In a Washington Post op-ed touting his trip, Biden said the defining question for the United States and its democratic allies is whether they and the liberal order they claim to uphold can “prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries” — explicitly including China and Russia, but perhaps also the illiberal, nationalist forces gaining traction in many Western societies.
Biden insists that capacity endures, and views his maiden presidential voyage as a chance to “prove it.” That entails acting on an ambitious agenda. Biden wrote that the United States is “back in the chair on the issue of climate change” and will deepen transatlantic cooperation on “driving a global clean-energy transition.” He hailed the weekend’s agreement between G-7 finance ministers over setting a minimum global corporate tax rate. And he urged fellow democracies to upgrade their “physical, digital and health infrastructure” in part to ensure “a high-standard alternative to China” in contests to come.
“As America’s economic recovery helps to propel the global economy, we will be stronger and more capable when we are flanked by nations that share our values and our vision for the future — by other democracies,” Biden wrote.
That’s the pitch, at least. It’s less clear if many in Europe will fully buy it. No doubt, Biden’s European counterparts are relieved by the drastic change of tone between his administration and that of President Donald Trump, who cast long-standing allies as national security threats, questioned the merits of NATO, dismissed the science behind global warming and conspicuously coddled a clutch of autocrats, not least Putin.
But elements of Trump’s trade war are still in place, while the Biden administration maintains pandemic-era restrictions on E.U. citizens traveling to the country even as the continent opens up to a legion of eager U.S. tourists. Experts see the fact that Biden has yet to name ambassadors to either NATO or to the European Union in Brussels as a sign of inattention from Washington. European commentators also recognize that, no matter Biden’s imminent bonhomie in London and Brussels, the United States increasingly views Europe at best as a junior partner in its intensifying competition with China.
“Beyond all of the summitry and diplomatic attention, the Biden administration’s early actions show that it doesn’t believe Europe will ever be vital to this new geopolitical struggle,” wrote Jeremy Shapiro in Politico Europe. “A president known as a longtime transatlantic champion has de-prioritized European policy.”
“The hopeful, optimistic view is that Biden is kicking off a new relationship, showing faith in Brussels and NATO, saying the right words and kicking off the key strategic process” of updating the transatlantic alliance for the 21st century, said Jana Puglierin, Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, to the New York Times. “But Biden also wants to see bang for the buck, and we need to show tangible results. This is not unconditional love, but friends with benefits.”
There are deeper signs of European realism. A new survey of European attitudes published Monday by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States found only limited confidence in Washington. In France and Germany, slender majorities see the United States as the world’s most influential power. Only 51 percent of Germans surveyed viewed the United States as a “reliable” partner.
Martin Quencez, deputy director of GMF’s Paris office, told Today’s WorldView that the results suggest that “the Biden effect has not happened” and that the perceived “decrease in U.S. influence is still the same today” as it was under Trump. And given the seeming resilience of the Trumpist movement in the United States, some European analysts are worried that Biden’s tenure will be little more than “an ‘intermezzo’ between more populist, nationalist presidents,” wrote Steven Erlanger of the Times.
But the GMF survey did find considerable European support for much of Biden’s stated agenda, including climate action, investment in cybersecurity and a stronger stance against China. Sixty-two percent of the survey’s respondents wanted their governments to take a tougher line on human rights with Beijing. It’s a perspective, Quencez argued, that justifies Biden’s framing of the competition with China as an ideological clash between democratic and authoritarian rule.
That hardening position was on view in the European Parliament’s decision to freeze a major E.U.-Chinese investment deal last month. On the national level, certain European countries that were once cast as burgeoning Chinese partners are pivoting away from Beijing. Italy’s technocratic prime minister Mario Draghi has quietly stalled his country’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which his populist predecessors signed onto in 2019.
The winds are now blowing in a rather different direction. “The shift towards China belongs to the past,” Edoardo Rixi, a right-wing Italian parliamentarian, told the Financial Times. “That political current today barely exists.”