A revival of transatlantic relations under Biden?

Julia Berghofer,
Policy Fellow,
European Leadership Network (ELN),

Like most European countries, the German government welcomed the outcome of the U.S. election and a new administration under Joe Biden. There are hopes in Berlin that transatlantic relations will see a revival and that multilateralism will be strengthened during the upcoming legislative term.

After Donald Trump has sold out a vast spectrum of multilateral activities and affronted NATO allies more than once, EU states are hoping for better relations and a reinvigoration of the Alliance. Hopes span from a revitalization of arms control to an enhanced US engagement in Eastern Europe where we have seen a brutal escalation of the latent Nagorno Karabakh conflict and months of protest in Belarus. Also, the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is something European states would prefer to be undone under Biden, just as they would like to see a renewed US commitment to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But is a quick revitalisation of the transatlantic community realistic and what is the fallout of the damage already done by Trump that cannot be reversed?

The US have sold out multilateralism

Looking at arms control and non-proliferation agreements gives us a pretty good sense of the US’s recent disrespect for multilateralism. Under the past US administration, a number of arms control agreements have been unravelled, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA) as well as the Open Skies Treaty (OST) which the US have formally left on November 22. Another landmark treaty, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), once negotiated by the Obama administration, is under threat and it remains uncertain whether in the remaining time until the expiration date on 5 February, the incoming administration will be able to extend the existing treaty with Russia, or start negotiations on a successor agreement.

For European partners, all of these agreements and treaties affect their security either immediately or indirectly. However, their possibilities to influence a desirable direction of arms control between the US and Russia is very limited, even in the case of the INF treaty whose end bears a risk of serious security implications for Europe. The OST on the other hand has not only served as a possibility for the US to make military overflights over Russia, including the Kaliningrad exclave, and for Russia to overfly US military installations. It has also served the purpose of providing those European countries, who do not possess their own satellite capabilities, with high-resolution imagery. Through their exit from the treaty, the US have shown little respect for the security needs of those governments, while Russia might at some point use the US withdrawal as a justification to leave the treaty itself, especially as Europeans are unlikely to submit to Russian claims for further allowance to overfly US military installations.

What’s next for transatlantic relations?

NATO partners are currently struggling with picking up the pieces of a reckless US foreign policy in the past four years. Intra-Alliance controversies over arms control and the cohesion among partners have distracted NATO’s attention from emerging threats like China. Now that Beijing has shown its strength not least in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic much more effectively than Western states through implementing an autocratic leadership style, it’s ridiculously late for NATO to start grappling with this challenge. As an economic, systemic and strategic competitor, China has consolidated its new role as a global power that has the potential to further destabilize world order.

In a sense, the Trump presidency has, at first glance, damaged relations with Russia in the military field, and was systematically rocking the boat of already fragile NATO unity. But more importantly, dealing with Washington’s erratic decision has prevented the West to adequately prepare themselves for countering the Chinese challenge, considering the future of world trade relations, and dealing with the rapidly growing threat of global warming.

No doubt, Joe Boden’s election is the only way how transatlantic relations, now in a brittle state, can recover, but it would be illusionary for Europeans to hope for a quick fix of some of the most pressing issues. Beijing will almost certainly keep the US too occupied to do more for Europe than the minimum. Their engagement in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus remains thus more than uncertain. Also, apart from New START where there is a small chance that Moscow and Washington will find a way forward, the US will not come back to other arms control agreements like OST and JCPOA. Europeans therefore have to invest more in their own strategic thinking and must decisively consider a way of caring for their own defence and security and their relations with Russia, without confronting the US and without further damaging NATO cohesion, especially through strengthening the European pillar in the Alliance.

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