Biden „will be back”, but will he really do so?

8 min read

Enjoying some well-deserved social un-distancing after months of lockdown we had a nice chat with a few fellow minded friends about the upcoming events of the world. The conversation quickly turned to the US presidential election, clearly one of the defining moments of the years to come.

Even though it might be quite early to dump Trump, at least according to election whiz/statistician Nate Silver, currently Joe Biden is the frontrunner of the show. If the election were held today, he might even win in a landslide.

Yet, with all the mental precautions this turned out to be a good brain game: how will transatlantic relations look like under (President) Joe Biden?

Many claim that the Trump Era, with its hostile/erratic foreign policy leaves a wound that’ll only slowly, if ever, heal. (Though, at least according to a 2018 survey by Foreign Affairs, only a few experts deemed the damage “irreparable”.) For seven decades the transatlantic partnership has been the foundation of the international order. Firmly based on a network of institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Community and later the European Union, as well as international organizations such as the IMF or the WTO, the transatlantic relationship was built to provide the normative grounds on which the (liberal) international order would rest. The current President undermined exactly these core democratic principles, including the notion of collective defense, linking together the two sides of the Atlantic. He wages a trade war not only against China, but against the EU, as well. (And Canada, for that matter.)

“I will be back” (The Terminator)

Democratic policymakers tend to support more U.S. commitment to alliances, investment in international organizations, multilateral crisis resolution, recovering America’s moral leadership for human rights, and addressing climate change. Biden, thanks to his many years in US (foreign) policy has close working relationships with many European leaders, including Angela Merkel. Biden’s underlying policy has always been, it’s better to talk than not talk,” and “don’t make threats you can’t deliver on”.

A few months ago, Biden said he would “prefer to focus” his energies on “bringing the international community together” to combat the novel COVID-19 pandemic and the economic pain it has caused. He also promised to use the full force of the federal government if he wins to make foreign aggressors pay. He said he would enlist the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Department of State and the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.

Based on the above, many hope that Joe Biden, who told European leaders on the 2019 Munich Security Conference that “we’ll be back”, will fulfill the European wish list: eliminate tariffs, join the fight against climate change, reaffirm commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, pay more attention to neglected theaters like the Baltic or the Black Sea, Iran, etc.. Quoting his words: “serious coordination and consensus-building” with the allies of America. Or in one expression: “business as usual”. Or, even better: some hope, that a “Biden administration will do more than restore historic partnerships: it will lead the effort to reimagine them for the future”.

“The unknown future rolls toward us.” (Sarah Connor)

There might be some surprises for the over-optimistic. Reimagining things for the future might not end up looking or feeling like it was before. The problem with transatlantic relations is that it was not Donald Trump in one person, who created the issues undermining trust. His undiplomatic style only exposed them. They were there, basically ever since the creation of the partnership, but were considered more like minor discrepancies.

I worry that the shifts within the US are more structural and are independent of who’s actually sitting in the Oval Office. Social tensions and domestic polarization are soaring, the average American is increasingly isolationist. According to a recent survey, Americans under the age of thirty are more skeptical of the United States’ traditional global role, adding further uncertainty to future US commitments to a strong transatlantic relationship.

The truth is, that the US stayed in Europe after 1945 because three different types of interest were at work: deterring the Soviet Union from dominating the continent, providing markets for the American economy and aligning with the social/cultural interests of an extremely europhile and eurocentric (political) elite.

That was back in the 1940s and 1950s. Since that time, many things have changed. First and foremost, their commitment to Europe is no longer certain, and there is a lack of clarity on Europe’s place vis-à-vis the economic and strategic interests of the United States. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Asia, Europe ceased to be the single most important front. This is true even if US-EU relations are still important. Secondly, American politics became extremely polarized, to which relations with Europe can easily fall victim. Thirdly, the cultural foundation for the transatlantic relationship has changed: liberals are increasingly multicultural, but conservatives have also moved away from the pro-Europe posture, many of them embracing an ethnonationalist sensibility that is more anti-immigrant, anti-internationalist.

“That future doesn’t exist. I changed it.” (Sarah Connor)

Yes, Biden might bring back the US to the negotiating table, because that is the kind of politics he is good at, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that business will be back as usual.

We identified a few hot potatoes that are unlikely to disappear even if Trump vacates the Oval Office, most importantly because they appeared before him:

Defense cooperation

While the issue of fair burden-sharing between the US and its Europeans allies is as old as the Alliance itself, no other US President before Trump has gone as far as to threaten to withdraw American forces from Europe. Biden might be less outspoken, but is unlikely that we’ll hear from him “Hi folks, you don’t need to spend 2 percent of your GDP on defense”. Nor will he necessarily maintain the current level of American presence on European soil or keep the barracks at their current locations.

Biden has endorsed different military operations (Serbia, Iraq, Syria, Libya), but he has been clear that military force cannot be used for the purposes of regime change. And even though he has not ruled out the use of force for humanitarian purposes and pre-emptive protection of American interests at home and abroad, the heyday of “democracy/nation building adventures” so prominent during previous administrations might also be over.

