The response in Europe to president-elect Joe Biden‘s victory was an expected sigh of relief after four years of tumult with President Donald Trump‘s brand of “America First.” But Trump’s loss exposes internal divisions in Europe—conflicting views on the extent of the European Union’s role in the world and how closely Europe will be tied to the U.S.
For four years, Trump was the perfect foil for European ambitions to establish an autonomous EU foreign policy and independence from NATO, which the U.S. still dominates. While Trump imposed tariffs and griped about the EU “taking advantage” of the U.S., European leaders pushed for the EU to end its dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.
French president Emmanuel Macron stated last month, “It is vital that our Europe finds the ways and the means to decide for itself to rely on itself, not to depend on others in every area.” He even warned in 2018 that the EU cannot protect itself without a “true, European army.” Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker similarly asserted, “the time for European sovereignty has come.”
The challenge for an autonomous Europe would be to counter the resurgence of Russian power since Vladimir Putin‘s 2014 annexation of Crimea while the U.S. rebalances its foreign policy assets to the Indo-Pacific in response to the rise of a more globally ambitious China.
To increase investments in European defenses, the EU developed the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF). These military programs are designed to deepen European military collaboration, which could risk EU-NATO cooperation and jeopardize America’s access to European defense markets.
Now that Biden has declared “America is back” and announced a “great undoing” of Trump-era isolationism, promising to restore unity to the troubled transatlantic alliance, the EU might never be able to stand on its own in a world of great power competition. As German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer acknowledged, with Biden entering the White House, “illusions of European strategic autonomy should come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” The majority of NATO members believe the U.S. would come to their defense in the event of an attack. Put simply, many expect, and even prefer, American hegemony in Europe.
PESCO and EDF could strengthen NATO by enhancing European defense capacities and military technologies, such as in securing against cyberattacks and disinformation. But these initiatives cannot replace U.S. military superiority or NATO. Though their budgets were depleted during the COVID-19 pandemic, PESCO and EDF should be welcomed as ways for Europe to become a stronger defense partner with the U.S. Europe will ultimately have to rely on NATO and the U.S. well into the future.
But questions remain. Some in Europe believe rebuilding transatlantic trust will be difficult after Trump. One French diplomat stated, “We aren’t in the old status quo, where we can pretend the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago.” Indeed, with the U.K. no longer in the EU, America’s reliable ally has less leverage to keep Europe from drifting away from NATO. Even after Biden’s victory, Macron continued his push for greater European autonomy: “The United States will only respect us as allies if we are serious about our own position, and if we have our own sovereignty regarding our defense.”
The reality is that the future of European security is in the hands of NATO, which the U.S. will continue to dominate under Biden and his successors. NATO provides Europe with nuclear deterrence, integrated military forces, interoperability and multiple funding streams. Besides, American pressure has led European NATO members to boost military spending since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
Biden’s promise to restore and expand the NATO alliance effectively ends “America First” and is likely to blunt European defense autonomy. To prevent NATO from atrophying, the incoming Biden administration must help transform the organization into a more balanced alliance that enables both the U.S. and Europe to deter Russian aggression. NATO’s 21st-century mission should be to combat global influence operations by Russia and China that aim to undermine democratic norms and institutions. NATO must also turn back the rising tide of authoritarianism and fight transnational threats like COVID-19 and climate change. With Biden in the White House, the U.S. and Europe must become more closely aligned whether they like it or not.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.