A little over 100 days into President Joe Biden’s administration, an impressive U.S. diplomatic reset with Canada and the European Union is well underway to undo the damage of the Trump presidency. This is undoubtedly a welcome change, but it has yet to deliver tangible policy breakthroughs. The next few months will determine whether the more upbeat tone under Biden can translate into not just repairing but also reinventing the traditional transatlantic partnership to better address critical evolving issues—including security, technology, trade and climate change.
Biden’s Transatlantic Reset
Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has pursued a transatlantic strategy aimed at rebuilding trust and reassuring allies of its commitment to Euro-Atlantic security. In a clear departure from the previous administration’s rhetoric, President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin all proclaimed the return of the transatlantic partnership guided by shared values of democracy, human rights, and multilateralism. Contrary to former President Trump, President Biden’s administration sent a positive signal to NATO by announcing the increase of U.S. forces in Germany in a broader attempt to (re)define the alliance as the main forum for consultations on transatlantic security issues.
Although several areas of diplomatic tension among the transatlantic partners persist—including disagreements over the E.U.’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investments with China (CAI), the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, complaints about vaccine nationalisms, and protectionist policies—the Biden administration’s repair-and-rebuild campaign has been greeted with relief by its allies and has already produced some encouraging results. Consider, for instance, the coordinated sanctions against Russia for the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and against China for human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Persisting Challenges in Transatlantic Relations
At the same time, a degree of distrust in the U.S. political system and the spectre of a possible return of a Trump-style administration in 2025 has some voices continuing to argue that Washington’s allies should hedge against uncertain American leadership. More broadly, a series of persisting challenges threaten to undermine transatlantic cooperation in several fields, including international security. A full discussion of all those challenges is impossible here, but even a cursory examination of a couple of issues reveals the complexity of the situation.
China: Rallying or Dividing the Transatlantic Allies?
During the Trump administration, transatlantic cooperation on China was frequently undermined by conflicting policies and low levels of trust. Although Biden, like his predecessor, views China’s rise as a major systemic challenge, he has pledged to make forging a coalition of democracies to pressure Beijing a centrepiece of his foreign policy. Despite a slow initial start, a certain degree of transatlantic alignment on China appears to be emerging. For instance, the E.U.’s CAI’s future looks increasingly uncertain, with prominent members of the European Parliament now openly voicing skepticism about it. Transatlantic deep consultations are also underway as part of a reactivated formal EU-U.S. strategic dialogue on China. The key test will be whether the transatlantic partners can systematically align their respective responses to increasingly assertive Chinese policies vis-à-vis its neighbours, technology export controls, acts of economic coercion, and holding Beijing accountable for human rights violations targeting both its citizens and foreign nationals (including the ‘two Michaels’).
Biden’s vision for the Atlantic Alliance echoes the NATO 2030 report’s main recommendation: to promote political cohesion through ongoing consultations among its 30 members. However, the question is whether the transatlantic partners can capitalize on their improved diplomatic relations and demonstrate unambiguously that President Macron was wrong to argue that the alliance was brain-dead.
Although the Biden administration has distanced itself from the hostile rhetoric of the Trump era, some difficult issues continue to complicate–and threaten to undermine–allied cohesion. For instance, the issue of burden-sharing and U.S. insistence on greater defence spending by all the allies will remain present, as indicated by Secretary of Defense Austin’s recent remarks. This is likely to be even more complicated in the post-pandemic context when, facing massive deficits and complex economic recoveries, many allies will face difficult choices regarding spending priorities. More broadly: NATO allies continue to diverge in their threat perceptions and strategic priorities and have yet to agree on how to respond to serious deviations from liberal norms in several member states, including Hungary and Turkey.
Furthermore, despite Biden’s support for growing capabilities in Europe, compromises will be needed to manage defence industrial competition, especially in light of initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) that aim to enhance the E.U. strategic autonomy. A clearer division of tasks between the E.U. and the Atlantic Alliance represents another area where dialogue will be necessary to establish cooperation, avoid duplication and reassure those who fear that calls for European autonomy could translate into disengagement from NATO.
If progress is made on those fronts, the transatlantic partners will find it easier to take important steps towards revitalizing their alliance. But there is no doubt that NATO, as the “cornerstone of transatlantic security,” still faces numerous challenges. These include reaching an agreement on how to adapt to 21st-century threats, formulating coherent policies to confront an increasingly aggressive Russia, and defining the next steps in the Alliance enlargement process (most notably, by agreeing on how to respond to Ukraine’s increasingly urgent request for membership).
Biden’s election offers hope for a new impetus in transatlantic cooperation, but, as noted above, significant challenges persist. To further complicate matters, elections in Germany (this year) and France (next year) and efforts to deal with the aftermath of Brexit will limit the margin of maneuver of several key allies. On the U.S. side, too, thorny questions remain. Whether Biden will be able to focus on transatlantic cooperation will depend mainly on domestic developments. Simultaneously, the socio-economic implications of the pandemic will also impact the ability of all transatlantic partners to engage in ambitious foreign policy initiatives.
In the final analysis, the United States, Canada, and E.U. member states remain one another’s closest partners, sharing a wide net of common norms, institutions and interests. But even under such conditions, successful cooperation is not guaranteed. The infrastructure of the transatlantic alliance had been crumbling, and it is a sign of hope that the Biden administration has done significant repair work in the first 100 days. But cracks remain, and there are many difficulties ahead for the transatlantic partnership. The triple summits in June—G7, EU-US, and NATO—will be the first real test of the transatlantic partners’ ability to address them effectively.