European leaders, desperate for an end to the Trump presidency, are being warned that four years of Joe Biden may present them with new challenges and not a simple restoration of the benign status quo in transatlantic relations prior to 2016.
An evolving Biden doctrine about ending “forever wars” and protecting American workers from Chinese competition would require collective military and economic commitments from the EU that it is still ill-equipped to meet, foreign policy specialists have suggested.
The overall tenor of the platform, emphasising post-Covid multilateralism and cooperation with fellow liberal democracies, is already welcome in Europe. Biden’s promised end to the institutionalised mayhem, animus towards allies and pandering to authoritarians will be a relief. Competence, reliability and dialogue may not be a high bar to set a presidency, but simple normality would amount to a revival of the idea of the west, such has been the chaos of the past four years.
Forsaken multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization, would be rejoined, ending the US practice, in the words of Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken, of simply going awol. “Ninety per cent of life is about showing up,” Blinken told Chatham House, adapting Woody Allen.
Biden may seem to personify an old-school nostalgic Atlanticism of the foreign policy establishment. But the Democrat’s draft policy platform released last month reflects the influence of the progressive left, and an effort to absorb the lessons from the shock 2016 defeat.
Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, speaking to the European Council on Foreign Relations podcast, agreed that Biden had moved to the left, saying he had faced mobilisation on foreign policy from progressives in a way that Barack Obama never experienced. As a result, foreign policy is no longer a backwater in democratic politics, and new links between foreign and economic policy are being drawn.
Many of the Obama-era foreign policy advisers now clustered around Biden, dismissed as a horror show by some on the left, also deny that they crave simple restoration, saying everything has changed since 2016.
Stung by Hillary Clinton’s defeat, they recognise the populists’ claim to have better constructed a foreign policy to help Americans’ daily lives at home. William Burns, a former state department official under Obama and one of Biden’s many advisers, recently wrote: “The wellbeing of the American middle class ought to be the engine that drives our foreign policy. We’re long overdue for a historic course correction at home.”
Jeremy Shapiro, a senior researcher with the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), also says there has been a pressure on Democrats to make their foreign policy more relevant to daily American lives. “There was this sense that in the Obama administration foreign policy was a plaything of the elites divorced from Americans’ daily existence. The change from Obama to Biden is there will be more focus on America.”
Without threatening tariff wars, the Biden platform hints at a new scepticism about globalism and free trade.
In broader policy terms, Europe will welcome Biden’s commitment to the Paris climate change treaty, and to Nato, “the single most significant military alliance in the history of the world,” as Biden described the organisation to the Munich security conference in 2019. To the relief of Berlin, the withdrawal of US troops from Germany would stop. A more consistent approach to Turkey would be sought.
Similarly, on defence spending the platform foreshadows spending cuts at home and demands: “We will mobilise our partners to make sustained investments that can prevent conflict and extinguish the flames on which extremists feed.” Biden would not threaten to pull out of Nato, but like most US presidents he would demand that Europe does more to pull its weight.
Some Europeans, especially the French, may blanch at the stated approach to authoritarian Gulf rulers. It reads: “We have no interest in continuing the blank-cheque era of the Trump administration, or indulging authoritarian impulses, internal rivalries, catastrophic proxy wars, or efforts to roll back political openings across the region.”
Support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen would end. Congressional authorisation for wars would be clearer to prevent mission creep.
Even so, the small print on US demilitarisation contains qualifications. “A small, finite, focused military presence in Iraq to defeat Islamic State” is proposed in Iraq. An anti-terror unit would be kept in Syria. The US would “responsibly” withdraw from Afghanistan, but no timetable is given.
On Iran, the European three – France, Germany and the UK – will be relieved that the Democrat’s platform favours a return to “mutual compliance” with the nuclear deal by Tehran and Washington. The mutual steps – the US lifting its sanctions and Iran complying with the deal – would be tough to sequence, especially if any such negotiation is held against the backdrop of the Iranian presidential election likely in May.
On China, the slow convergence already under way between Europe and the US might continue, but less erratically. For those Europeans uneasy at a new cold war, Biden’s interest in climate change is a relief since it would make China a necessary partner as well as a rival.
One country that has reason to fear Biden more than most is Britain. According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, the Obama-Biden team saw Brexit as “calamitous, a crucial part of the second world war order drifting off into the sea”. The platform attacks Trump for seeing “anti-European Union, far-right nationalists as political allies – not destructive antagonists”. Johnson will win no points in a Biden White House for disrupting the EU’s progress.
Indeed, according to Mark Leonard, director of the ECFR, the Biden team “does not see London as a useful channel for influencing the rest of the EU, which means that it loses some of its utility. They are pragmatists and will work with the UK, but they will not go out of their way to get a trade deal with the UK, and will put relations with the EU ahead of those with London.”
But Johnson, always the master of reinvention, would have ways back. He has taken a lead in standing up to China, and he shares Biden’s distrust of Vladimir Putin, even if he has hardly met Biden’s call for the west to expose “Russian meddling in elections in real time”.
The British chairmanship of the G7 and the UN climate conference give Johnson ample chances next year to prove he is not the world leader keeping Trump’s flame alive.