For four long years I received countless emails and text messages from friends of European diplomats affected by the Trump administration's ruthless foreign policy. Last month these messages became grateful expressions of relief and hope for the Biden administration. After suffering a president who treated America's oldest allies with contempt while hugging autocrats and opponents, they look forward to a more cooperative Washington under a Biden administration.
Now is the time for the US to send a message to its friends in Europe: the window of opportunity for reinvestment in transatlantic relations is not unlimited. It is time, dear allies, to band together.
In early December, the European Union published an agenda for cooperation with the United States. It was a remarkably thoughtful and far-reaching document that was clearly not thrown together in the way these papers sometimes are, but the result of forward-thinking policymakers pondering ways a new U.S. administration could bring together for joint action on climate change Technology Policy on Relations with China.
Just a few weeks later, news came that the EU – led by Germany – wanted to sign an investment deal with China before US President Joe Biden took office. The news sparked an unusual tweet from incoming US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the caption of which read, "Could you please wait so we can discuss a joint approach in a few weeks?" Europe – unsuspectingly or on purpose – pushed forward nonetheless.
This was not the only recent move that seemed to signal a European disinterest in renewing a cooperative transatlantic approach to common challenges. Just last week, the EU's top diplomat, Foreign Affairs Representative, Josep Borrell, traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – a worrying indication that the EU, despite thousands of arrests, amid ongoing protests against The EU continued its business as usual The decision of the Putin regime to turn anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny from an assassination target into a political prisoner. During the visit, Borrell Lavrov fell victim to well-known tricks: Lavrov dominated the microphone at their joint press conference and dismissed the EU as an unreliable partner. After Borrell had taken the bait from a Russian propaganda branch and made a detour into a criticism of US policy towards Cuba, Lavrov happily continued to pile up and criticized Washington together with Borrell.
The Russians further humiliated Borrell by deporting three European diplomats on the occasion of his visit for watching ongoing protests against Navalny's imprisonment. (State Secretary Antony Blinken and Sullivan both quickly condemned the expulsion of the European diplomats; this week the governments of Germany, Poland and Sweden responded in kind.) As Borrell himself confirmed in an open, lengthy blog post: “I have returned to Brussels with deep concern about the prospects for the development of Russian society and the geostrategic decisions of Russia. My meeting with Minister Lavrov and the embassies of the Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart. “If Borrell's testimony was meant to limit the damage, it also confirmed that Borrell had to go to Moscow to see what many of his fellow Europeans could have told him before he left.
In the last few days, work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany has resumed. This project has long feared the US and some European governments that it could undermine energy security in Europe and give Russian President Vladimir Putin new opportunities to use gas as an instrument of political coercion.
It is of course not too late to start a new chapter in transatlantic cooperation, but the last eight weeks have not been great. It feels a bit like Europeans, reassured that sanity is returning, are trying to seize the moment to sneak a few more cookies out of the cookie jar while mom and dad pull into the driveway. In short: it feels childish.
To be clear, the reason Europeans have to work together is not because Americans are saying this. In any case, given the antics the United States has imposed on European and other allies in recent years, Washington is unable to make demands at the moment. Rather, it is in the interests of Europeans to act strategically to promote their own security and prosperity – and the transatlantic relationship remains essential to that strategic picture. At the moment, European leaders seem to be confusing the catchphrase “strategic autonomy” with a kind of short-sighted, non-strategic unilateralism – a sin that a few months ago pinned many people around the world on the United States for their so-called transaction America first politics. The rejuvenation of the transatlantic relationship will not be based on a sense of obligation or entitlement, but on the recognition that the strategic interests of the world's advanced democracies are deeply intertwined – and that the interests of all are more likely to be met through coordination.
Regarding Russia, and more recently China, some Europeans have complained that they feel trapped in the middle. Again, this view is self-inflantilizing, reminiscent of the child of divorced parents, and often finds itself in an outrageous moral equivalence. Russia and China are authoritarian regimes – one declining, one strengthening – neither of which has a recognized strategic interest in Europe's success. The United States is another democracy – flawed, yes, but remarkably enduring – that has recognized the strength of Europe as its own strategic interest for a century, and has demonstrated that commitment with blood and treasure. There is no equivalence between the United States and China, or between the United States and Russia. Europeans indulging in such talks comfort a regime in Beijing that keeps more than a million people in concentration camps and an autocrat in Moscow that murders political opponents and steals innumerable billions from its own people. If some needed a reminder of how Putin's regime sees Europe, Borrell's trip should have helped.
It should be a priority for European leaders to step up engagement with the Biden government immediately, including in response to Putin's shameful behavior and China's human rights violations and unfair trade practices. Europeans have long said they want Washington to take a cooperative rather than a one-sided approach. Biden has promised to continue working together, but the Europeans must be invested in a similar way if he is to show his audience at home that working together is more effective than unilateralism or isolationism.
In Washington, the Biden administration has already named a number of seasoned transatlantic hands to the National Security Council and the State Department – including Blinken and Biden's candidate for Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, who most recently served as Deputy Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs to the Obama Government. Biden's White House should add to its impressive early occupation, and despite demands from former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial, the Senate should move swiftly to confirm the nominations. In the meantime, the government should continue to work with the EU – and with Germany, France, Britain and other European allies – to decide on a joint response to Putin and Lavrov's actions in recent weeks.
Nobody said that transatlantic cooperation would be easy. But that's ok! Experience the news that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson could use his country's G7 presidency to push taxes at the carbon frontier – an incredibly difficult, but potentially transformative, cornerstone of climate action. This is going to be a sensitive issue for Biden's team that involves tough domestic politics. Still, it's a welcome development because it's bold, ambitious, and difficult work – the kind of work that strong partnerships are based on.
It is now time to reset the transatlantic relationship for the next decade. At a time of renewed geopolitics as authoritarianists seek to undermine democratic governance and drive back international progress, the revival of a rich, deep, and intricate collaboration between democracies in North America and Europe – along with democratic allies in Asia – is not only nice to have a revival. It is a strategic imperative for all sides.