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America may be ‘back’ in Europe, but how much has really changed?

When the same leaders reconvene in Cornwall, England, on Friday, President Joe Biden will reverse the body language, replacing impasse with embrace. But beneath the imagery, it is not clear how much more open the United States will be to give-and-take with Europe than it was under Trump.

By: New York Times |
June 11, 2021 2:43:01 pm
America Europe, trans-Atlantic relations, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson, Joe Biden, World news, World leaders, Indian expressPresident Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sit during a bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, England, Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Written by Mark Landler

Few images captured the rupture in trans-Atlantic relations better than that of President Donald Trump in 2018, arms folded across his chest as he resisted Chancellor Angela Merkel and other frustrated leaders in their doomed effort to salvage their summit meeting in Canada.

When the same leaders reconvene in Cornwall, England, on Friday, President Joe Biden will reverse the body language, replacing impasse with embrace. But beneath the imagery, it is not clear how much more open the United States will be to give-and-take with Europe than it was under Trump.

The trans-Atlantic partnership has always been less reciprocal than its champions like to pretend — a marriage in which one partner, the United States, carried the nuclear umbrella. Now, with China replacing the Soviet Union as America’s archrival, the two sides are less united than they were during the Cold War, a geopolitical shift that lays bare long-standing stresses between them.

So even though Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain reaffirmed their countries’ unity Thursday, a lingering question looms over Friday’s reunion of the Group of 7 industrialized nations. Will a show of solidarity be more than a diplomatic pantomime — reassuring to Europeans traumatized by Trump’s “America First” policy but bound to disappoint them when they realize that the nation under Biden is still going its own way?

“America’s foreign policy hasn’t fundamentally changed,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament. “It’s more cooperative and inclusive, but substantially it’s the same.”

“Like all leaders,” he added, “Biden is putting his own country first. How he achieves that is what has distracted many.”

Few Europeans question the sincerity of his outreach. More than even his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden is an Atlanticist, with decades of involvement in European concerns from the Balkans to Belfast.

On Thursday, he joined Johnson to unveil a new Atlantic Charter, modeled on the post-World War II blueprint signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Biden and Johnson projected unity, each pledging that his country would commit hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to the developing world.

“I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or anything else,” Johnson said, after Biden said both he and the newlywed prime minister had “married above our station.”

Yet the president has made a more aggressive approach to China the lodestar of his foreign policy. While U.S. officials are seeking Europe’s support for that effort, analysts said their expectations are limited, given the commercial interests of Germany and other countries and the fact that Merkel and other Europeans have shown no appetite for a new Cold War with Beijing.

“The Biden administration is determined to be polite, determined to hear them out, and then it will do whatever it was planning to do,” said Jeremy Shapiro, who worked in the State Department during the Obama administration and is now the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“It doesn’t matter what U.S. policy is toward Europe,” Shapiro said, summarizing what he said was the prevailing view in the administration. “We’re going to get the same amount out of them on China.”

The skepticism runs both ways. Many European officials view Biden’s declaration that “America is back” with a jaundiced eye, however well-intentioned, given the assault on the U.S. Capitol and other threats to American democracy, not to mention Trump’s iron hold over the Republican Party.

“We’re living in an era of diminished trust,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who runs the Munich Security Conference, where Biden has been a regular speaker.

Germans, he said, used to think it did not matter much to the trans-Atlantic alliance if the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Now, Ischinger said, “We are, for the first time in 70 years, confronted with a new question: What happens if a resurrected Trump reappears on the stage?”

White House officials have carefully choreographed Biden’s trip to make it a summer festival of alliance repair. But back in Washington, analysts say its personnel moves show a more marginalized role for Europe.

The White House has named prominent officials to coordinate Indo-Pacific and Middle East policy in the National Security Council. There is no counterpart for Europe, nor has the administration made diplomatic appointments, like an ambassador to NATO or an envoy to handle Northern Ireland.

Biden has welcomed the leaders of Japan and South Korea at the White House, though not yet any major European leader.

