After four turbulent years in the transatlantic partnership under President Trump, the Biden administration aspired to rebuild trust among its allies. Under the slogan “America is back” President Biden and senior officials not only emphasized their commitment to the transatlantic partnership but also proposed a future-oriented agenda to increase institutional innovation and resilience.
However, neither the Biden administration nor its European allies can turn back time. In a period of multipolarity and China’s continued rise, the external conditions of transatlantic cooperation have changed. The framing and the challenges differ significantly from the Golden Age of the transatlantic alliance, and the alliance needs to take a proactive position to overcome evolving challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accentuated this need and created a uniting challenge with a common adversary. The war has made it crystal clear that transatlantic cooperation is indispensable when it comes to addressing current and future challenges. The joint approach among allies regarding sanctions on Russia and (military) support for Ukraine is promising for the future of the transatlantic alliance, but buried under this momentary unanimity, old resentments remain.
Vladimir Putin achieved what generations of U.S. Presidents have failed to do: Europe is getting serious about defense spending. Germany – long considered a laggard in achieving the commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense – has decided to significantly increase its military spending under the impression of the Zeitenwende. The United States, European allies, and the European Commission have pulled together to arm Ukraine and bolster European defense. NATO, which prior to the war was declared “brain dead” and “obsolete” has resurged as a powerful force and emphasized its core mission of European territorial defense. However, the question “What would have been?” under a different U.S. administration looms over Europe’s newfound focus on its defenses, particularly looking ahead to unpredictable U.S. midterm elections in 2022. As the midterms quickly meld into the long slog of the 2024 presidential elections, we may see Republican candidates attack Biden and the Democrats by critiquing Europe’s spending as still too little and too late. This strain would make joint leadership on a Marshall Plan for Ukraine and the overall question of rebalancing strategic responsibilities all the more challenging.
On energy policy, Europeans and Americans are united in their struggle with increasing prices, especially for fossil fuels. Pipeline projects like Nord Stream 2 and the overall dependence on Russian oil and gas have been the cause of major disagreement, primarily in the transatlantic relationship but also among Europeans. With Germany as the most vocal supporter revoking its backing for the controversial pipeline, one of the most divisive issues in the transatlantic relationship is off the table. Additionally, there is considerable overlap of interests, for example when it comes to opposing the manipulation of oil prices by OPEC+. Although this shift in Europe’s energy dependence on Russia resolves some historical points of contention, an unbalanced share of economic pain could provoke new tensions. Despite a united transatlantic position, Europe bears most of the burden as it is forced to reconfigure its energy supply. This is likely to feel inequitable to Europe and inspire less empathy on behalf of U.S.-Americans who have long been sounding the alarm bells on energy dependence.
Since Biden took office, the broad focus of transatlantic trade relations has been on resolving tensions. Significant conflicts related to steel and aluminum tariffs, subsidies in the aviation sector, and other Trump-era tariffs have been temporarily allayed – but a durable resolution is not yet in reach. Similarly, the Transatlantic Data Privacy Framework, a crucial step to align data privacy regulations and enable data flows, faces concerns about its longevity given its implementation in the United States by executive order rather than through congressional approval. This reliance on short-term compromises poses a significant challenge to developing a forward-looking transatlantic trade agenda. The Russian invasion prompted closer collaboration between Europe and the United States on sanctions and export controls, but stable structures are needed to solidify the trade relationship moving forward. Against this backdrop, the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) has taken on even greater significance, as the United States and the EU seek to boost and protect a values-based trade order. The hopes for a sturdier transatlantic trade relationship have even resurrected murmurs of a free trade agreement akin to TTIP. However, new disagreements are bubbling under the surface. The United States is jumping ahead on sensitive issues such as outbound investment screening. With competition and threats to national security in mind, the United States has been advancing legislation such as the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act that curtail investment and trade relations with China. Alignment on such legislation related to key technologies and the future of energy will be critical.
The Ukraine conflict has further emphasized the autocracy-democracy divide, a pre-existent framing that leaders have doubled down on in light of the war. This emphasizes the core values underlying the transatlantic relationship, which were tested during the Trump presidency. This rhetorical commitment, however, conflicts with practical concerns as the alliance has sought to diversify energy sources and bolster global support for Ukraine. A nebulous understanding of who counts as a democracy and the need to work with non-democracies to confront Russia and tackle climate change, among myriad other global concerns, is a reality check on the democracy vs. autocracy cleavage. Certainly though, the conflict has leveraged the stance of the United States on China, whose implicit support of Russia has elicited a European hardening and resulted in a more united transatlantic perspective on the Chinese threat. Challengingly, the Biden Administration’s and European leaders’ commitment to strengthening democracy abroad is set against the backdrop of concerning democratic backsliding at home. Fighting this battle on two fronts may mean that efforts to hold Hungary and Poland accountable and address anti-democratic tensions in the United States garner less attention in favor of maintaining a united transatlantic alliance abroad.
The transatlanticist, America-is-back tone of the Biden administration has taken on new meaning as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The devastating war in Ukraine has contributed to a renewed transatlantic synergy and it would be wise to use this moment to resolve past tensions and focus on weather-proofing the relationship, as opposed to providing Band-aid solutions. To do so, Europe needs to get tough on defence by strengthening NATO’s European pillar. The United States and Europe should also strengthen values-based economic ties by resolving standing conflicts and lowering trade barriers. This would help reduce dangerous dependencies and avoid transatlantic estrangement based on diverging perceptions of China’s challenges in the areas of security, trade, and technology. Conversely, committing to free trade measures (or even larger agreements) could serve as a strategic rapprochement to facilitate a joint position on China. Finally, governments will need to seek to contain domestic political stress over energy costs and inflation and focus on quelling right-wing extremist movements and disinformation at home and abroad. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made painfully clear that the transatlantic relationship is a community of interests and values – despite its disagreements – but even more so a Schicksalsgemeinschaft (community of fate). Continued cohesion will demand a view of the transatlantic relationship as stable common ground.