Of all the differences between the Biden and Trump approaches to foreign policy, alliance relations will represent one of the most dramatic. Donald Trump’s skepticism of American allies has been well-known: they are, in his mind, largely free-riding countries enriching themselves under U.S. protection, underinvesting in defense, insufficiently sharing the financial burden, and generally taking advantage of an overly-generous American people. The pledge by NATO members at the 2014 Wales Summit to spend two percent of GDP on defense assumed a totemic quality in recent years, and Trump periodically expressed public skepticism about Washington’s willingness to defend allies under threat. Key decisions – on troop levels in Afghanistan, for instance, and about withdrawal from the INF Treaty – were reportedly made with little allied consultation.
Joe Biden pledges a very different approach. During the presidential campaign he said that, if elected, one of his first tasks would be to let allies know that “America is back,” and indeed his first rounds of phone calls with foreign leaders has been heavily ally-dominated. This new disposition is part of a larger break the new team wishes to signal with its predecessor’s unilateral, America-first approach to foreign affairs. The distinction will go well beyond Trump-Biden differences in inclination and tone; the new administration holds that, in a world driven by great power competition and profound transnational challenges, only by working with like-minded countries can America secure its interests and values. To do otherwise, incoming officials opine, would be to forfeit their greatest comparative advantage - America’s global network of alliances and partnerships.
Naysayers, particularly among NATO-watchers, suggest that for all Biden’s good intentions, key alliances will never be the same. Trump-era inconsistency and rhetorical hostility, some suggest, have raised ineradicable questions in Europe and elsewhere about American commitment and staying power. The genie cannot be returned to the bottle and, even if it can, how long will it stay? Having faced with a previously-unimaginable tone in American leadership over four years, some now say that the only responsible course for U.S. allies is to hedge – with European strategic autonomy, say, or perhaps a greater degree of accommodation.
It is worth recalling that American alliances have been under strain in the past and always survived. Indeed, a serious breach has tended to flare up between the United States and its European allies every 15 or 20 years going back to the 1950s. In the Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, Reagan’s deployment of Pershing II missiles, and 2003 invasion of Iraq, we’ve seen variants on the movie before. This time could be so different as to make American alliances irreparable, but that seems exceedingly unlikely.
It’s unlikely because the interests that compelled those alliances in the first place – a snarling and thuggish Russia, a dangerous North Korea, Asian security concerns focused once on Soviets and now on Beijing – largely remain. In essence, alliances are insurance policies against possible threats. Just as threats endure, so does the case for insurance. This reality is lost neither on American policymakers nor their counterparts abroad.
The more pressing question may be not whether President Biden can repair America’s alliances but whether the prospect of his doing so will unreasonably raise expectations. Already, the European Union has responded to his election by making a “once-in-a-generation” offer of cooperation across multiple domains. German leaders publicly welcomed Biden’s victory, no doubt hoping to move beyond the particular pique Trump seemed to reserve for Berlin. One senses among some European leaders the hope of America’s quick return to a pre-Trump status quo ante.
And yet as the new American president repairs relationships, seeks collective action, and renews a sense of American leadership, some issues won’t magically disappear. Key NATO members still underinvest in their militaries, creating a serious imbalance within the alliance. Washington will continue to seek an end to the Afghanistan war, and most allied deployments there can remain only with an enduring American presence. The United States is increasingly focused on competition with China, leaving Washington eventually seeking a Europe that does more in its own region rather than less. Biden wishes to return “values issues” like democracy and human rights to the center of U.S. foreign policy; how will that play with allies like Turkey or Hungary, or the Philippines and Thailand, for that matter?
There are no easy answers to such questions, but then alliance management has never been an easy affair. Perhaps the best starting to point is to do no harm, repair where one can, and build toward shared objectives from there. Biden’s off to a good start.
Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and executive director of the Trilateral Commission’s North American group.