On the eve of his visit to Britain, a senior U.S. diplomat expressed blunt concerns to Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator about how Britain was handling tensions over post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

There is a similar sense of limited expectations on both sides about Russia, even with Biden set to meet President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva. Relations soured swiftly in the early months of the administration, as the United States faced a Russian hacking operation, evidence of continued Russian interference in the 2020 presidential campaign and Putin’s massing of troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia’s arrest of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, three days before Biden’s inauguration, set the tone for the tensions to come.

Far from the “reset button” that Biden announced in 2009 while serving as Obama’s vice president, his meeting with Putin seems designed mostly to keep a lid on tensions with a habitually fractious Russia, so both sides can avoid conflicts that could disrupt Biden’s domestic agenda.

Given what analysts say is Putin’s calculation that Russia benefits by sowing instability, they question how successful Biden will be. Europe’s proximity to Russia — and the reliance of Germany on its natural gas — means that instability would pose a greater threat to Europe than to the United States.

“The problem with China is that it’s not our neighbor, but it’s the U.S.’s neighbor,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “Russia is Europe’s neighbor, and that reality makes it complicated, but only to the extent that the United States wants to dial up the temperature.”

The administration’s zigzag course on Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany, has left some in Europe scratching their heads. Biden publicly opposed the pipeline as a “bad idea,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said. But Blinken recently declined to impose sanctions on those behind the $11 billion project, saying its completion was a “fait accompli.”

The reversal, on the eve of Biden’s European tour, seemed calculated to avoid a rift with Germany, a critical ally. But in Britain, which takes a harder line against Russia than does Germany, some officials said they worried that the decision would embolden Putin and weaken the eastern border of Ukraine.

While the trans-Atlantic differences over China are significant, officials on both sides say Europe is moving gradually in Biden’s direction. The European Parliament last month held up ratification of a landmark investment treaty with Beijing. That followed Beijing’s sanctioning of 10 European Union politicians in what the Europeans viewed as an over-the-top response to sanctions it imposed on China for the detention of minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Britain has swung into alignment with the United States on China, restricting the access of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, to its 5G network. But analysts caution that the shift is motivated less by a change of heart about Beijing than by a desire, after Brexit, not to be out of step with its most important ally.

Some in Europe argue that Biden’s China policy is not yet fully formed, noting that there was no shortage of diplomatic pantomime in the stormy meeting Blinken held in March with Chinese officials in Alaska.

Europe’s views could also evolve, too, with the departure of Merkel, a firm believer in engagement with China, after 16 years in office, and with President Emmanuel Macron of France facing a difficult election campaign next year.

“The EU’s position on China has hardened as a result of the human rights issues,” said Simon Fraser, a former top civil servant in Britain’s Foreign Office. “I suspect there is a lot of commonality, even as divergent national interests come into play.”

Still, some Europeans have been put off by how Biden has cast the competition with China in starkly ideological terms — as a fateful battle between democracy and autocracy, in which the autocrats could win.

For leaders like Merkel, whose country sells millions of Volkswagens and BMWs in China, the relationship is driven by trade and technology, not a potential military clash in the South China Sea.

“There is a deep psychological issue at play,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on Europe and the United States at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Some Europeans believe the U.S. is too nostalgic for the Cold War and too ready to go back to that.”

These are, of course, the early days of Biden’s presidency. Analysts said he had already recalibrated his message on China and Russia from two months ago, when he told Congress that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, thinks “democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.”

Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration, said Biden’s goal was to head off the creation of a Sino-Russian bloc against the West. That will require the help of allies, which is why he predicted Biden would not only listen to, but hear, the Europeans.

“This attempt to find geopolitical dividing lines won’t find a lot of support among American allies,” Kupchan said.

Biden appears sensitive to these concerns. In an opinion column in The Washington Post last Sunday outlining his goals for the trip, he dispensed with combative references to an autocratic China. Instead, he wrote about whether the United States and its allies could meet a rather anodyne challenge: “Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world?”

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