Joe Biden’s first diplomatic actions from Europe’s point of view

Date de la conférence : 11 February 2021

About twenty days have elapsed since President BIDEN took office on January 20, 2021. It is not much, but generally, the first hundred days are presented as the mark of the presidency that is about to begin. Continuity and breaks, the short and long term effects of decisions, or the reactions of state partners are all points to be examined at the beginning of the presidency. To evaluate the first diplomatic gestures, the prism of Europe is privileged, as much on the transatlantic relationship as on Europe’s active role in the organization of the world, of which the United States remains a central element. 

The February 11th webinar marks the launch of the new cycle of the Fondation Prospective et Innovation, which focuses on the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, and more specifically on the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world. 

Alongside Jean-Pierre RAFFARIN, Former French Prime Minister, President of the Fondation Prospective et Innovation, the speakers Fabienne KELLER, Member of the European Parliament, Tamás MAGYARICS, Former Ambassador of Hungary to Ireland, Professor specialized on the United States at the University of Budapest and Hall GARDNER, Professor at the American University of Paris shared their reflections on the transatlantic relationship, and on the place of Europe in the organization of the world. A few points emerged from these fruitful exchanges: 


 1. Biden and cooperative multilateralism, or the break with the Trump administration 

After Donald Trump’s presidency and his qualification of Europe as “enemy”, can we hope for a change in foreign policy ?  

The first diplomatic initiatives are moving in the direction of a break with the decisions taken by the Trump administration since 2016. If the Trump administration had opted for an assumed unilateralism enshrined in the “America First” formula, President Joe Biden would have encouraged a participatory multilateralism. His first actions testify to his willingness to work with both allies and rivals to satisfy American interests.  

Health collaboration in these times of pandemic is becoming one of the levers of multilateralism, as evidenced by the return of the United States to the WHO. Also, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change heralds a renewal of multilateralism, more inclusive and decentralized. The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, although leaders of rival countries, agree on a common climate policy contrasts with the strong opposition once displayed between Trump and his Chinese counterpart may be a step in this direction, even if their confrontation will persist. 

Moreover, the crisis of democracy experienced in many countries is also paving the way for concerted and prepared multilateralism. Indeed, the victory of Joe Biden over populism through political participation gives hope for the Summit of Democracies in 2021 of inter-governmental exchanges for a new coherent global approach to the viability, respect and protection of democracies.  

The return of the United States on the international scene is more in line with diplomatic orthodoxy. Will this new policy make it possible to reopen dialogue on major issues such as Iran and its nuclear race, or on the political and strategic tensions between China and Taiwan ? Moreover, very attached to the respect of human rights, Joe Biden broke with Donald Trump’s diplomacy by suspending American support for the Saudi coalition directed against the Houthis (supported by Iran) in Yemen.   

Nevertheless, the Biden administration faces many challenges. The Democratic majority is based on a delicate balance, which reduces the President’s room for manoeuvre. It will therefore be more difficult for him to validate his diplomatic approach if the Republicans oppose it. As an example, the majority’s decision to commit to international organizations such as UNESCO runs counter to the legislation passed by the US Congress in 2011 which stipulated that no international institution would be recognized by the United States if it recognized Palestine.  Thus, in his diplomatic policy, the Democratic President will aim to make the decision-making process at the executive level more flexible and easier. 


2. What continuity with Trump administration ? 

In many respects, Biden’s foreign policy is not radically different from Trump’s. 

Indeed, with both giving priority to defending US interests, Biden does not appear to be breaking with the demand of previous administrations that NATO member countries spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. Likewise, NATO is likely to continue its role as a link between Europe and the United States. Since the American doctrine on multilateralism and national interest defence has changed little since President Wilson’s 14-point plan in 1918, Joe Biden will certainly continue to pursue multilateralism in the service of American interests. The question is whether he will favour a closed multilateral position, with NATO as its center of gravity, or whether he will instead encourage openness and dialogue with the rest of the world, notably Russia and China. 

Moreover, the unilateralism of the United States is all the more visible as Europe fails to adopt a unified position. The continuity of the Biden administration in relation to that of Trump raises the question of European unity. The American protests against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project during the Trump administration will certainly be perpetuated under the presidency of Joe Biden, who insisted on this issue during his campaign. However, Europe has not been able to unify itself in the face of the American position, as France has asked Germany to abandon the pipeline project. Also in the strategic domain, Europe must engage in a process of pacification of relations between Turkey and Greece, although European countries, especially France and Germany, diverge in their relations with Turkey. All the more so since the latter, a pivot of NATO thanks to its strategic position, and in close relationship with Russia and Iran, has been involved in many Middle Eastern conflicts. 


 3. Europe and the United States: what multilateral approach ?  

The relationship between Europe and the United States is, to say the least, contrasted. While the two powers converge in terms of defense (especially in the Sahel), tensions and competition, particularly economic, weigh on the adoption of a concerted multilateralism. Extraterritoriality, seen as American interference by the Europeans, the paralysis of negotiations on digital taxes, the invalidation of the Privacy Shield by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and the American measures against Airbus and wines and spirits upset Europe and its plans for global consultation.  

Faced with the crisis situation experienced by all member countries, Europe is questioning the emergence of a European strategic sovereignty similar to the American patriotism America First. The member countries of the European Union are worried about their digital, energetic, industrial (production of vaccines) and competitive dependence (European competition laws only concern European countries, for example). Should Europe go further in defending its interests and sovereignty ? Is it possible for Europe to be a non-aligned ally ?  The signing of the Sino-European investment agreement seems to attest to Europe’s willingness but also its ability to deal with the issue on its own.  

All in all, the recent successes of the European Union, in particular the Brexit agreement, the vaccine strategy and the EU Recovery Plan, point to a stronger and more united Europe, capable of interacting with American power.   


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