BRUSSELS – Treated with contempt by President Trump, who sees them as rivals and deadbeats rather than allies, many European leaders are looking forward to the possibility of a Biden presidency. They are painfully aware, however, that four years of Mr. Trump changed the world – and the United States – in ways that are not easily reversible.
Even if politeness can be restored, a basic trust has been broken and many European diplomats and experts believe that US foreign policy is no longer bipartisan and therefore no longer reliable. “The shining city on the hill is not as bright as it used to be,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a prominent German member of the European Parliament, bluntly.
For the first time, Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies, said: “Europeans fear that there is no longer any consensus on foreign policy in the United States. Any new administration can mean a whole new policy, and it is a nightmare for them. “
The ideological divide will become visible Thursday when Mr Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. are due to hold their final presidential debate.
For a Biden government, there will be what most consider low-hanging fruit that will please Europeans. The harvest includes an extension of the New Start nuclear weapons control treaty with Russia and a return to the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization and even the Iranian nuclear deal. At summits of the Group of 7 and NATO there will be comfort meetings and declarations on the subject of multilateralism, less confrontation with trade, renewed reform efforts of the World Trade Organization and a less combative atmosphere.
But Trump’s grievances are shared by many Americans, and given the polarization in America, French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed Europe to move forward in a changed world where China is rising and the Trump administration is just a symptom of American withdrawal from that global leadership, not the cause.
The idea of European “strategic autonomy” – a Europe that is less dependent on Washington and has its own strong voice in the world – has gained ground, even if it is more aspiration than reality.
Some, like Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs, and François Heisbourg, a French security analyst, fear that a Biden presidency could short-circuit European autonomy and let Europeans keep going, as Mrs Tocci said: ‘Stick our heads one the sand. “
A re-election of Trump could of course accelerate the trend towards autonomy, even if few believe Mr Trump could leave NATO, as one of his former national security advisers, John Bolton, suggested.
Stay informed about the 2020 election
American foreign policy has traditionally been non-partisan – the old phrase that “politics stands by the water” was particularly justified during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, meant that foreign policy was also subject to increasing political polarization in the United States.
“In Europe there is an incredible decline in the United States’ sense of leadership,” said Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, accelerated and symbolized by the abuse of the coronavirus.
“Biden is not solving their America problem,” he said. “He won’t be president forever, and Democrats won’t always be in power, and people have learned that the US can’t be trusted on foreign policy because the next administration comes in and wipes it away.”
The inconsistency in US foreign policy has undermined American credibility, some warned.
There is “an American decline in geopolitical weight,” said Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University. “The only fact that shapes the US’s role in world politics is polarization, and that polarization won’t go away if Joe Biden is elected,” he said. “Americans just don’t agree on the basics, even on how much America should get involved in global affairs and NATO.”
William J. Burns, a former senior American diplomat who now heads the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, believes the damage will be permanent no matter who wins the election.
“One of the more insidious effects of polarization is turning foreign policy into an instrument of partisan policy,” he said. “It has done permanent damage to America’s reputation in the world for keeping its word.”
While Europeans would see a Biden Presidency “as a return to civilization”, as Mr Heisbourg put it, a new partnership would come with calls for new commitments and commitments, particularly to China.
However, after Mr Trump there would also be a new caution and reluctance to take major risks on the part of America’s allies, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “When you know that everything you do will last until the next election at most, you see everything more contingently,” he said.
Europeans view the American confrontation with China as one of the few bipartisan issues driving American foreign policy, and Europeans hesitate to be turned into a farmer or a playing card in this rivalry, since China is Europe’s second largest trading partner after the States .
Opinion polls show that most Europeans refuse to take sides in a battle between Washington and Beijing. “We don’t see the China challenge in the same way and we are not the competitor,” said Rem Korteweg from the Clingersael Institute.
October 22, 2020, 2:30 p.m. ET
Washington will continue to pressure Europeans to spend more on defense – a bipartisan demand that has not been broken.
Mr Trump has successfully pushed Europeans to spend more. The Europeans also reacted to a vacuum in the transatlantic leadership, doubts about Trump’s commitment to collective security and his view of Europe as a burden and a competitor.
“I see the European partners more confidently that we do not agree with US policy – that is the healthier legacy that Trump has left,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund in Paris.
Before Mr. Trump, these disagreements were seldom fundamental.
“We had differences, but there was never a basic distrust of common views about the world,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister who has dealt with numerous American presidents of both parties.
In the past four years, several European heads of state and government have “no longer taken for granted that they can trust the USA in fundamental matters too”.
Confidence in Washington will not return quickly, she said. “While most European leaders believe that it is best for the global system to build on a close relationship between the US and Europe, it is frightening to see such a polarized situation between the two main parties in the US and you wonder where this is going. “
For Mr. Burns of the Carnegie Endowment, US global hegemony is over. Seeing little American appetite for “major foreign policy crusades”, he says, “We cannot go back to 1949 or 1992 – or even 2016. The world has changed, and with it transatlantic relations must change.”
A Biden government will initially focus on domestic renewal in a coronavirus-affected country, he said. It would seek a more cooperative partnership with Europe and “support a European security identity that does not come at the expense of NATO”.
Europeans “have their own skepticism about the tendency they have seen in an inward-looking America,” Burns said. However, practicable coalitions are possible on China, 5G, Russia, Africa and climate change.
But the Europeans must also commit, said Burns. “Both sides need to invest more in a new relationship, which they haven’t always done in the past.”