read’ for a newfound resolve.

Although some European countries are a lost cause, others – Germany for example – have proved able to be guilted into action. The key lesson for everyone to understand is that Ukraine is sovereign. Or at least ‘nothing about Ukraine, without Ukraine’. The difference is moot but, from these simple precepts, all else flows.

Ukrainians will be their impassioned selves at Munich. But although publicly gracious and thankful, privately they are distraught at the West’s collective failure to affirm these principles and back them with the necessary support, not just to force a stalemate or a ‘frozen conflict’ but to engineer victory.

Most Ukrainian officials would privately argue that the danger to their country comes more from the West and forums such as the Munich Security Conference than it does from Russia, which can be defeated with the requisite tangible assistance. In Munich, beyond fine words of support – watertight from some, ambiguous from others – there lurks the ever-present danger of the politician who simply wants it all to go away by offering Putin an off-ramp.

The irony of the host city of this forum is that many times over the past year compromise ‘solutions’ have been described as having ‘a whiff of Munich’ about them – a reference of course to appeasement in 1938, which still haunts.

As it should, because the failure to ensure Ukraine’s victory with an outcome the Ukrainian government and people are content with and which convinces Russia it was a disastrous mistake to escalate, will lead to a global security collapse too catastrophic to contemplate.

Middle East security challenges must be dealt with

Dr Sanam Vakil

A trifecta of security concerns – Iran’s advancing nuclear programme, the export of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support Russia in the war in Ukraine, and a heavy-handed response towards protests in Iran – has raised alarm bells in Washington, Europe and the UK. These intersecting challenges lay bare the lack of a broader Iran strategy and the deprioritization of Middle East security among transatlantic partners.

This downgrading of the Middle East was evident in President Biden’s State of the Union speech as, for the first time in decades, the region was not even mentioned. The upcoming Munich Security conference provides a much needed opportunity for the transatlantic community to align on next steps and multilateral policy responses.

Tehran has little confidence in the political and economic benefits that could emerge from the JCPOA and is choosing to double down with Moscow

Dr Sanam Vakil

Transatlantic partners have long relied on the prism of the JCPOA negotiations as the pathway to both separate and manage nuclear tensions from broader regional challenges associated with Iran’s export of lethal aid and sponsorship of proxy groups.

Despite repeated negotiation efforts led by the Biden administration since April 2021, the JCPOA has languished due to Tehran’s fears over another US retreat. The promise of sanctions relief has also failed to incentivise Iran’s return to the deal. Tehran’s nuclear programme has accelerated without the consistent IAEA oversight which was part of the initial deal and is now at a level where it can produce enough uranium enrichment for four nuclear weapons.

Tehran’s decision to send drones to support Moscow’s war effort has further elevated transatlantic concerns, and reports have circulated that Tehran may also export its missile capabilities and build a drone factory in Russia. In tandem, the two sanctioned states have begun to strengthen their economic arrangements.

State of the Union has lessons for transatlantic unity 2nd part

Iran’s pro-Russia posture is a clear signal Tehran has little confidence in the political and economic benefits that could emerge from the JCPOA and is choosing to double down with Moscow. Iran has long engaged in such destabilizing activity in the Middle East where Western partners in the region have tried without success to elicit support from the West. Iran’s decision has been met by further US and EU sanctions which will unlikely reverse Tehran’s posture.

Continued Iranian repression towards protests, which has included four executions and thousands of arrests, has also drawn condemnation, and transatlantic partners have also imposed sanctions over human rights abuses. The EU and UK, under pressure from Iranian activists, have debated designating the IRGC as a terrorist entity, but this decision has been delayed over concerns that such a move would be met with Iranian escalation and close the door to dialogue on critical security issues.

Although securing a victory in Ukraine will be the undoubted focus of the Munich conference, Middle East security challenges – especially those pertaining to Iran – cannot be put on hold. Broader alignment on how to contain Iran’s nuclear advancements and its support for Moscow requires a calibrated mix of both diplomacy and deterrence that should be happening now.