In the nearly nine months since he took office, it has become apparent that the US and European Union will not immediately experience a transatlantic honeymoon under President Joe Biden. Following the November 2020 elections in the US, European politicians were ecstatic that the isolationist and populist presidency of Donald Trump had come to an end. What they utterly failed to see, however, were the first signs that Biden was also planning to go it alone.
The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan was carried out with little coordination with NATO and the surprise nuclear submarine deal between the US, UK, and Australia – which was carried out under the auspices of a trilateral security pact between the three nations, has infuriated several European nations, most notably France, which had signed a multi-billion dollar contract to supply far less powerful diesel-electric French submarines to the Royal Australian Navy.
Instead of carrying out years-long military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which failed to produce the hoped-for democratization of both countries, Biden hoped to put more of an emphasis on diplomacy and to mend fences with key allies after four years of Trump’s chauvinistic bullying when he addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time as president on September 21. “We don’t want a Cold War or a division of the world into power blocs.” Instead, he announced, “a new era of tireless diplomacy”.
True to President Theodore Roosevelt’s motto “speak softly and carry a big stick”, Biden wants to push for a military build-up that is aimed at countering Xi Jinping’s China as he and the American foreign policy establishment view Beijing as their chief rival in the world. The deal that was struck with the United Kingdom and Australia is a major step towards building an anti-China alliance that, for now, excludes the US’ European allies, many of whom have outrightly refused or implicitly implied that they will not take a hard stance on the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions.
On September 21, Biden received the leaders of Japan, India, and Australia to discuss initiatives for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” – a clear message to China. The US continues to side with its allies. After the debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there were fears that Beijing’s rulers would test the United States’ loyalty to its allies in the Pacific region by attacking Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as a region of the People’s Republic.
Biden has shown that the United States still stands with its partners, while at the same time, the White House is eager to project a position of strength via Biden’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan. The nuclear submarine deal between Washington and Canberra is one component of this newly enhanced partnership.
For the EU, its insignificance on the world stage has once again become clear. Following the sub deal announcement, European politicians were reduced to discussing how to show solidarity with France. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, made clear that the trilateral agreement was not just a Franco-Australian issue, but one that concerned the entire EU. The European Union’s response to the AUKUS agreement was to postpone a planned EU-US technology meeting and to suspend negotiations on a new trade deal with Australia.
Anger in Europe about the close policy cooperation between the US, UK, and Australia remains palpable, but the initial plan that Britain would quickly conclude its own trade agreements with the Americans, Chinese and other countries after Brexit seems to be losing some steam. After a recent meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden, a new bilateral free trade agreement seems to have receded for the time being, while at the same time the British media has started to report that London is now seeking to join the USMCA trade agreement that includes North America’s three largest economies – the US, Canada, and Mexico.
If a transatlantic deal between London and the three countries listed above comes to pass, the EU will have to fundamentally redefine its approach towards the UK. The British government now wants to reopen the Brexit agreement and no longer wants to accept controls on goods at the border with Northern Ireland, which is to remain in the EU’s internal market.
Biden’s current foreign policy positions may have consequences for NATO. France, home to the EU’s largest – and only nuclear-armed – military, is not in a position to take the cancellation of the submarine supply contract with Australia lightly. French President Emmanuel Macron will have to focus on his re-election bid next year at a time when public support for his presidency is lukewarm, at best. Macron has at times flirted with emulating the pan-European/anti-Anglophone positions of his political hero, Charles de Gaulle. Once the American-British-Australian deal was announced to the world, Macron again spoke out in favor of an EU military that would be separate from NATO. Macron’s renewed interest in Gaullist foreign and security policies is not unsurprising as France under de Gaulle and through to the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, withdrew from NATO’s integrated command to pursue a more accommodating partnership with Moscow and to develop an independent national security umbrella that was not connected to the Americans.
Moving forward, the transatlantic relationship, which experienced so many lows during the Trump administration, appears to be on course for a less-than-rosy relationship with the Biden White House. For the time being, it appears that things will not be repaired as quickly as many in Europe had hoped it would be.