Europe in Biden Era: Increased International Presence or Retreat under US Umbrella?

This strategic analysis looks ahead to the future of US-European relations under Biden after four years of deepening strategic contradictions between the two sides of the Atlantic. It also discusses whether "European independence" is practical in the world order.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Feb 16, 2021

European-US interactions under former US President Donald Trump have gone through several turns that have undermined the geopolitical cohesion of the Atlantic bloc, formed in the second half of the twentieth century as an "existential" means of containing the communist expansion of the time.

It would therefore make sense for the positions of both sides of the Atlantic to diverge by the decline of the communist threat, but in the four years of Trump's rule, this divergence has taken on a strategic character that has reached the point of political engagement in some files. An example of this is the disagreement over NATO funding, as Washington has demanded - non-diplomatically - European member states that their military spending should be increased to at least 2% of their GDP. The US-European contradiction in Iran’s nuclear file also emerged as the European troika (the UK, France, and Germany) continued to legally recognize the agreement despite US withdrawal and the sanctions imposed on government and trade entities that would deal economically with Iran’s banned entities, thus European countries found themselves in a critical position to balance the requirements of their US ally with those of the nuclear deal.

Yet, the most prominent rift between the two sides was the decline in the role of democratic values in shaping policies and objectives, and Washington's retreat from international multilateralism towards the unilateralism represented by the "America First" policy, as the Trump administration did not pay sufficient attention to the liberal standards that established the current form of the world order and was seen as a reference to economic, political and cultural organization. These norms and values are not merely brilliant intellectual proposition but a practical ideology that allows for greater control of international decision.

Therefore, countries and institutions of the European Union expressed their “joy” at Biden’s assumption of power, for he is known for his traditional democratic orientation and his preference for a sober diplomatic work at the expense of unilateral and undisciplined solutions. "Once again, after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House … This new dawn in America is the moment we have been waiting for, so long," said the President of European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a speech at the European Parliament on the day of Biden's inauguration. 

Nonetheless, this presidential change does not mean at all to turn the page on the US-European rivalries, since the factors of tension remain. What will change, however, is the way they are handled, as Brussels and Washington will probably not openly exchange angry statements about this or that issue, but these skirmishes will rather take place naturally through diplomatic channels far from the media.

In this regard, the durability of Atlantic links will be tested in some of the most prominent files:

1. Differing geostrategic perspective on China and Russia

The US national security strategy classifies China and Russia as the most prominent threat to US interests. In other words, the goal of US policy is to compete and blockade these two countries in most areas.

However, the European Union has a different stance in this regard, as Sino-European relations are still, to some extent, immune to US-Chinese tensions. In the last breath of Trump's term, days before Biden’s inauguration, the "Comprehensive Agreement on Investments" was announced between China and the European Union, which the EU Commission described as "the most open by China that has lowered barriers to European companies."

The agreement, which will increase the flow of investment and goods between China and the EU, is still in principle and requires the ratification of the EU member states and the European Parliament to take effect.  Perhaps It may not come into effect, but rather be intended to send a firm message to Washington that Brussels is pursuing an independent foreign policy away from an uncertain ally that makes unilateral decisions, unless it changes its "arrogant" view towards the European Union “enjoying” the Us security umbrella.


Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel outlined much of what might be said about the future of European-American relations in an interview with the Financial Times in January 2020, saying that "Europe needs to carve out its own geopolitical role and the United States’ focus on Europe is declining — that will be the case under any president."


Just as Washington has pressed EU countries to prevent Huawei from investing in 5G infrastructure for security reasons, it also continues to press for a reduction in European dependence on Russian gas, imposing sanctions on companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project. It also tries to maintain the atmosphere of the cold war by adopting concepts such as "nuclear deterrence" and "existential dangers".

In both previous files (Sino-European agreement, Russian gas transfer projects to Europe), aspiring Germany plays an important role in coordinating an anti-American coherent European position. This may explain Trump's June 2020 decision to reduce the US troop presence in Germany, which Biden later announced to freeze in a major foreign policy speech in February 2021, without clarifying whether the freeze had repercussions on the ground by repositioning the United States in Germany as it had been before Trump's decision.

2. Relations with Brussels after Brexit

The dissonance within the EU is not limited to its external interactions, but also to the inter-state relations of its member states. Perhaps Brexit is the most prominent example of these radical disparities within European cohesion that was not previously "questionable".

With the increasing presence of populist right-wing movements in the political scene and their demands for "independence" and secession from the Union, the world order finds itself facing a variable that if it came to happen will be affecting the already fragile status quo.

Here, speculation abounds as to whether these community movements are aligned with official foreign parties, such as Russia, whose president is an inspirational leader and a model for independence advocates, or even the US, as Trump's Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor, Steve Bannon, has been in European countries in recent years coinciding with the holding of legislative elections.

Although Bannon was dismissed in August 2017 from his seven-month tenure, he continued to wield influence that some observers called him the "international godfather" of the populist movement for allegedly playing roles in support of European separatist movements.

Trump has also shown his outspoken support for the UK in its tough negotiations to withdraw from the EU, promising British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a "very substantial and impressive" bilateral trade agreement after Brexit.

