Analysis | How President Biden is building transatlantic ties back better

Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern and Alistair Somerville

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. (Image: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain)

Let’s not talk about the past. Let’s talk about the future. The damage of the last four years to the transatlantic relationship is well known. Instead, let’s assess how the new Biden team is poised to build this relationship back better.

Yesterday, in his first major foreign policy speech since taking office, on the 8th Floor of the State Department, President Biden referenced his initial phone calls with NATO and other allies and his desire to rebuild “the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect.” The last four years mean relations won’t be the same as before, so let’s shoot for better.

Biden’s team

President Biden’s nominees for key foreign affairs and security positions have a strong track record of leading, conceiving, and implementing policies to build alliances and partnerships in Europe and elsewhere. These partnerships project American power, enhance American values and interests, and build win-win solutions to international problems. We are stronger when we act together. This team knows that and has lived it for many years in numerous previous administrations.

Biden’s commitment goes further than the appointment of a francophone Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, although Blinken’s appointment is key. Here are some of the early nominations and appointments, which indicate a return to alliances and cooperation:

  • Biden’s nomination of former career diplomat Victoria Nuland — steeped in NATO, Russian affairs, and everything in between — for the influential position of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs deepens the new team’s commitment to European alliances at the very top, and suggests a tougher approach to NATO’s traditional adversary, Russia.
  • Bill Burns’ appointment as CIA Director places a former career diplomat in this crucial national security role for the first time. Burns served as Deputy Secretary of State and he was previously Ambassador to Russia, among other ambassadorships. He brings both diplomatic savvy and regional expertise to this position.
  • Nancy McEldowney (formerly with ISD and Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program) and Philip Gordon, both career officials with deep Europe experience, join the Vice President’s national security team, while Jake Sullivan and Amanda Sloat bring years of work in Middle East and Europe, especially on Turkey, to the National Security Council.
  • Uzra Zeya (an ISD Board member and former fellow), with experience in France, the Middle East, and South Asia, is the nominee for Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, another important step to building back better, not just on our European alliances, but also on other global partnerships.

These appointments and nominations give us a clear sense of how this administration will seek to rebuild U.S. alliances to tackle global challenges.

One thing is clear: among the appointments are many “Europe hands,” who know the importance of working with allies and partners to ensure, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, “a Europe whole, free, and at peace.” Thirty years after the successful reunification of Germany, Biden’s positive message after four years of tension with our European partners, and his mission to rebuild the transatlantic alliance, could not be clearer.

The substance

This team will focus on the substance of these relationships, setting aside the name-calling and blame game of the last four years.

Burden-sharing is a long-standing and legitimate U.S. goal with European allies. That will not change. But as Europe takes on more responsibility for its own security, the conversation will shift toward responsibility-sharing. Not only will this mean discussions about sharing the costs — the burdens — of collective defense, but also the operations and capabilities where shared responsibility is necessary. And that’s a good thing. We cannot return to the pre-2017 NATO, nor should we. Europe is spending more on defense and security and taking more responsibility for its region.

But there is a trade-off here. As Europe does more, Brussels, Berlin, London, and Paris will naturally promote their own interests and views on key issues. Differences over big issues, such as trade and China, and more specific issues, such as the controversial gas pipeline from Russia, Nord Stream 2, will persist. Biden’s team will meet these challenges head on, and work on them with Europeans as allies and partners, not as rivals. Differences will persist, but with dialogue and respect we can work these issues in mutually beneficial ways, and the new team knows how to do this.

Does this new reality suggest separation, perhaps under the guise of European “strategic autonomy,” a goal reiterated yesterday by French President Emmanuel Macron during an Atlantic Council event?

Strategic autonomy, which refers to European countries maintaining a degree of independence in defense capability and action, is perhaps not the most helpful term. It does indeed suggest separation in the ears of many American policymakers. A former French Ambassador to Washington suggests that Europe adopt a policy of strategic autonomy, but just not talk about it. But that is not a sustainable strategy. With frank dialogue and diplomacy, mutual respect and win-win thinking, the United States and Europe can work together in all areas and on all issues, even when we disagree. European allies doing more and demanding more is natural, and non-threatening if the United States navigates European interest in strategic autonomy in a mature and thoughtful way. And that is exactly why this team is ideal to tackle these challenges.

What happens in Europe matters to the United States and the American people. A secure and peaceful Europe not only prevents the return of 20th century world wars, but also provides the United States with a forward-deployed presence to address other security challenges in that hemisphere. A strong and prosperous Europe will make Europe, already our top trading and investment partner, even better. Europeans are our partners of first resort, when facing any humanitarian disaster or international challenge, such as North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. Finally, Europeans and Americans share democratic values and do more to promote those values when we do it together — something even more important in today’s political climate.

So, let’s support this new team as it promotes dialogue, practices constructive diplomacy, and creates mutually beneficial policies of shared responsibility to promote joint action with Allies and partners in Europe and beyond.

Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern is the distinguished resident fellow in social entrepreneurship and diplomacy at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a collaborator with Georgetown’s Beeck Center. Prior to coming to Georgetown in 2017, he served as Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and previously as U.S. ambassador to Armenia.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and editor of The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges