Many Europeans and their government leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief when, after an unexpectedly close election, the state of Pennsylvania was called in favour of Joe Biden, making him the near-inevitable next President of the United States.
Donald Trump’s surprise election fur years ago led to a series of diplomatic crises that are too numerous to count – the undermining of European integration by our erstwhile closest ally, threats of leaving NATO, and general chaos and disarray in Atlantic relations. With a committed Atlanticist and old school multilateralist in the White House yet again, European leaders may feel as if they have woken up from a nightmare they can now leave behind and hopefully forget.
As with the election of Joe Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, twelve years ago, Europeans may end up disappointed. A Biden Presidency will not pivot the US back to Europe. It will not change US demographic trends, as a result of which a decreasing share of the population will be of European descent. Nor will it likely be able to reinvigorate the political will of the US electorate to pay for and act as the world’s policeman. If Europe wants to remain relevant in a post-Cold War, multipolar world, it will have to do so itself, rather than being made relevant by its protector, the US. Europe will have to be able to extinguish fires in its own backyard, as Obama also encouraged it to do.
In addition to these precautions, there are two important reasons that Europe may come to regret Donald Trump’s departure from the world stage much more than it anticipates.
The first reason is that Trump’s hostility to NATO and reluctance to keep covering up European free-riding on US defense spending jolted European policymakers into a sense of responsibility for its own protection outside the US defense umbrella. And rightly so. NATO is, after all, a product of the Cold War, an era which ended thirty years ago and whose main antagonist no longer exists. Nevertheless, the US has continued to subsidise European defense, despite discrete admonitions by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for Europe to step up its game.
Despite Trump’s crude and often damaging rhetoric, it is nothing less than reasonable to expect Europe to honor its two percent spending commitment and to deliver value to a partnership that, after all, goes both ways. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declarations in 2017 and 2018 that Europe can no longer necessarily rely on US protection are encouraging in this regard. So are French President Emmanuel Macron’s defence ambitions. (It is a concern, however, that political will in favour of higher defence spending remains astoundingly low across most of Europe.)
A hope that President-elect Biden will restore Atlantic relations ‘back to normal’ is not only naive, it also risks undoing the progress, however slim, that Europe has made toward taking responsibly for its own security. European leaders would do well to heed the warning of Donald Trump’s election and enduring popularity. After all, the US has been staunchly isolationist for most of its history. The isolationist strain remains strong in US politics and is not exclusive to the Republican Party or Trumpism. Despite the reprieve posed by Biden, Europe should not lull back into complacency about the US role in the world and remain vigilant about its own defence.
A second reason is the West’s engagement with China, which may be the defining relationship of the 21st century. Although are legitimate doubts about the economic benefits of trade wars and tariffs, the fact remains that our relationship with China has been less than reciprocal (or, in Trump’s words, “VERY UNFAIR!”) since its accession to the WTO in 2001. Here as well, Europe has for too long remained naive and complacent about the threat that China poses culturally, politically, militarily and economically, thinking instead that engagement, dialogue and trade would make China more democratic and more ‘like us’.
Over the past four years, EU leaders have finally taken steps, however small, to combat China’s corporate espionage, intellectual property theft, unfair competition practices, predatory sovereign lending, increasingly aggressive rhetoric and defence policy, among other threats. I would wager it is in no small part thanks to Trump’s departure from diplomatic norms toward a confrontation that European countries have finally started taking this threat seriously, and seriously weighing the pros and cons of our relationship with China – without being blinded by free trade and liberal internationalist ideologies.
It is regretful that it took someone like Trump to wake Europe up from its naiveté about its relations with both the US and China. But here we are. We should do well to benefit from the lessons we have drawn over the last four years.