According to European reports, Washington, under Trump, has violated an important principle in supporting the unity of the European bloc, attributing the reason to the burgeoning populism and Washington’s willingness to deal with major European countries separately away from the Union, thus freeing itself from collective restrictions and being able to impose its conditions relatively easier on this or that country.

But trump's failure to win a second term has remixed the cards, for neither the Washington-London trade agreement will be complicated by previous understandings between Trump and Johnson, nor can US-European relations be restored without first restoring bilateral ties and strengthening mutual trust.

Here, the US administration will miss its British ally, which served as a link between Washington and Brussels. No other country is expected to replace Britain in this sensitive geopolitical role, which means that the paradigm of Us-European relations must change in order to suit new developments.

3. Regulating business transactions

Trade between the EU and the US reached $1.1 trillion in 2019, demonstrating the vital interdependence of these two economies dependent on markets driven by high income for individuals and in which trade movements are regulated by established capital rules that address various issues such as tariffs and environmental compliance standards.    

Due to the disagreement over these rules between Washington and Brussels, the two sides under Trump imposed customs duties on each other’s goods and services, with the EU joining China and Russia in the imposition of duties.

Biden's economic team will have a difficult task in restoring trade "reconciliation" with Europe. It is true that reaching agreement on supporting free market is easier with an administration whose members are liberal, but it is too early to say whether the Biden team can resolve most of the contentious trade issues with the EU; because many of them will not have mutual bilateral benefits, therefore each side seeks to give highest priority to its own interests over the other.

The trend towards "economic protectionism" is consistent with a popular trend that calls for national interests to be given priority, albeit in collision with global considerations. For example, European technology companies complain about the dominance of American Tech Giants in markets without the knowledge and material capabilities to break the "legal" monopoly of these big tech companies.

Since 2018, the EU has been discussing possible means of imposing a "digital tax" on cross-border technological services. The French parliament was the first to impose a "theoretical" 3% tax on any tech company with annual global sales of more than 750 million euros and sales within France of more than 25 million euros, thus provoking the US Silicon Valley. The decision was deemed discriminatory against the four big tech companies known as GAFA:  Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple.  

The future of "European independence"

In November 2019, the diplomatic and media community was shocked by French President Emmanuel Macron's remarks that NATO was experiencing "brain death", attributing its state primarily to the lack of US leadership, the matter which prompted him to renew his call for Europe to begin to function as a global strategic force independent of US foreign policy.

Achieving such autonomy requires operational tools that European States do not have. Being aware of this "shortcomings", they have begun to strengthen their sovereign capacities, particularly at the defense level. France proposed in November 2018 the formation of a unified European army tasked with protecting the continent from "China, Russia and even the United States." Although this idea is not new but is included in the articles of the Treaty of the European Union, it came as an expression of European discontent towards the American ally and under international circumstances that necessitated the concerted efforts of the allies.

The EU is moving towards establishing the European Defense Fund to achieve some kind of European autonomy in the defense industries, and to reduce European dependence on the US security umbrella. In assessing the military capabilities of European countries, it is clear that the balance of powers favors international actors in the international arena, the matter which reduces Europe’s ability to act unilaterally away from US foreign policy. 

Given the inability of European countries to conduct military actions independently, they still need US intelligence and logistical support, although the Trump era has seen some unilateral European action, such as the counterterrorism operation in Mali, and the process of overseeing the arms embargo on Libya.

Moreover, European foreign policy lacks the political "audacity" to act militarily outside the international legal framework, unlike Washington which does not hesitate, if necessary, to carry out a preemptive strike.

In short, even if there is the serious will of the European Union to emerge as a sovereign political identity in the world order, it has much work to do to be able to exert a successful influence on the course of international events. Washington, regardless of the President's identity, will try to stick to the Atlantic ties so as not to lose vital space to Eurasia and the Far East; therefore, there is no alternative to this strategic alliance in the light of current facts.

Europe is expected to seek to establish its political specialty in some of the files that it disagrees with the US about, but this specialty will not amount to a state of “hard” separation. Biden will likely succeed in renormalizing US-European relations in keeping with his promise to return "America Back" on the global stage, the matter which requires coordination with allies in a framework of multilateral action.

Before subjecting complex files to new European-US understandings, some of the near-agreed-upon files can be addressed, among which are the climate change and the fair distribution of coronavirus vaccine to all people, disregarding nationalism in dealing with this "commodity" which should be of a global mutual benefit.

Biden's team has already begun to bridge the Atlantic divide by emphasizing the role of values in shaping US foreign policy in line with the interests and requirements of allies without excluding them or displaying superiority.

The February 2021 meeting of NATO Ministers of Defense will reveal the possibility of re-establishing political cohesion among its members, particularly as it will discuss a "disputed" issue of the peace process in Afghanistan. Under the agreement signed by Washington and the Taliban, the United States is pledging a major withdrawal of its troops from there by April 2021. NATO believes that its members must "together" decide the future of their mission, refusing to risk a quick and undisciplined withdrawal before reaching a "domestic" agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government; because such a withdrawal carries high risks, the repercussions of which could be the war against international terrorism, which could miss many of the gains the allies have made over nearly two decades of joint coordination and intensive action.





Policy Analysis Team