European Security After Biden’s Inauguration

With Joe Biden in the White House, the U.S. foreign policy is expected to change, get back to the pre-Trump era, and even restore a “status-quo”. But such expectations are miscalculated, naïve even. The U.S. foreign policy strategy is a robust machine rolling forward with only a little room to manoeuvre, especially with the political set-up Biden is facing. How will this affect Europe? Petr Boháček, a Czech analyst, and Dr. Richard Andres, a professor at the U.S. National War College, discussed military involvement in Europe and the Biden presidency’s implications for the ESJ Insight podcast.

Trump defeated. New hope for mutual cooperation, predictability, and turn to multilateralism appeared for the Transatlantic partners. Restoration of the U.S. Foreign Policy status-quo is quoted more than ever in reference to a man expected to save the U.S. liberal tradition, Joe Biden. 

At the same time, voices are heard refuting such words as “restoration” replacing them with “remaking” and emphasizing a chance for U.S. foreign policy reform. As the U.S. foreign policy tends to be relatively consistent across the presidencies, being designed by the same group of experts rather than the president, it would be naïve to expect a 180° turn from what we witnessed under Trump.

There will be changes but it might happen differently than we think. Although the U.S is likely to experience a shift to a more diplomatic manner of foreign affairs, implementation will devolve around the same foreign policy issues. The U.S. will not turn away from China, will not turn into a defender of multilateralism, will not forget about European countries' NATO spending. Even if Biden wanted to, there is only little room to manoeuvre, especially with the current composition of the House and the Senate. To put it simply: Biden is not the bearer of the change in U.S. foreign policy, he cannot be.

Still, the world is to change. And Trump is hardly the cause, rather the symptom. Multilateralism is in decline, nationalism and populism on the rise. Europe learned a tough lesson under Trump – it is time to think about self-reliance. This lesson should not be forgotten no matter who reigns the White House. 

Shift from Russia to China and what it will mean to Europe

Since the end of The Second World War, the word bipolarism has been a synonym for Russo-American hostility. In the new millennium, this is no longer true. Russia is nowhere close to condensing as the American competitor. In contrast, China is. The Asian giant is the second largest economy, the second largest U.S. foreign creditor, and the largest army worldwide. 

Biden feels about China as strongly as Trump. This is not going to change. And of course, this has its implications – the need to rebalance forces and military resources towards China, some of them from Europe. “This is geopolitics – an unchangeable fact about the world we are moving into.” commented Dr. Andres, a professor at the U.S. National War College, for the ESJ Insight podcast.

Focus on China cannot be abandoned for the return to status quo, because China is the new U.S. status quo. Known as a Pivot to Asia, it was already under the first Obama administration that East Asia began to attract the U.S. attention. At first this was framed as establishing cooperative relationships. Later on it became containing China, the U.S. “long-term strategic competitor”. This pivot, however, is quite often misunderstood by the public. The problem lies in the name itself as this foreign policy strategy was designed as rebalancing not pivoting away from the U.S. allies. In fact, during the so-called pivot, there was no movement of military units from Europe to Asia. However, the situation might now change.

With the Russian troops moving to the Ukrainian borders, debate on U.S. defence spending cuts and U.S. troops shifts/withdrawals could seem rather sour at first glance. But without any doubt, the United States knows how important it is to demonstrate to Russia the U.S. commitment to Europe and they will continue to do so. The U.S. troops in Western Europe must be moved to East Asia because of China, but also to Eastern Europe because of Russia. According to Dr. R. Andres, “we are going to see as many or more forces in the Baltic and Poland as we are currently planning on. They just need to be there.” 

Biden and the Treaties. Are they just paper...?

The concept of collective security is nothing without the trust in the allies. This is something the world has learned to secure through the multilateral treaties and agreements. Under Trump, the U.S. shook this assumption by withdrawing from a number of such settlements such as the Paris Agreement, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). 

Biden promised to rejoin some, but he has remained silent on others. It would be misleading to believe that the U.S. will play the defender of multilateralism. History has proved the White House is ready to protect its national interests by quitting any limiting deal.

Possibly, these treaties will turn into a diplomatic tool, and Biden should be expected to take advantage of them, especially with the leverage gained by standing out of the commitment. Cooperating with EU leaders to come up with a negotiation strategy should be quite presumable. And how would that play out? Unlike the INF treaty, the odds of rejoining the Open Sky are generally high, Dr. Andres guesses.

The Czech analyst Petr Boháček agrees that the U.S. return to multilateralism is a very important part of Biden’s presidency but at the same time he is sceptical about the U.S. playing the role of a defender of the international organizations. The U.S. will need its allies both to contain China, and to earn back the status of diplomatic power lately seized by China. However, with much left to be done domestically, we should not expect the U.S. to play a safeguard of multilateralism for the good of the world. Of course, the U.S. will support some initiatives but there is a risk that such moves will be limited to symbolism only given that the domestic situation is difficult both in terms of political set up and capabilities. The Paris Agreement, for example, can be signed but only hardly fulfilled. Petr Boháček advocates this prediction as follows: “[Biden] is the status quo president that does not want to cut all the subsidies and ban fracking; he is not progressive, he is moderate, he is a centrist; and he will have to work with the Republicans [...].” 


Dependent Europe and its prospect for self-reliance

NATO stands for the synonym of European security. Yet, with European share of NATO defense spending being less than 30% and an unhappy debate on the 2% GDP contribution, European security is very much on the shoulders of the American partner. Both sides of the Atlantic are aware. “Cooperation cannot be dependence.” Macron told Biden. This goes hand in hand with a European strategic reassessment and the “European Army” debate.

With the U.S. being busy elsewhere, now more than ever, Europe must be able to take care of its own neighbourhood. And in order to be able to, Europe must get united on the range of disputing issues: common voice, security perception, security and defense cooperation, etc. But NATO, not the EU army will be the cornerstone of European security. The EU cannot cut the U.S. off and expect to substitute their expertise in the fields of power projection, cyber, space, etc. The EU must avoid dependency but cannot avoid cooperation.

Trans-Atlantic cooperation must be restored after the damaging effect of Trump’s “The European Union is worse than China” approach. Unlike Trump, Biden will keep Europe on his side of the table, not on the other. The U.S. will expect European assistance and support against China, especially on 5G technology, alliances in the Indo-Pacific area, or trade rules. 

Conclusion

The U.S. approach to European security is about to experience a change, but one that could hardly be proclaimed a “return to status-quo”. The U.S. foreign policy proceeds forward across the presidencies and differs rather in the overall tone than priorities. China is to remain the main focus of U.S. foreign policy but will be accompanied by the continued attention to Russia. These geopolitical threats and the change in the White House’s diplomatic approach will push the Trans-Atlantic partners closer together despite the crisis of multilateralism.

The new Biden’s presidency is believed to carry a change but this is rather limited both to and by the domestic scene. For this reason, too, Europe should seek self-reliance in the security domain. Dependence is one thing, interdependence another. The European path towards security responsibility must start within Europe itself but cannot proceed without help from the other side of the Atlantic. 

The partners face both new and old threats. Rising China, rogue Russia, loss of trust in multinationalism, climate change, unstable Middle East... The trans-Atlantic partners must cooperate under the new circumstances. It must be a priority for European security and defence to look forward instead of backwards. The European nostalgia for the past should give way to responsibility and reality


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Both podcast episodes of the ESJ Insight with a Czech analyst Petr Boháček and Dr. Richard Andres, a professor at the U.S. National War College, you can listen on SpotifyGoogle PodcastsiTunesSpreakerDeezerPodcast Addict and Podchaser.

About author: Eliška Pohnerová

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