New York (Brussels Morning) Europeans who believe in the trans-Atlantic alliance are probably relieved to see the American President Joseph Biden in Europe this week. Biden has long been deeply committed to the alliance and to strong American ties to its traditional European, and other, allies. This feeling is strengthened by the emerging theme of Biden’s European trip-that America is back and ready to reengage with our allies.
However, those same Europeans are probably tempering that relief and renewed enthusiasm with the recognition that Trumpism has not been defeated and the possibility of a Trumpist president, or even the defeated former president himself, coming back into power in the 2024 election cannot be ruled out. Should that happen, the trans-Atlantic relationship will again be in crisis.
This cycle is not new. In 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama, traveled to Europe to reassure our traditional allies following eight years of the Bush administration. At this rate, we cannot be surprised if a 91 year old Joe Biden, serving in the capacity of diplomat emeritus, travels to Europe in 2033 after Donald Trump Jr’s one term in office to again reassure those allies that America is back. Of course, an alliance that is only strong when one party is in power is not really an alliance, and certainly not a dependable one.
Making this even more complex is that for the first time since the Cold War the world is becoming markedly bipolar as a rising China and a possibly declining United States are now unambiguously the two most powerful countries. The rest of the world, including many countries in Europe are finding themselves pulled between those two powers.
This US-China competition means that Biden is implicitly asking Europe to side with the US against a rising China. Indeed, that is the subtext of the America Is Back message. There are many good reasons why European countries would want the America they have known for most of the last half century or so as a partner rather than China, including shared democratic values, the long record of US assistance and cooperation in Europe and America’s deep history of political stability. However, none of those reasons are enough if the US is going to be undependable and have periodic fits of isolationism and questioning alliances.
America’s long history of political stability looks very different today as compared to, say, six years ago. While millions of Americans, Europeans and others were relieved to see Donald Trump defeated in 2020, in the months since then it has become clear that seeing Biden’s decisive victory last November as a restoration of political stability, once the absolute core of America’s identity, would be a mistake. Despite Biden’s calm and rational disposition, the enormous success his administration has had on vaccine distribution and the clear signs that America is moving into the post-pandemic phase, the instability is tough to ignore.
It was only about five months ago when violent thugs, steeped in the poisonous and divisive rhetoric of white supremacy and determined to overturn a free and fair election, stormed the Capitol. Today, it is the position of one of the two major American political parties that those events were not such a big deal. The former President and his propaganda outlets continue to spread the lie that the election was stolen while unhinged right wing members of congress have spread lies about everything from the value of Covid vaccines to Jewish space lasers (whatever they are).
The return of a Trumpist administration would indeed revitalise the isolationism, hostility to our traditional European allies and sleazy relationship with Russia that characterised the previous administration. It would also accelerate, perhaps irrevocably, this instability, because as we learn more about the depravity of the Trump administration, it is increasingly apparent that a return of the avarice, cruelty, authoritarian impulses and sheer incompetence of that era would plunge America into a state of turmoil from which it might not recover.
Who would want to take a strong position against a rising China to cast their lot with a country like that?
Answering that question is the true challenge that Biden faces not just on his recent trip to Europe, but in his larger efforts to rebuild America’s relationships and stabilise American foreign policy. Ultimately, it is a question that cannot be answered by words or even deeds by a conventional and competent foreign policy team led by an experienced and well respected president.
Our allies should look not to what this president says, but to what is happening in America. Therefore, the most important thing Biden can do to achieve his foreign policy goals is to restore stability at home, and if the first five months of his presidency are a harbinger of things to come, that will not be an easy task.