30th Jan 2023


China, not Europe, keeps policy makers in Washington awake at night

Listen to article

Last week was good for Western democracies. In the Midterm elections in the United States, which usually prove to be a slaughterhouse for the sitting president's party, the Democrats scored much better than many had predicted. They even managed to keep a short majority in the Senate. Moreover, moderate Republican candidates performed significantly better than extremist Republican candidates endorsed by Donald Trump. This may give the moderates a stronger voice again in their party. Significantly, it seems that most Republican losers have accepted the results.

While many European policy makers and citizens expressed a sigh of relief that the US democracy proved to be more resilient than many had feared, this result still does not mean Europe will be able to rest on its laurels. Trump as a politician may seem to have lost his wild magic, but Trumpism has made deep marks in American society and politics. Because of the war in Ukraine, Europe is as heavily reliant on the U.S. for its security and prosperity as it was during the cold war. But it would be a mistake to assume that with Democrats or moderate Republicans strengthened in Washington, it will be safe in both areas in the coming years.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Europeans must realise that there is only one issue that keeps policy makers in Washington awake at night: the rise of China. Everything else is secondary. When President Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the U.S. came to Ukraine's aid swiftly and generously. To this day, US military, financial and other assistance exceeds Europe's, by far.

During the past half year, Washington has partly reversed its steady withdrawal of US military personnel from Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the cold war in 1989. But still, Europe is hardly able to protect and defend itself. For all the talk about 'strategic autonomy', Europe's security and defence rely on NATO, an organisation in which the U.S. has long borne the lion's share of costs and responsibility.

As President Biden famously declared, "America is back" in Europe, to help its NATO allies and Ukraine. An additional motive for Washington to prevent a quick Russian victory in Ukraine, White House security adviser Tom Wright suggested in last week's Rachman Review podcast, has to do with China: such a Russian victory would have made the formation of a strong anti-American and anti-Western, Russian-Chinese bloc more likely. Russia is retreating in Ukraine, and China does not want to appear supporting the losing side. Beijing is stepping up its rhetoric and its military exercises to intimidate Taiwan; the last thing President Xi needs now is to tie his fate to an ever-weaker Russia.

From day one of the Ukraine war, both US Democrats and Republicans have been pushing for Europe to contribute more to both the war effort in Ukraine and to its own defence. During the US election campaigns in recent weeks, domestic criticism of America's heavy involvement in Europe has been a resounding theme for both left-leaning Democratic candidates and many Republicans. It would be an illusion to think these voices will be silenced after Joe Biden's strong electoral performance in the Midterms.

Europe needs to work harder to secure its own defence. Washington's calls for European governments to step up their efforts will increase rather than decrease. As a former American defence official said the other day, "We can't fight two wars at once."

There is another area in which America will be more assertive toward Europe, and that is the economy. Even though the Trumpian insults against European companies and governments "stealing American jobs" have subsided, president Biden increasingly wants Washington to focus on fierce rivalry with China. Biden wants to win that race. One of the consequences for Europe, which is suffering an economic cold turkey without cheap Russian gas and heading for a recession, is that it now comes under intense US pressure to do less business with China. President "Make America Great Again" Trump showered European manufacturers with high import tariffs and much verbal abuse. Joe Biden is much more polite. But he, too, is trying to make the United States less dependent on China.

This 'decoupling' means that the US will produce more of its own and reduce imports from China and elsewhere. For example, the Chips Act, which came into effect last August, aims to renationalise computer chip production. And this year's Inflation Reduction Act is designed to do the same for electric car parts. This policy, analysts say, will lead to more state aid and protectionism.

The current, fierce dispute between Brussels and Washington over American tax breaks for those purchasing American electric vehicles — a scheme that appears to suddenly render European-manufactured electric cars uncompetitive — may just be a foretaste of what is to come. For instance, as Europe hurriedly buys more liquefied gas from the United States to compensate for the unavailability of Russian gas, some US policy makers are already calling for this gas to be exclusively reserved for American households and businesses.

All this forces Europe to collectively carve out sound strategies for boosting and protecting its own economy, security and defence in the coming years. At a point in time when it is militarily and economically increasingly dependent on the United States, this will be a challenging exercise.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a European affairs columnist for NRC, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in NRC.


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


'Emancipatory catastrophism' — why being scared works wonders

The current energy crisis is a good example of "emancipatory catastrophism" — the idea that humanity only moves forward out of fear for a catastrophe. Sometimes one needs a looming disaster to change what should have been changed long ago.


Give Russians more visas — not fewer

It would be unwise to stop letting Russians in. Europe's aim is to stop the war in Ukraine and for Russia to withdraw completely from Ukraine. And that can only happen if Russian citizens start resisting the war.


Why it's harder than ever to chase autocrats from power

Modern dictators wear suits instead of uniforms. They hold referendums and opinion polls, and chat with citizens. This democratic façade allows them to mingle with the Davos crowd, keep foreign investors onboard, and, crucially, deliver economic growth for their citizens.

How one pioneering Italian woman transformed EU law

The story of how Wilma Viscardini, a young female lawyer in a town in northern Italy in the 1950s, pioneered using new, liberal European legislation on issues like the free movement of workers or consumer rights, to help citizens.

Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency

The director of Amnesty International Greece on the political spying scandal that now threatens to bring down prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Activists and NGO staff work with the constant fear that they are being spied on.

Latest News

  1. No internet, light, heat: how war-hit Ukrainians remote-work
  2. Mars, god of war, returns to Europe
  3. Fears on migration plus Ukraine summit this WEEK
  4. Pressure mounts on EU to coordinate visas for Russian rights-defenders
  5. Dutch set to agree to US-led chip controls to China
  6. No record of Latvian MEP's 'official' Azerbaijan trip
  7. Why the new ECHR Ukraine-Russia ruling matters
  8. Europe continues to finance Russia's war in Ukraine with lucrative fossil fuel trades

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  2. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  3. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  4. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  2. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  3. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  5. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  6. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us