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BERLIN – Joe Biden may be high at home with approval ratings Donald Trump could only dream of, but that probably won’t help him much this week as he tries to win a notoriously adorned constituency for a president American: Europe.

Biden will address Europeans directly for the first time since taking office with an opening speech scheduled for Friday at the Munich security conference. He will have a lot to convince.

The virtual appearance will be a kind of homecoming for Biden, who for decades has been a fixture on the annual affair – Western security’s response to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“I promise … we’ll be back.” We’ll be back, ”Biden told the conference two years ago, speaking after then-vice president Mike Pence. Biden was rewarded with a standing ovation, although many spectators doubted him.

Biden may have proven his skeptics wrong, but doubts remain. The biggest fear is that Trump will return too.

“Who can say we won’t end where we were in four years?” asked a senior German defense official.

Fears like this have been apparent since the November election that brought Biden’s triumph over Trump.

Under pressure from Germany, the EU moved forward with an investment deal with China in December, ignoring requests from the new Biden administration to wait at least a few weeks until it is operational.

The bloc also pursued its own course on Russia, sending its foreign policy chief to Moscow just days after Russia sentenced opposition leader Alexey Navalny to nearly three years in a penal colony. The trip, which turned into a public relations disaster for the EU, came as Biden wanted to show that his administration could build a united Western front against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The deepening dispute between Washington and Berlin over Germany’s pursuit of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline coupled with Biden’s “Made In America” ​​initiative to protect the US industry from foreign imports has also put a strain on the US industry. brake on relations between the new administration and Europe.

In his Munich speech, Biden, who will also take part in a video conference with G7 leaders on Friday, will attempt to take the transatlantic relationship off the rocky road it has been on and coax Europeans into it.

Worrying about a Trump redux isn’t the only reason the business will be difficult.

The world has changed since Biden was last in power as vice president to then President Barack Obama. Europe, for example, has increased its dependence on China to a degree that once seemed unthinkable. Last year, China even overtook the US as the EU’s biggest trading partner (the US remains Europe’s largest export market, however). In recent weeks, calls have grown louder in many EU countries for the bloc to approve China’s coronavirus vaccine, another sign that confidence in the authoritarian country is on the rise across the continent.

Indeed, while there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States that China poses a fundamental threat to Western democracy, Europeans are much more optimistic. Much of this is due to Europe’s desire to maintain and expand its trade ties with China.

Germany, with its automotive and engineering sectors deeply invested in the country, is often the engine of China’s push to Europe. But many small countries are happy to make the trip, especially those in central and eastern Europe, which Beijing has wooed with the promise of investments.

Yet those same countries are torn between a desire to explore economic opportunities with China and their dependence on the United States for security. These competing interests were exposed last week at a meeting of the so-called 17 + 1, a forum created by Beijing to forge links with 17 countries in central and eastern Europe. Half of the 12 EU national leaders invited to the club did not show up to pay tribute to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hosted the event. But the other half participated, perhaps concerned about the consequences of not doing so.

Biden is likely to be sensitive to these pressures for the simple reason that they also exist for the United States. For all of Washington’s suspicions of China, America’s economic entanglement with China is no less deep.

A lifelong believer in America’s role as a global organizing power, Biden has signaled in past speeches his belief that the United States and Europe can quickly turn the page of the Trump era and return to the days of peace. of transatlantic cooperation.

For the United States, Europe is not only America’s most important trading partner, but a strategic hub for confronting global adversaries from Russia to China to Islamic terror. This is why the return of Europe is essential for Biden if his foreign policy agenda is to succeed.

His challenge will be to convince Europe that despite the economic opportunities that China presents, opening Europe’s door too wide in Beijing risks undermining the EU itself, as China is using its economic influence to dig a corner in the block as she continues her own program.

The good news for Biden is that while Europe may have moved closer to China, it has not yet moved away from the U.S. Despite recent rumblings in Paris and some other European capitals that the Europe should seek “strategic autonomy” in Washington – so far such initiatives have come to naught, mainly due to the EU’s own divisions.

Indeed, perhaps the main lesson of the Trump years in Europe was that without American leadership, it was left adrift in the world, being pulled in different directions by competing powers and its own cracks.

That’s why Biden’s biggest challenge this week is not to prove that a return to the past is in America’s best interests, but in Europe’s.

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