Thursday

3rd Dec 2020

Opinion

If Biden wins tonight, this is what EU can expect

  • Joe Biden pictured in Brussels in 2015, when he was serving as vice-president to Barack Obama (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

If Joe Biden is elected tonight (Tuesday, 3 November), there will be a sigh of relief in most European capitals. Understandably so – the transatlantic partnership would be unlikely to survive another four years of Trump.

However, that should not blind us to the fact that the Biden presidency will not be a walk in the park for Europeans, either.

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Biden's own foreign policy record is a mixed bag, and while rhetorically he will style himself as the quintessential anti-Trump – a thoughtful, reliable, and thoroughly multilateralist partner to Europe – there will be at least as much continuity in substance between Trump and Biden as there was between Trump and his predecessor.

True, there will be bows to liberal pieties: rejoining the Paris Agreement and (possibly but less likely) also the Iran Deal, and steering away from unilateral moves that make Europeans nervous.

Yet, fundamentally, US foreign policy will continue to be shaped primarily by power competition with China and the looming crises in the Indo-Pacific region, and not by European concerns.

The United States is in no rush to address the regional sources of instability in Syria, North Africa, or the Caucasus.

In the Middle East, not unlike Trump in 2016, Biden promises to "end the forever wars," bringing US troops home and "narrowly [defining] our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State."

Doubling down on the current policy of disengagement is legitimate, though Biden himself called Trump's withdrawal from Syria "a complete failure."

In any area of policy, there are errors of commission and errors of omission and the sequence of decisions starting with Obama's 2013 refusal to intervene in Syria falls squarely into the latter camp – as does the West's earlier failure to devise a comprehensive strategy for stabilising Libya after Gaddafi.

Continuing to give local revisionist powers - Russia, Turkey, and Iran – a free rein in Europe's southern and eastern neighbourhood, as the Biden administration is likely to do, is hardly in Europe's interests.

Fill the void

And, unfortunately, the past four years showed that Europeans themselves are not keen to fill the void, notwithstanding lowest common denominator efforts at common foreign and security policy.

It remains unclear how the question of China will shape global economic relations.

One straightforward way to curb Chinese economic abuses, for example, involves forging economic partnerships with likeminded nations – joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and resuming talks with the EU over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

But that will be difficult for Biden who promised the left flank of its party not to "enter into any new trade agreements until we have invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy."

In fact, such a non-committal approach, reflecting the trauma of 2016, may be bad politics. After all, Americans today support free trade in record numbers.

More seriously, together with Biden's explicit vow to heed to labour and environmental interests during any trade negotiations, Americans and Europeans risk missing an opportunity to move in a direction of a more tightly-integrated Atlantic economy with all the economic and geopolitical benefits this would bring.

The outlook is not altogether bleak. There is a decent chance that the current administration's assault on the World Trade Organization (WTO), paralysing its Appellate Body, will be reversed under the Biden presidency.

Laudably, Biden also promises "a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world," to stop democratic backsliding in countries such as Hungary, Poland, or Turkey, and "forge a common agenda" for the world's democracies.

Yet, what will such an initiative mean in concrete terms?

Ostracising Turkey within Nato, for example, is feasible only when the US and Western allies are willing to play the role of counterbalancing Russia in the eastern Mediterranean – something that seems unlikely.

Also, while the Trump administration has actively cheered on the dismantling of liberal democracy in Poland and Hungary, the bulk of Viktor Orbán's authoritarian takeover happened under Obama's watch, leaving the US administration frankly hapless.

Can Biden succeed in reversing the backsliding – following years of failed efforts by European leaders and earlier by the Obama administration?

Paradoxically, Europeans ought to temper Biden's ambition to break with the Trump era in a number of areas.

It would be a pity if some of the real achievements of the past four years found themselves in jeopardy just because they first materialised under Trump's watch: the comprehensive US sanctions regime imposed on Russia, the strengthening of Nato's military presence on its Eastern flank, the efforts to diversify central and eastern Europe's energy supplies away from Russian gas through investment into LNG infrastructure, or the normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab nations.

True, the looming change in Washington is an opportunity.

Yet, Europeans should not be naïve about the challenges that the transatlantic relationship will face in the coming years – most of them structural but some likely to be exacerbated by impulses that president Joe Biden might find difficult to resist.

Author bio

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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