Press play to listen to this article
BERLIN — Joe Biden may be riding high at home with approval ratings Donald Trump could only dream of, but that’s unlikely to help him much this week as he tries to win over a notoriously ornery constituency for any U.S. president: Europe.
Biden will address Europeans directly for the first time since taking office with a keynote scheduled for Friday at the Munich Security Conference. He’ll have a lot of convincing to do.
The virtual appearance will be a homecoming of sorts for Biden, who for decades has been a regular at the annual affair — the Western security wonk’s answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“I promise you … We’ll be back. We’ll be back,” Biden famously told the conference two years ago, speaking after then-Vice President Mike Pence. Biden was rewarded with a standing ovation, even though many in the audience doubted him.
Biden may have proved his skeptics wrong, but the doubts remain. The biggest fear is that Trump too will be back.
“Who’s to say we won’t end up right where we were four years from now?” asked one senior German defense official.
Misgivings like that one have been apparent ever since the November election that brought Biden’s triumph over Trump.
Pressured by Germany, the EU forged ahead with an investment deal with China in December, ignoring requests by the incoming Biden administration to at least wait a few weeks until it was up and running.
The bloc has also pursued its own course on Russia, dispatching its foreign policy chief to Moscow just days after Russia sentenced opposition leader Alexey Navalny to nearly three years in a penal colony. The trip, which turned into a PR disaster for the EU, came just as Biden wanted to show that his administration could build a united Western front against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The worsening spat between Washington and Berlin over Germany’s pursuit of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline coupled with Biden’s “Made In America” initiative to protect U.S. industry from foreign imports have also put a damper on relations between the new administration and Europe.
In his Munich speech, Biden, who will also take part in a video conference with G7 leaders on Friday, will try to steer the transatlantic relationship off the rocky road it has been on and coax the Europeans back onside.
Worry about a Trump redux isn’t the only reason that the undertaking will be difficult.
The world has changed since Biden was last in power as then-President Barack Obama’s vice president. Europe has deepened its dependence on China, for example, to a degree that once seemed unthinkable. Last year China even surpassed the U.S. as the EU’s largest trading partner (the U.S. remains Europe’s largest export market, however). In recent weeks, calls have gotten louder in many EU countries for the bloc to approve China’s coronavirus vaccine, a further sign that trust in the authoritarian country is on the rise across the Continent.
Indeed, while there’s bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that China represents a fundamental threat to Western democracy, Europeans are much more sanguine. That’s due in large part to Europe’s desire to maintain and expand commercial ties with China.
Germany, with its auto and engineering sectors deeply vested in the country, is often the driver of Europe’s China push. But many smaller countries are happy to go along for the ride, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, which Beijing has wooed with the promise of investment.
Yet those same countries are torn between a desire to explore economic opportunities with China and their dependence on the U.S. for security. Those competing interests were on display last week at a meeting of the so-called 17+1, a forum created by Beijing to build ties with 17 Central and Eastern European countries. Half of the 12 EU national leaders invited to the club failed to show up to pay homage to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hosted the event. But the other half did participate, perhaps concerned about the consequences of not doing so.
Biden is likely to be sensitive to those pressures for the simple reason that they also exist for the U.S. For all of Washington’s suspicions about China, America’s economic entanglement with China is no less profound.
A life-long believer in America’s role as the world’s organizing power, Biden has signaled in past speeches his conviction that the U.S. and Europe can quickly turn the page on the Trump era and return to the halcyon days of transatlantic cooperation.
For the U.S., Europe represents not just America’s most important trading partner, but a strategic linchpin in confronting global adversaries from Russia to China to Islamic terror. That’s why bringing Europe back onside is essential for Biden if his foreign policy agenda is to succeed.
His challenge will be to convince Europe that despite the economic opportunities China represents, opening Europe’s door too wide to Beijing risks undermining the EU itself, as China uses its economic leverage to drive a wedge in the bloc as it pursues its own agenda.
The good news for Biden is that while Europe may have drifted closer to China, it has yet to pull away from the U.S. Notwithstanding recent rumblings in Paris and some other European capitals that Europe should pursue “strategic autonomy” — that is to effectively decouple from Washington — such initiatives have so far gone nowhere, mainly as a result of the EU’s own divisions.
Indeed, perhaps the main lesson of the Trump years in Europe was that without U.S. leadership, it was left adrift in the world, pulled in different directions by competing powers and its own fissures.
That’s why Biden’s biggest challenge this week isn’t to prove that a return to the past is in America’s interest, but in Europe’s.