President Biden’s arrival in the White House has brought optimistic predictions that U.S. relations with Europe are about to get a major positive overhaul, but a slate of thorny issues that divided the two sides during the Trump years isn’t going away.
While many on the continent are eagerly embracing Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — the latter of whom spent much of his upbringing in Paris — analysts say it’s an open question whether Washington and the European Union can see eye to eye on issues such as energy policy and sharing the costs of mutual defense.
Germany’s deal with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline, American unease over a newly inked EU-Chinese investment deal, and the question of whether NATO members are spending enough on their own defense are just a few of the sticking points lurking in the backdrop when Mr. Biden makes his first major speech to European allies at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.
“The disagreements between the U.S. and Europe have not gone away,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a former high-level U.S. diplomat who heads the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
While President Trump was celebrated by right-wing and nationalist parties in several nations, Europe’s ruling establishment across most of the continent privately loathed his unorthodox, at times abrasive rhetorical style, and skepticism of the value of the EU and NATO.
While the issues complicating the trans-Atlantic relationship are “real,” Mr. Rathke said, disputes “were in some cases exacerbated by the Trump administration’s approach, which in my view was needlessly antagonistic and sometimes gratuitously antagonistic toward our European allies.”
Mr. Biden’s vow to set a new course of engagement with allies will be put to the test separately Friday when — in addition to Munich — he participates in a virtual meeting with the Group of Seven, leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest democracies. Mr. Trump was supposed to have hosted the meeting last year.
Biden administration officials he plans to focus mainly on global COVID-19 responses and the world economy but will also press for ways the group can better work together in dealing with China.
Former German State Secretary Wolfgang Ischinger suggests that may be a heavy lift but that the moment is ripe for Mr. Biden.
“I do not believe that the obstacles that would prevent the United States and Europe to see eye to eye, for example, on China and on Russia and other [issues] are insurmountable,” Mr. Ischinger told a virtual discussion Wednesday hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington.
But, he added, “we need somebody in Washington who is willing to talk to us and whom we can trust. We didn’t really have that for the last four years.”
Eye on China
China’s growing diplomatic and financial success in Europe is a source of mounting concern in Washington. It reached new heights in 2019 when Italy became the first Western European power to officially join Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure program.
The Trump administration characterized the Chinese program as a way to entrap weaker nations with predatory loans and aggressively pressed European nations to shun Chinese technology giants such as Huawei in the information and communications networks, with uneven results.
The EU went ahead with a significant investment accord with China despite clear reservations from the Biden administration, which unsuccessfully lobbied for a delay in the signing last month. The EU touts the agreement as the most ambitious ever signed between China and another country, providing Chinese companies access to many sectors including telecoms and Europe’s electric cars and hybrid vehicles.
Mr. Biden faces some popular headwinds as well in repairing America’s image and clout.
In a recent poll, the European Council on Foreign Relations found that while most Europeans rejoiced at Mr. Biden’s victory in November, many don’t think he can help the U.S. make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader.
“Majorities in key member states now think the U.S. political system is broken,” according to the poll summary, while “a majority [also] believe that China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade and would want their country to stay neutral in a conflict between the two superpowers.”
On a separate front, heated debate over military spending among European allies appears likely to continue in the years ahead, despite Mr. Biden’s desire to soothe soreness among NATO members in the wake Mr. Trump’s demands that they pay more.
In an effort to improve “burden sharing” — the way the 30 member countries contribute cash, military hardware and troops to operations run by the world’s more powerful military alliance — Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proposed Wednesday that the allies jointly fund more of NATO’s work.
The plan would mean using a NATO budget to pay for battle groups of troops on standby in member countries bordering Russia, aerial policing operations, the deployment of warships on permanent maritime duties and military exercises. Mr. Stoltenberg pushed the idea at a meeting Wednesday of NATO defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for the first time.
Nine of the 30 NATO countries, meanwhile, are set to meet the target figure of 2% of gross domestic product for defense spending this year — up from three in 2014, according to The Associated Press. Washington still spends more than all of its allies combined.
But NATO members are braced for Mr. Biden to be just as demanding about military spending. The tone may change, but not the substance of a complaint that has been made by U.S. presidents for well over a decade.
Less clear is whether the Biden administration will take a stand on the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project linking Russia and Germany, a priority of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been trying to halt for years.
Sens. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, wrote a letter to the administration last week pressing for action on a sanctions decision. Congress has mandated a report, due this week, to identify companies involved in the Nord Stream project that may be subject to the sanctions.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers added to the pressure Wednesday with their own letter to Mr. Blinken, saying the completed pipeline would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerous strategic leverage over Western Europe.
“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” wrote Reps. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat; Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican; and Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat.
The majority of Europe “opposes the Kremlin-backed pipeline, particularly in light of the poisoning and wrongful arrest of leading Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition figure Alexey Navalny,” the lawmakers wrote.
The pipeline has long been vexing for Ms. Merkel, whose government allowed German firms to work with Russian companies toward its completion despite outcry from Washington.
“I don’t think that Joe Biden would like to start his presidency by having a fight with Angela Merkel about sanctions on German companies” over Nord Stream 2. “Nord Stream 2 is important, but not the most important thing in the U.S. relationship.”
“What the Biden administration needs is a way to put the issue in the context of an overall strategic mind-meld with Germany. If you can have an agreement with regard to how the U.S. and European allies are going to deal with Russia, then you can allow Nord Stream 2. But if you don’t have that agreement, you’re damned.”