The US was always reluctant to enter the conflicts of the Old Continent, and the relationship was not always peaceful: don’t forget the great schism caused by the intervention in Iraq. The Obama administration also did quite a few “repivoting” and “balancing”. This was already reflected in the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) released in June 2016, only few days after the results of the Brexit vote and before Trump won. The Strategy stressed the need for the EU to achieve “strategic autonomy” from the US security guarantees. Evolving geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region could impede Joe Biden from focusing fully on improving ties with European allies.


I wrote extensively about EU-China relations a few weeks ago (and had a lot of comments, thanks for your feedback).

At the start of his career, Biden was part of the first U.S. delegation to visit Beijing following diplomatic normalization in 1979. After the Cold War, he thought that exploiting the Chinese market and forging economic interdependence would liberalize the Middle Kingdom, so he supported China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And as vice president, he was central to a way too patient Obama-era policy. Just like this, at first, Trump tried to be friends with Xi, he even gave him a green light in two issues: Hong Kong and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjian.

Over the past year, quite similarly to Trump’s, Biden’s position on China has changed dramatically: he takes a tougher stance on China’s human rights violation and strategic competition with the United States. He called Xi Jinping a “thug” for having “a million Uyghurs in ‘reconstruction camps’ meaning concentration camps.” He also said he had challenged China’s no-fly zone claim by threatening to fly B-1 bombers through it. Reacting to the latest events in Hong Kong, Biden also vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state” and to “impose swift economic sanctions” should freedom of speech of U.S. citizens and entities be harmed.

It’s unlikely that Biden will quickly be friends with China, first because he doesn’t want to, and secondly, because he can’t. Three out of four Americans distrust China, according to a Pew poll. As one expert put it, “the contest in campaign 2020 is to see who can hit the panda harder”. Biden’s different leadership style might lead to different approaches, but the substance won’t change. China’s growing military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific poses a serious threat to U.S hegemonic interests in the region. And don’t forget that it was in 2015, under Democratic leadership, that the US was disappointed with EU nations (Germany, France, Italy, UK), who, against the wishes of Washington, joined the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank. Thus, it is still an imperative for the EU to have its own answer.


No matter that Germany considers Nord Stream 2 a very important business deal, bipartisan opposition to it in the Congress and sanction against everyone involved are to stay here. Don’t be fooled by the Twitter-tsunami of Trump, he isn’t the first American politician to oppose the deal, Biden has been a vocal critic of the project at least since 2016, too.

Democrats will also expect that American foreign policy remains committed to keeping in check Russia’s military assertiveness in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, and are less open than, let’s say France and Germany, to reengaging dialogue with Russia over major geopolitical issues. Biden is more likely to listen to smaller Eastern European countries that lived under Soviet repression and who do not believe that Vladimir Putin is interested in more constructive relations.

All in all, Biden’s foreign policy approach is unlikely to lead to a lifting of sanctions on Russia. First, he was one in convincing European partners to institute a sanctions regime against Russia in the first place. Furthermore, in 2017, he urged the Trump administration to maintain sanctions against Russia because of its “continued aggression” toward eastern Ukraine. He also threatened to retaliate against Russia by imposing sanctions, freezing assets, deploying cyberweapons and exposing “corruption” if Vladimir Putin interferes again in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As one of his campaign promises, he wowed to host a “Summit for Democracy” to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”. I have the gut feeling, he didn’t think about inviting Putin over.

Economic relations

US trade policy has always been heavily driven by domestic business interests; it’s always been “America First” without saying it out loud. And since European economy is no longer in the post war coma, arguments became quite regular in the last decade or so. The most contentious issue was of course agriculture, but the Boeing-Airbus fight show the depth of the division over industry, as well.

Trump accused European allies of using “unfair trade practices” (protectionist tariffs), even if US trade is in surplus in services. On June 1, 2018, President Trump imposed a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports from the EU under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. EU imposed retaliatory tariffs. And so on.

It’s unlikely that an eventual Biden administration will drop most of American demands, even though some experts say that they might be willing to seek a compromise on the digital services tax. Good news for Europe, though, that Biden is more likely to try to reach a solution via a TTIP-like multinational agreement, since he stated “Meaningful trade agreements require difficult compromises on both sides, upsetting interest groups”. (This might also be bad news for the UK: London would prefer a bilateral agreement, but Biden is less likely to move in that direction, especially since Democratic Party leaders have been much more lukewarm on Brexit than leading Republicans.)

“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves” (John Connor)

The EU shouldn’t just wait for the US to come back, ready to embrace its old pals. Nor should or can European leaders put the blame for the demise of the most important foreign policy achievement on the US or Trump, should they decide to sit idly on the sidelines.

The future of the transatlantic relationship depends on a great extent on what Europe can offer: not necessarily in total unison with Washington, but keeping in mind mutual interests and strategic goals, offering compromise here or there, etc. EU defense initiatives are going in the right direction, the question is how far they’ll go.

Otherwise, we might end up with Biden saying “Hasta la vista baby” instead.

This was our assessment, but what do you think about EU-US relations under a Biden administration?

  • They’ll be much better
  • They’ll be only slightly better, but more predictable and peaceful
  • They won’t change much
  • They’ll turn even worse, due to European disappointment with Biden

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