Biden said that, following calls with numerous world leaders, he and his administration hope “to begin re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied from four years of neglect and abuse.”
It’s a signal both expected and welcomed by many abroad. Biden has already rejoined the Paris climate agreement, rescinded the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization and pledged greater U.S. aid to poor countries combating the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, his administration announced plans to restore the U.S. refugee resettlement program to levels higher than those even under the Obama administration.
Echoing his rhetoric on the campaign trail, Biden also spoke of bolstering democracy at home and abroad, and of confronting the autocratic influence of single-party states like China. “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing determination of China to rival the United States, and the determination of Russia to damage our democracy,” Biden said, concluding his remarks by reiterating his intent to reclaim the “mantle” of global leadership.
There’s no doubt that most European leaders are relieved by the vision and commitments of the new U.S. administration. But that doesn’t mean they will follow Biden’s lead in lockstep on the world stage. The ultranationalism of former president Donald Trump and the bruising experience of Brexit further convinced officials in Berlin, Paris and Brussels of the need to pursue a more independent European approach and to build greater capacity for self-reliance after more than half a century of sheltering beneath the American security umbrella.
In remarks aired Thursday during a dialogue with the Atlantic Council, French President Emmanuel Macron cheered Biden’s arrival, but emphasized his vision of “European sovereignty,” where the continent takes more ownership of its security and more proactively reckons with crises in its neighborhood, from North Africa to Russia’s borderlands.
“Some leaders, some players in Europe, could be convinced that a realignment of the agenda with new U.S. administration should weaken our strategic autonomy or at least reduces … the relevance of such a strategy,” he said. “I don’t believe [for] one second it’s the case.”
The experience of the Trump years has shifted Europe’s strategic thinking. The dramatic Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol reflected not just the volatility of U.S. politics, but the extent to which domestic polarization could subsume future foreign policy. “It showed how fragile democracy can be, not just in the United States but here as well,” Anna Stahl, a Berlin-based analyst, told New York magazine. “And one lesson from that could be, in addition to the fact that the U.S. is divided, that we need to focus more on European solidarity.”
Macron said Europeans should be wary of finding themselves in situations where they are dependent on U.S. decision-making, “because any U.S. decision which is democratic could be led by a domestic approach, could be led by a domestic agenda, and obviously the reasonable weight of the U.S. interests … could not be exactly the same as the European one.”
Then there’s the question of Europe’s approach to China. The Biden administration has adopted a hawkish pose similar to its predecessor, and there’s constant talk in Washington of building a reinvigorated alliance of democracies that may more directly confront Beijing.
That’s not something the Europeans are excited about. “I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the World Economic Forum last week. “I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other.”
Macron echoed this sentiment Thursday, arguing that a scenario “where we join all together against China” would be “counterproductive.” At the same time, he also rejected the assumption that Europeans saw themselves as equidistant or neutral in the growing rivalry between the old American hegemon and the emerging Chinese leviathan. China, in Macron’s words, is a “competitor” and “systemic rival,” even as it may also be a “partner” to Europe when it comes to global action on climate change.
In practice, though, that’s a tricky tightrope to walk. This week, the E.U.’s Green Deal chief, Frans Timmermans, came under fire for not raising the question of human rights in a teleconference with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng on climate policy. “China is seeing it from a competitive angle,” Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico Europe. “If we approach this from a slightly naive, mere climate angle, we will be outsmarted by the Chinese side relatively quickly.”
Some analysts also scorned an investment deal the E.U. recently signed with China that took place without consultation with the incoming Biden administration. “Europe has made its views crystal clear,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead. “Uighurs, Hong Kong and the growing military threats in and around the South China Sea matter much less to European policy makers than their commercial interests do.”
Macron shrugged away such criticism. He said the E.U.-China pact was “not a transformational deal.” It provided Europe important access to the Chinese market and secured China’s commitments to certain international labor practices. If nothing else, said Macron, “this is a test of the reality of a good-faith discussion” with Beijing.