But as the summer wanes, so too has the transatlantic romance that accompanied Biden’s ascent to power earlier this year. Biden promised a far less combustible relationship with the United States’ traditional Western allies, and appeared to galvanize European colleagues with his paeans toward shared values and his renewed efforts to help lead collective action on climate change. But sources of friction remain. The Biden administration, which touts its own brand of economic populism, has yet to fully lift a slate of tariffs on European goods put into place by former president Donald Trump.
Moreover, on Monday, the European Union removed the United States from its “safe list” of nations whose residents should not face travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. The move, which functions as guidance for the bloc’s 27 member states, was a reaction to the worsening state of affairs in the United States, home once more to spiking infections and a coronavirus vaccination rate that now lags behind the E.U.
It may also reflect widespread European frustration at Biden’s refusal to lift punitive pandemic-related travel bans on citizens of European countries. “The United States got a free pass over the summer, even as the situation in many parts of the country deteriorated dramatically,” Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told my colleague Reis Thebault, adding that “the U.S. exceptions became harder and harder to defend in the face of a lack of reciprocity from the Biden administration.”
Now that lack of reciprocity is just one ripple in a growing lake of transatlantic discontent. For all the public health reasons to impose restrictions on U.S. travelers, the E.U.’s new ruling, tweeted François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, may also be seen as a “a broader vote of no-confidence in the US administration.”
Shadowing all deliberations is the sudden Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the seemingly chaotic handling of the American withdrawal, which have shaken European faith in Biden’s decision-making and priorities. Last week, European leaders and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pressed Biden to delay his planned Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal. He didn’t budge. On Monday night, the last U.S. military planes left Kabul’s airport, bringing to a close the military-led evacuation operations out of the fallen Afghan capital and, if only technically, America’s longest war.
For myriad European politicians and diplomats, particularly in countries that invested a great deal in supporting the two-decade-long NATO mission in Afghanistan, the events of the past weeks have served as a gut check. Biden, acting on Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, announced a full withdrawal that his NATO allies had no choice but to follow. While European officials voice concerns about the humanitarian plight in the country, as well as the prospect of huge new flows of Afghan refugees, they also complain in private about a lack of genuine consultation with the Biden administration.
“We’re not islands. The decisions of our allies have consequences for their allies,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on German affairs and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Today’s WorldView. “You get this impression that people are making policy into a void when there should be coordination.”
The sense of catastrophe hanging over the situation in Afghanistan has only added to the long-running discussion over Europe’s need for greater strategic autonomy. “We must strengthen Europe such that we never have to leave it up to Americans,” Armin Laschet, who is vying to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said during a televised debate Sunday against his main election rivals. Laschet, who is a center-right Christian Democrat like Merkel, also said earlier this month that the Afghanistan withdrawal was “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.”
“Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate?” former British prime minister Theresa May said in a parliamentary speech last week. “Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?”
The war in Afghanistan was the first mission in NATO’s history to emerge from invoking Article V, the alliance’s collective defense provision. Biden may be able to shrug off its shambolic denouement, but it has been a blow to European prestige. “What people will overlook is that an entire generation of western practitioners” — including military officers, diplomats, intelligence officials and journalists — “went through Afghanistan,” said Stelzenmüller. “This is NATO’s most legitimate mission, the one that was most central to our understanding of ourselves.”
“For countries like Germany and Britain, which invested heavily in Afghanistan — political capital, troops, funds — the Afghanistan operation was about their commitment to NATO and the alliance,” Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, told Today’s WorldView. “This is why what happened in recent weeks is a real trauma in Berlin and London. It signals a shift in priorities for the U.S. that runs deeper than presidential personalities and rhetoric.”
That should not be too surprising. “Europe was the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy for most of the 20th century and especially during the Cold War, but the collapse of communism, the rise of China and Asia, and the post-9/11 wars and counterterrorism campaigns shifted U.S. priorities elsewhere,” wrote Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy. “Donald Trump was the first president to openly articulate these ideas, and now European elites fear that maybe this wasn’t just an aberration.”
Haddad suggested Biden’s turn need not stir fear in Europe. “Let’s go beyond ‘America is back’ and have a frank conversation, among allies, about what Americans don’t want to do anymore, where Europeans have to take responsibility,” he said.